As anyone who has sat tight waiting for a new release will be all too aware, quality simulations don’t become a reality over night. Even so, by most standards Ashley “Ash” McConnell’s simulation Online Racing Championship (ORC) has had something of a protracted development period. It is perhaps fitting that I first became aware of Ash’s simulator (formally known as Sirocco in a previous incarnation) on the West Racing forums for their title Racing Legends (a title which redefines the term ‘protracted development’). At some point over the ensuing decade, our online-paths crossed and I have been chatting to Ash about various things for many a year now, from babies to Android apps. Throughout this time, development (at various rates) has continued on ORC, and he kindly agreed to discuss the past, present and future of the title with me for RAVSIM.
In its original guise as Sirocco, the title was covered in the very first issue of AutoSimSport (http://www.autosimsport.net) way back in 2005. When asked the dreaded question “How long before we get a finished work”, Ash cautiously stated that after around three years of part-time development “I reckon perhaps two more years are needed to get something that is nearing completion”. To dive in at the deep end: that was over seven years ago now… What happened?!?
“I can’t quite believe it’s been that long, how time flies! Sirocco was really a step for learning the nuts and bolts of sim development. Even when I started ORC it was still just a fun side-project (I was working full-time), I had hoped I could do it full time, but didn’t think it could be a reality with bills to pay.
Luckily, four years ago I was given the opportunity to go full time on ORC and I took it. Unfortunately though, in the last year or so with family illness I’ve had very little time to develop ORC and now I will have to return ORC to it’s part-time status. It is a huge shame as I believe it has great potential and is not too far off being completed. I am trying to find a way where I can spend at least a good chunk of my working-time on ORC every week.”
Going back to the beginning (I won’t expect people to remember that first interview!), Sirocco started as a part time hobby project, born in part from a misunderstanding with Chris West (of West Racing); he thought Ash was working on a sim when in fact he wasn’t, which begged the question: “Why not?”, and subsequently he started working on it. So what prompted the change in direction that saw Sirocco become ORC, and why did this necessitate effectively throwing out Sirocco and starting again?
“Sirocco was a hobby project, really just for fun and as a way to learn the basics of game development. ORC was a complete rewrite of the entire engine from the ground up. I previously had created a graphics engine/physics/sound engine of my own (in Sirocco), but when it came to ORC I made the decision to build upon some of the great opensource libraries out there. Also, Sirocco had it’s own physics engine (quite basic if I’m honest) that I built from scratch, and I made the decision to move to Gregor Veble’s great physics engine for the vehicle dynamics, which certainly made a huge difference. The knowledge of Sirocco wasn’t thrown out, but I had learnt so much in the time it had been developed that it made sense to start with a better design and structure.”
On the subject of opensource elements in ORC, Ash continues:
“The main opensource component is Ogre3d, it is a very powerful, extremely extendible graphics engine with good cross platform support. It has a lot of documentation and great support in the forums. If I was starting over again, I would consider using Unity3d, but at the time it wasn’t really an option.”
Gregor Veble will be known to some for his association with West Racing/Racing Legends; what does his physics engine consist of exactly and how did it come to be used within ORC?
“I’ve known Gregor for a long time now, we talked about racing physics in an old newsgroup (yes kids, before forums existed :P) – rec.auto.simulators, probably about 12-13 years ago. We have become good friends, he even came to my wedding! I asked him when I made the transition to Ogre and he agreed. It is a constraints based physics engine which allows you to define individual constraints such as rods/springs/dampers/tyres. It even allows fun stuff like chassis flex and twist and tyre/brake heat. As well as normal constraints he has made a few realistic car aids such as ABS and Traction Control.”
Such an approach is incredibly open ended and malleable (which is a very good things for supporting different types of vehicles and set ups). When asked about the suitability of the core engine for different configurations, Ash responds:
With physics sounding to be in good shape, and the networking/social side planned to be taken care of by the race structure, the issue of atmosphere is an interesting one. iRacing has unarguably accurate and faithful recreations of the circuits, but at the same time suffers from somewhat staid and sterile environments. It’s somewhat intangible, but I wondered how ORC could deviate from this.
“I don’t think it’s one single thing that generates atmosphere, it’s a combination of hundreds of things I believe. All the technical things are important, graphics/sound/force-feedback/smooth networking in order that the driver can ‘suspend his disbelief’, but I don’t think that’s the end of it. I think there needs to be a feeling of community, somewhere where you can go and have a few laps with your friends. GPL had atmosphere coming out it’s ears, but people say that iRacing hasn’t, I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps the history of GPL and the on the edge feeling helped. Another big thing that helped GPL was VROC, it really was a place to come and talk nonsense with friends, then go and have a race. For ORC I think it will be something that is built over time, I hope our love and enthusiasm for motorsport will spill through :)”
ORC‘s development obviously hasn’t been quite as smooth as may have once been foreseen but, stopping to take stock and looking forward, where exactly does ORC‘s development now stand? What is in, what is to do and, dare I ask, where does Ash see things going from here?
“Yep, 2011 was a very difficult year for me and my family with illness and bereavement. Unfortunately this meant very little time to develop ORC in the past year. At the moment I’ve had to get a full time job in order to pay the bills, so ORC development has been very slow recently. I am desperate to get back to it at least a few days a week. I have considered trying to get some funding either by an investor or trying to get some crowdfunding from something like kickstarter. I think that I would need a more polished demo to show to people in order that they could see the potential. I’m not sure about getting an investor as I would be worried that they might have too much influence on the project and I don’t like to be in debt to anyone, but never say never.
Everything is done to some degree (Physics/Networking/Graphics/Sound/Ranking/Achievements/Upgrade Shop). I just need to finish off a few areas and then get a trusty band of testers to tell me how stupid I am 🙂 Then hopefully I can unleash it unto a bigger group of testers and then to the unsuspecting world (Mohahaha!). Getting the time will be the hard part, but I will get there :)”
As alluded to above, sim developers have to be careful in how (and to whom) they are pitching their products. With such a relatively niche product and community, the release model takes on significant importance. It has been mooted in the past that ORC could potentially be released as a free-to-play (F2P) title, with income generated from micro-transactions for vehicles, upgrades and other in game items/content.
“We are still hoping to go down the free to play/micropayments route. It’s hard to know what is the right direction, I don’t want people to feel they have to pay for every little bit, but I also want to be able to continue developing ORC for as long as possible. There is a balance to strike.”
With ups and downs and a number of challenges along the way, obviously the target for ORC is to be successful and return some income for the huge investment of time and energy it has received to date. With that being said, I asked what the personal targets were for ORC, and if there were any milestones or achievements on the horizon that would provide that ‘I’ve done it’ feeling?
“Perhaps I should be thinking that way, perhaps I should be more of a business-man about things, but I haven’t really. I am just someone who has always loved cars, racing and racing simulators, it has been my ambition for a very long time to release a sim that I would like to play. I am hoping it will be successful enough to allow me to keep developing and be able to pay the mortgage and bills, but I haven’t looked much further beyond that :).”
So, it’s fair to say that ORC has been a long time coming, and still isn’t here quite yet. However, just as with any number of smaller, indie titles, it has all the potential of those coming from the larger developers, with a number of advantages associated with its independent status. I don’t hesitate to say ‘Watch this space’, and here’s hoping for Ash, as well as for us sim fans, that ORC can one day be another great title to add to the small stable of quality racing sims.
I had planned to accompany this piece with a ‘first drive preview’, however things haven’t quite gone to plan on that front; Ash has provided me with a new build but, as is life, there is a controller issue to resolve before I can put it through its paces. I first drove an early build of ORC around a couple of years ago now, but to judge it on such an early build and from memory would be somewhat pointless and unfair. I will, however, hopefully bring you a hands-on report on ORC in due time, so stay tuned.
You can follow Ash on Twitter https://twitter.com/AshMcConnell