There has been a trend emerging in vehicle simulation software over many years now, where a simulator is seen as a “platform” and thus an ongoing project that never ends. This allows many benefits; not only can media portals not review a sim without being told that “it isn’t finished yet”, but it also allows developers to completely redefine the word “beta.”
It strikes me that nearly everything is a beta these days, for a very long time, and those betas, unlike the betas of old, are very much public, and very commercial.
Racing simulators like to think of themselves as separate to other simulation platforms, and in many ways they are. For a start, they are rarely as focussed when it comes to vehicle systems, and for a finish they present a competitive environment that brings in a wholly different type of user. Nonetheless, there are similarities between the various vehicle sim platforms out there, and maybe some things to learn.
For those that don’t know, the long running “Microsoft Flight Simulator” (MSFS) series, that has been around just about as long as PC’s have, is done and dusted. The development team that had worked up to the release of Flight Simulator X (FSX, that’s ten by the way) were all laid off as Microsoft had to “align resources with their strategic priorities.” Thus, the biggest and most popular platform for flight simulation was to come to an end. Countless modders, experienced in MSFS products for many years, were left wondering why.
MSFS, including the most recent product, FSX, has always been an open platform for modding, and over time, the creation of payware mods of a level of detail often far and above the main product has become the norm. The software was made this way, much like rFactor was back in 2005. Where, for rFactor, we have a vast array of cars and tracks and entire race series available for free, we also have commercial add-ons that licence the ISI engine to implement and produce their own full game. Often, and I’ve heard this before somewhere, of a level of detail far and above the main product.
Since 2005, the number of racing sims released based on the ISI platform, I suspect is higher than any other platform, and thus it’s fair to suggest that rFactor is the most successful racing sim platform of recent times. Whether it is the best is neither here nor there, for many. There are a huge amount of simracers that will take quantity over quality, and if you can get five million tracks and ten billion cars for the price of a single game, why go elsewhere?
The same has applied for many moons in the flight sim market. I bought FSX in 2007, and since then the platform has developed well beyond its original scope. There are a huge amount of users worldwide and some will boot up their sim with a hanger of hundreds of aircraft, with thousands of airports to travel to, all of which could well have been free. At the same time, some will have commercial add-ons that replicate a given aircraft at a level of detail that racing simulators seem terrified to imagine, that could cost up to £60.
What was that? £60 for a single plane? That’s madness surely? Well, I am not sure, the add-on I refer to is “Concorde X”, and with the huge manual provided you can accurately operate one of the world’s most iconic aircraft ever, and spend hours and hours learning it’s systems to such a degree that if you were to sit in the real thing you’d know which switches to flick to have her in the air. Thus, the flight sim hobbyist that shells out for a given aircraft will be working around a simple equation of cost versus fun.
Where this comes back to Microsoft, and their all important strategic priorities, is that they must be wondering why all these commercial mod teams are making money when Microsoft need cash for the new moon that they want to put up (cue: “That’s no moon” quotes, etc).
So, before long, and ignoring the petition signed by 100,000 people to bring back MSFS, Microsoft announced their new foray into Flight simming: Microsoft Flight.
“Putting the fun back in flight sims” was the line. I paraphrase, but this new release aimed to stop the keen hobbyist in their tracks and bring in a whole new audience by pushing more “game” than “sim” into their product. No more checklists and being serious about handling aircraft, this was to make flight sims less daunting and complex and more a jolly fun time gambolling around in the skies. Of course, we didn’t know this in the beginning, but when MS Flight was released, in February 2012, the reaction was…. well, mixed. Microsoft flight is free to play, a favourite move in modern gaming, with promised commercial add-ons provided by the development team in the form of DLC as the product develops (does this mean it’s a beta, who knows). The sim offered a graphically pleasant rendition of Hawaii to fly around in one plane, thus providing quite a lot less than FSX’s thirty aircraft and the entire world. Suffice to say, the keen hobbyist felt short changed, even when it cost nothing! What of the casual gamer? Well, chances are they read a review on EuroGamer and wondered where the guns were.
Now let’s imagine this whole thing in our cosy world of simracing, where we rashly assume that the only type of simulated racing in the world is in cars, and the whole community has become so insular that amazing ruckus can be caused by people using the wrong word in a sentence when English is their second, third or ninth language.
When developers licence the rfactor engine from ISI, they take it wholesale, so unlike FSX add-ons, there is no requirement for the base product to be installed. If someone released a free to play version of rFactor, licenced legitimately from ISI, we would get a full working product with the potential functionality of the rFactor product, and maybe more. Then, if, say, they provided DLC car add-ons, of varying prices, and potentially varying levels of quality, what would you think?
This seems to be more or less the direction being taken by SimRaceWay. A free-to-play sim based on rFactor 1 technology, with integrated multiplayer and online events and series run by the organisers in very much the theme of iRacing. So rFactor meets iRacing?
It’s a leap. Where iRacing charge us, sometimes quite high costs, for add-on tracks and cars, you are getting tracks that could arguably be called the most detailed and accurate available, as well as cars, which, we are told, are 100% accurate to their real-world counterparts. We don’t get manuals for them or system modelling or the chance to get under the bonnet and poke around, but at least we get a pretty solid car model. And everyone tells me no one wants all that anyway.
So what of SimRaceWay? Well, many of the tracks come for free, which is good considering some of them look decidedly ropey compared to what some of the best mod teams have managed for rFactor. And what of the cars? Well, some are cheap, and some less so, based, possibly on the cost of licencing, but marketed as a replication of a real-world buyers’ market. Prices are directly proportional to real life. So, in real life you would pay less for an Alfa Romeo Mito than you would an Alfa Romeo 8C. Reasonable, I guess. But where does the quality equation come in? Do we get a nice PDF manual with each car, giving us background details, specifications, setup and driving tips? Oh no, of course not, simracers don’t want any of that. Silly me. What do I think this is, a hobby?
Driving the cars is largely a good enough experience, in much the same way that rFactor is with a good mod. But then one car and the next can be notably different in quality. The accuracy of tyre feel, body control and overall vehicle dynamics seem to vary car to car, like the QA team sometimes take long holidays. There are, fortunately a few cars in the sim that I have driven in real life, and while some of them do a reasonable job (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo), some seem to feel very much like one of those rFactor mods you uninstall after ten laps of confused pedalling. The variance in quality is exactly what you expect from community made free mods, many of which are made by someone or other who is just giving sim-car building a stab. But when you’ve forked out for a car, even if it is just seven or eight dollars, you kind of expect a professional job. When you are asked to pay nearly forty dollars (!) for a McLaren-Honda MP4/4, well, I want Concorde X levels of detail.
Now, I am not really here to slate SimRaceWay, I’ve just been ranting out my opinion. But on the whole I have to wonder where SimRaceWay fits into the simracing arena. I am not one of those that thinks simracing is “too crowded” and I encourage new simracing products entering the marketplace, especially those that enrich the genre by presenting new features and a different slant on the hackneyed “here are some tracks and some cars, go and crash… <ahem>.. race on them.” But is SimRaceWay doing this?
Of course, just like seemingly everything in the world now, it is in beta, and so is easily defended with a “Well, when it is released it will have magic, and spoons, and jumping monkeys and simulated cars that drive at least a bit like real cars.” But if you take this stead then iRacing is still in beta, for the last 5 years! The PC gaming industry is tied into an “always on” web-connected world with every sim being developed, be it a flight, train, bus, lunar lander or ice cream van sim, it is touted as being in constadev. How many developers, in the last few years, have you heard say upon release: “Well, this is it, released, it’s done, no more patches, no new features, just get on with it and shut up?” Not many I will wager.
If we wait for everything to be complete to pass any kind of opinion or judgement we are left wondering if there is such a thing as an opinion anymore. In fact, maybe all of my opinions are in beta and could well be developed or changed as my life moves on through the development process. There’s a novel idea.
SimRaceWay seem to be doing one thing different, and that is appealing to the motorsports enthusiast, and not the existing simracer (who might compare their sim to other products on the market!) or the “Where are the guns?” casual gamer. They have put in sponsorship at sites like Radio Le Mans, which is practically the global voice of sportscar racing. They turn up at race events and tout their wares to people that love motor racing, but may not have driven a sim. An open minded market, in other words. They also sign up famous stars like Dario Franchitti and Allan McNish to issue some marketing bumph… <ahem, sorry, it’s a Tourette’s thing>… expert opinion on the driving physics of the sim. The oldest one in the book, of course; doubtless old Mario had plenty of kind words to say about the realism of “Mario Andretti’s racing challenge” back in 1994 when that venerable sim was released.
I don’t know if this approach is working too well or not. SimRaceWay have more “likes” on Facebook than any other “serious” racing sim, but on the occasions I have gone online in the sim this is not really reflected by the sparsely populated races. I may never have found the right time of day or week, but I would imagine that over five hundred thousand keen “likers” would manage to spread out over a fair range of times.
What this makes me wonder is whether this whole “free to play, expensive DLC” plan is really for the best. If you offer simracers cars and tracks of a quality below that which is available for free in other platforms, they will turn away. If you offer any casual gamer the chance to pay more for a single car than they would for a full game, they will turn back to Gran Turismo (where they can get 500 cars for the same price!), and if you provide a few cars that you can drive for free to an uninitiated audience, the natural expectation, for me anyway, is that this free try would pique their interest. That piqued interest would lead them to forums, the simracing community, and the wholesale realisation that there is better out there for less outlay.
Where can this lead SimRaceWay in the long run? Well, I can’t be sure, of course, because it is being constantly developed. Maybe next week a new release will come out that will make every other sim on Earth redundant, but to see where this could really end up, maybe we should look back at Microsoft Flight and its poised focus on strategic priorities.
The reviews of MS Flight were up and down. Many a hard core simmer chastised the flight modelling, and many a casual gamer chastised the half-arsed attempt at gameplay. Having someone come along and ask you to fly a packet of cheese across Hawaii does not really change the fact that you are simply flying from one place to the other, and, without a narrative or any variance completing “missions” becomes repetitive and tiresome. Plus there were no guns.
So the casual gamer turned away, bored, after their free try, and the hard core simmer turned away because the sim offered so much less than sims such as FSX or X-Plane. The people that were left were offered the chance to buy a few single plane add-ons, for a snip at £5-10, many of which lacked a cockpit view and were of a standard well below many free FSX add-ons, let alone the payware.
On July 25th 2012, just less than six months after release, Microsoft announced that further development on MS Flight had been cancelled as part of “the natural ebb and flow” of application management. A few more add-ons would be released in the coming months, but in the long run, this sim is done.
The PC gaming industry seems to have a history of bandwagoning on various design concepts. How many games have tried to replicate World of Warcraft? How many publishers will tell developers that every sim must be multiplayer or else it is doomed? This leaves very few developers following their own path. Concepts such as free-to-play with commercial DLC are seemingly a way for developers to be their own mod groups. Where modders in the past kept games going for years with updates and add-ons, the developers want that pie to themselves. When you start asking people to pay for these add-ons, when they are professionally made, they need to be up to scratch with, if not better than, everything else out there.
Offering up a product that adds no depth, no innovative features, and nothing to separate it from the racing sims of five to seven years ago should not be satisfactory to this community. Dumbing down of simulation or just finding new ways to make people pay more money over a longer term is not an answer to increase the audience for simulators. A free-to-play sim will be played by people, for free, once. They won’t like it any more whether it is free or not. Compromising the serious simulation hobbyist, for the casual gamer is a tricky road to take, but just making a sim more accessible and less complex does not mean the casual gamer will jump at it. Simulations need to look more deeply into the “game” aspect of their product for this, and create something that is immersive and engaging from a perspective beyond just the driving of a vehicle. That game should then carry the depth of simulation and gameplay to give replay value to both the sim nutter and the casual player alike.