For some time now, we have espoused our desire for someone to take a different approach to vehicle simulation. As tyre models, aero modelling, graphics, audio etc. continue their inevitable and unrelenting march towards converging with reality, it would be an understandable conclusion that simulations are rapidly diminishing the boundary between virtual and real world. And yet for all the undeniable advancements and progress made within the genre, some aspects have all but stood still, if indeed not gone backwards.
For many, the type of detail and involvement of experience we have discussed in the past will not be of interest nor appeal. Which is, of course, fine. But it is perhaps too easy to dismiss such content and approach as simply “grind”, as something which “gets in the way”, and all too easy to miss what this can actually add to the driving experience itself.
I first became aware of My Summer Car over two years ago when an email dropped into my inbox with the enticing title “I have a car simulator project that might spark some interest”. Its sender, Johannes of Amistech Games, had read some of our articles and felt his creation might scratch some of our itches. A look over the linked twitter feed introduced me to a wonderfully unique title with, frankly, a brilliantly terrible website, which quickly convinced me Johannes wasn’t wrong. Fast forward two years and development has continued, and initial release is on the horizon; the perfect time to have a chat with Johannes about My Summer Car and find out what it’s really all about.
My Summer Car has been in development for some time now. How did the project start, and what was your goal?
“I guess we need to get back all the way to mid 90’s when I started to mod car and racing games starting with original Stunts 4D Driving and Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing. Even I loved many of those games I played and modded through the years, I also knew that they had many shortcomings especially when it came down to realism as a whole. Many of those things were details that could not be added through modding, and it really started to frustrate me until early 2010’s when I just quit for good. I couldn’t fix those games to my liking. You could say that I gave these games 15 years to develop, but it never happened.
At that time, through happy accidents, we formed a game project with a few friends which introduced me to Unity3D engine. Well, what happened to that game is another story, but during that time I used my free time to explore Unity as the basis for car game development. I found a very nice plugin that has some car physics basics in place and found out that, modifying it and building from it, I could develop pretty much anything I wanted. Then I realized that I was actually able develop my own car game. It was a big thing to me. I could try to bring to life those ideas and philosophies I had developed in my head all these years.
The actual idea for My Summer Car came quite quickly. As I was sole developer back then, I knew I can make only one car properly with all the mechanical detail I wanted. And the theme for the game formed quite easily around that restriction. Many of us had that one car in our life that either was our first or special in some other way. And the game is about that car. As growing up in the countryside with those short but intensive Finnish summers I knew that’s the setting for the game. It all came together just like that, not really having to give even a proper thought. Also, our Finnish culture is not a very used theme in our local gaming industry so I wanted to give that a try. Sometimes we should embrace what we have here and not always look outside the borders.
That aside. The core focus still was in the inner life of a car and in the fact that the car would need to be assembled as well, before it came available for drive. So why punish players like that? Attachment. It gives the game a whole other level when you actually need to assemble the car, learn how to tune and maintain it. It stops being just a another car in another car game. Never ever has first start of the engine felt so good in games. Player really learns to care about the car and the way he uses it. But that’s not enough, player needs to be punished from reckless driving as well. Something that never happens in car games. Your avatar will die. It is tough I know, but when the game progresses into actual rally racing it starts to give chills down your spine. This is not your another game where you crash 160kmh into trees and re-spawn back on road. Although you can improve your chances with proper safety gear that, funnily so, is not enforced. This is what I believe the game is all about, attachment and danger. Combine those two together and they boost each other.”
For a long time people have argued that, along with the lack of physicality, it is the lack of any sense of fear that “limits” the genre and player behaviour within the world. Perma-death wouldn’t mean much in most driving games, but the level of investment in the vehicle preparation side of things in My Summer Car perhaps presents a unique opportunity. Is this approach (i.e. severe punishment) something you’ve long had in mind, or was it an idea that came to you later in development? Is it simply a gameplay mechanic, or is it about you trying to change the way the player approaches the experiences, and in turn what they get out of it?
“Perma-death was idea that has been there from the very beginning. The concept has never been tested in car simulators and I wanted to see how it would play out. But like you said, for it to have any meaning there has to be feeling of total loss. That’s why working on the car and making it run goes hand to hand with perma-death. The main idea behind it is to evoke fear or suspension. Car games don’t do that, player does not fear the upcoming crash as he knows that basically nothing is lost. But the fear also teases to push it even more. It feels very good when player actually avoids disaster. The biggest dilemma here is whether I should make it possible for the player to choose that feature. I know some would turn it off, and some would try it, but when that option is there to begin with, it lessens the idea.”
The title seems to be something really rather unique, bringing together some elements more commonly associated with disparate genres. Was there always a clear vision of what the game is and isn’t, or is it more of an evolving project emerging from experiment?
“The name for the game formed very early as well, I can’t really remember how exactly. But it was conscious choice to not have typical car/racing game title. As this is not typical such game. I wanted to have good name and distinctive logo and I think that’s something that came out really well. The game theme and setting is well presented in the title. It is sort of a joke how casual vibe the logo has while the game is nothing like that. Life is tough I’d say.
I also wanted to avoid the word “Simulator” in the title as that has become quite a meaningless word. Don’t get me wrong, I love simulators. I strongly believe that simulator is the only interesting gaming genre these days. But too many times, so called simulator falls very short in what it tries to represent.
The vision for this has been rock solid at all the times. Everything folds around the car. Maintaining and using it costs money and money can be earned from doing various jobs. And everything else is all the things that happens on Finnish summer between car building and working. Sure the game has grown larger than I expected originally, but it’s always well within the vision. Original idea was just to assemble the car before in-game store closes so that you can get there to buy beer and sausages. Well we have that already, but also tons of other stuff as well.”
Underlying the humour and vibe of the title is obviously the vehicular elements themselves, namely driving and vehicle maintenance and modification. Is this a driving sim at core with sandbox/real-world elements thrown in to enrich the experience, or are vehicles more a tool to allow the player to experience the world?
“I’d say this is driving sim with the sandbox environment. One part having a big impact on the game is the avatar and its physical needs. You have to eat, drink and sleep. It is there to make things more difficult but also more meaningful as well. Player is forced to move at least to get groceries. And moving equals opportunities for failures and danger. Failing in this game is fun. Forget to add motor oil? Tough luck. Everything is also linked to in-game clock, so player needs to consider when to move and how much time there is left to do that. Some things need to be planned and not just do everything randomly.
I believe that a car game should be more than just the cars and track. There is so much things happening leading to the actual driving performance. This game could be compared to racing sim, which does not only simulate the race but also the week and race weekend leading to that race. All the preparations, tuning, fixing, testing etc. That has never been done in racing sims. While this game is not your regular track racing sim, it has a rally-sprint race every Saturday you can participate in. To be able to register for that competition, player needs to be in the right place at right time, car has to have passed car inspection and then entry fee is required to pay. So it is not easy. When the actual driving part begins, player feels great accomplishment and fear at the same time. This is what computer racing should be. Also, top-three finish will grant player a trophy and prize money. That trophy is an actual in-game object that can be carried home and placed onto the book shelf or where ever. One idea a tester came up with is to expand the rally event to be a two day event, where the player is required to sleep overnight at the event camping area. I would really like to make that happen.”
Rallying currently sits at the top of the achievement list in terms of car tuning and application. How far do you see that going; will it very much remain club level in lower tier machinery? Have you plans for other forms of motorsport?
“It is definitely club level thing because of practical reasons. It is less work to do. Currently there is only one special stage, if I expand to two day event then it would hold two stages. The rally is more just a setting to really have a reason to push the car and player to it’s limit. And that is what it does really well. The game also has a small airport that holds quarter mile drag strip. It has realistic starting and timing procedures and is very good way to test out performance. Only problem with it is that the staging is very difficult without proper clutch and throttle control. So players with gamepads or keyboards will have hard time to get staged. That is one reason I haven’t expanded it to similar event as the rally where player would race against AI drivers. As a drag racing fan myself, I think I eventually work something out with that too. I have also some ideas how player could engage other tuned AI cars into illegal road races. Some time ago I also tested a “folk racing” in the game, not sure yet how much work there would be to implement it but that is something I would like to have for sure.”
You’ve used the word “realism” a lot when talking about the title in the past. The (wonderfully) anal vehicle mechanics, and the whole car-ownership/maintenance elements, certainly point towards a more realistic vehicle experience than the “sit in perfect shiny new car and go” offered by nearly all driving titles. Where does the realism extend to in terms of the actual modelling? Are the physical behaviour and function of the myriad car components included being realistically represented, and do they form part of an ostensibly accurate driving experience?
“Surely I can’t compete with top of the line racing simulators when it comes purely down to the driving and tire physics fidelity. That is something I had to admit from the beginning, I have what I have and I want to make most out of it. However I believe that’s my greatest strength as well. I am able to focus on the ‘actual realism’ which I feel is important as well. Or even more so.
We can start with the mechanical simulation of the car, which is affected by how player assembles, tunes and maintains the car. The car consists hundreds of parts and several hundred of individual bolts, which all are affecting the usability, strength or performance of the car. For example parts can drop if they are not well assembled, engine internals can grenade completely just because player left one of the main bearings little loose, plus the infamous valve and carburetor adjustment to get every last HP out of the engine, or just to adjust fuel mixture. Car has so many dynamic fail states that even I am not aware of everything any more. When it comes to engine itself, bear in mind this is a ongoing development process, everything meaningful is being calculated. All the car fluids and how those affect air and fuel densities, individual combustion of four cylinders, motor oil grades, cooling efficiency, exhaust breathing, main electrical circuit, drivetrain, brakes, etc etc. You can for example drive the car with just battery for some time if alternator belt snaps due to improper assembly. I love to study various aspects of a engine and implement those into this game. It is also fun when the seat breaks while you’re driving.
Apart from the main car there are other cars and vehicles as well. Player can’t work on them so they do not have such detailed mechanical simulations as the main car. But they can be driven and need to be refueled. Also all them have distinctive driving physics that are based on real life values as much as I can find such data. It is always fun experience to drive different vehicles. For example the cargo van is very handy when picking up post packages from the store. That’s a real life usefulness. The fun little detail is that cargo is affecting the driving physics of the car as well. Twenty cases of beer crammed inside the car feels just like that. One solution is to drink from the cargo, but driving under influence can lead to serious trouble. Most likely player just gets stuck in the ditch, but might also get caught by a police and worst case, die of course. So sometimes there is police to make sure you drive sober, within speed limit and your car has been inspected. Quite likely jail time will be implemented.
One goal is to have every knob in the car dashboards to be clickable and usable. I like to have that flight sim style approach on that. It is especially fun with tractor and truck which have all sorts of functions on board. Those will be all simulated properly. Of course some functions can be assigned to steering wheel controller as well. But like for radio buttons, I like to keep them mouse only as there is just something there when player adjusts radio volume and veers into oncoming traffic.”
At what level would you put the driving model itself; is it a solid if not particularly intricate model that provides a robust and believable enough experience, or should prospective players prepare for a driving model which in itself very much plays second fiddle to broader game mechanics?
“I’d say that it will fall somewhere on solid side. There are lot’s of changes you can do to your car and those have corresponding effects. Things like tire types, car weight and inertia, fuel weight, different grip surfaces, alignment of tires, etc, all affect the handling characteristics. Of course this is when the car is in good condition. If some critical parts are missing that can be also felt through the handling model. Most common reason for novice player deaths is brake failure. One goal is to make player able to diagnose the car issues by driving it. If you loose a tire at 100kmh that can escalate quickly. Player definitely feels it as it happens, and it can scare the hell out of you. Surely, most of the problems are still under the hood. The broader game mechanics are there to support the life of a car and it’s driver. Approximately the one car alone, covers 70% of the total game mechanics or complexity. So the focus truly is there. Games are simple, cars are not.
Vehicles in the game are designed to be driven with wheel setup with shifter and clutch. Apart from the muscle car that has automatic transmission which, by the way, has been very meticulously simulated. But yes, there are driving aids for those that do not have such controllers. I feel that this game is impossible to play with arcade racer mentality, it is just way too difficult. First of all the vehicles are all bad in some personal way, where the main car probably performs best depending on how it’s being built. The the environment is very unforgiving, dirt roads are narrow and fairly straight with lots of hills. It teases player to drive as fast as possible, only to fail horribly. The highway is probably more suitable for arcade driving. Then again, speeders, drunks and animals pose another threat.”
The level of functioning detail in the vehicles, paired with the small development team, means that it will not be possible to include a roster of vehicle models. As you say, the theme for the game has developed around this restriction. With that in mind, do you have worries about the longevity of the experience? Will there be random/procedural features to add variety to play-throughs, or is that missing the point somewhat of what the experience is intended to be?
“Amistech Games is two people team currently, with the other person doing graphical assets and props. Including another workable car is definitely a huge task. That is why it is something I can’t ever promise to be added. I would love to, but it is a lot of work. Maybe if final game is received well that might be possible. But it is more of a question whether to make a new car, or a totally new game. Not much difference in the amount of work. But then there are these other derivable vehicles which I intend to bring into the game as much as it can hold. One car could be done easily in one week if not having to do anything else. I wish the game would be finished soon so I can fill it full of vehicles. That’s what I love to do.
Some randomised content is being planned and that is definitely something that I want to add in the long run to give the game some extra lifetime. These would be mostly various jobs and “loot”. There are also secrets and Easter eggs in the game for players to search for. But in general I am not that concerned about the longevity, not all games need to be like that. This is more like a experimental car game than a new way of life.”
In regards to the other vehicles in the game which present more of a supporting role to running and maintaining your main car (and the player themselves), do they too require maintenance and care, or are they more of a reliable constant in the player’s arsenal to tackle the challenges of the main game?
“At least currently they do not require maintenance apart from refueling. However I would like to have at least batteries drain at some point. Then it would be possible to jump start and of course short circuit and burn down the cars. So they are more reliable tools to lean on when main car does not work. But they do also crash like any vehicles, if you somehow tip the tractor over it might be real trouble to get it straighten again.”
Have you any plans or intentions to open up the game for the modding community to bring new features/content to the title? What about features such as multiplayer?
“Unfortunately this game won’t have official modding support or multiplayer. Those things should have been taken into account from day one for such a complex game as this. It is too late for those. But quite likely there will be texture modding of some sort as I am planning to make it possible for players to paint the car or cars using image editing software. But it is optional extra of course. When there are posters on the walls of the house and garage, those posters could be replaced as well. As a former modder myself it came as a surprise how damn difficult it is to design a game to have a modding system. It requires completely another approach. Maybe the lack of multiplayer does not sadden me so much as I am a very unsocial person. Hehe, I used to grow up playing games mostly alone.”
The title is currently submitted to Steam Greenlight and doing rather well! (nb. My Summer Car has now been successfully Greenlit!). What is your long term vision for the title and where you want it to be; is there a point where it will be “finished”, or is it a labour of love that will always have room for development and progress?
“Yes we are doing surprisingly well, many thanks to our supporters! I have an almost complete road-map (whose contents are secret for now) for the game and finishing it is my only goal. I feel that this game has to be pretty solid with clear beginning and an end. Good thing is that these are all figured out already, yet need to be implemented. So I am definitely going towards finishing the game. Of course if it goes well, nothing stops us from expanding it with added content or DLC. But that is extra, game needs to be able to stand by its own. Developers have only one chance to release their first game, and better to do it as well as one can. This goes also managing the community surrounding My Summer Car.”
By “managing the community”, do you have anything in particular in mind for this? Are you talking e.g. dev forums, or rather just the communication and flow of information between yourself and those who support and play the game?
“Yes I mean the communication between game developers and those who have bought it and play it. I don’t have a plan, I wish I had. It probably comes down to me answering as much questions as possible and hoping at the same time that those players who know the game well would be able to help as well. It is just big leap into the unknown for me when game hits Steam store. I wish I could use all the free time to just work on the game, but I know it is not possible. But it is important as well, if everything goes smoothly those people probably want to try out the next game as well. Still… even everything fails big, there are car games left to do for me that no one has ever made. So I probably keep doing what I am doing.”
My Summer Car seems very much a project born out of your own passion as well as your own experiences (real and virtual). What have been the biggest challenges or surprises in making the transition from player/modder to creator/developer? You mention the complexity of adding modding support into the title at this stage, but are there any other lessons you’ve learnt during the process that maybe make you think if you were starting again, what you might do differently or at least take a different approach/mindset to?
“The biggest surprise might be that the whole game developing thing was easier than I thought. As I used to mod many different games, it was always constant struggle against restrictions and required a lot thinking to get around those. The difference is that now I am the one who is developing those restrictions. If they are not well though out, they show up later in most mysterious ways and then you need that modder thought process again. It is not exactly fun when making your own game. This game has big database of car parts and bolts. When there is a problem, the problem is always big.
So that is the biggest challenge, to be able to think out all the future scenarios before committing to some design choice. That I would do differently, full “technical scenario analysis” or something before planting down a single digital tree. Because of that, some things stay unfixable probably forever in this game. Of course game also grew to be bigger what it originally was supposed to be as it started only as experiment and a joke even. So I guess I need to learn contain the scope of the game. I believe many indie designers share this.”
The only other game that takes a remotely similar approach to vehicle maintenance and modelling, albeit in a very different context, is the recently Greenlit “Jalopy“. Have you followed that title at all, and if so does it do anything that has particularly caught your eye?
“Yes I have been following the game very closely all these years. We have kept contact with Greg (Jalopy developer) and it has been very fun to realize that we both started working on these types of games at pretty much the same time. I guess we both sort of got tired of what mainstream car games had to offer. In Jalopy I like how it uses RNG or procedural generation in how it creates the routes. For me personally that is something I would like to see more in car games. I believe Jalopy is first proper road trip game. It is odd how that genre has never been done before. I know I would’ve played such. Oh yeah, Desert Bus. I think we can accept that as well. In the end there are very few similarities between Jalopy and MSC. Both having the manual car maintenance and game being set in some specific cultural context and time.”
On a broader note, the real life influence in the game is clear from your previous answers, but have any other video game titles, perhaps from different genres, provided any tangible inspiration or learning for My Summer Car’s design and development?
“There are many inspirations for sure, some intentional and some not. When it comes to different genres, I think that Surgeon Simulator and Gone Home have inspired me to try doing this game. Surgeon Simulator having that idiotic approach on difficult job and Gone Home as it would be nice if player has a home to stay in. But the main inspiration is 90’s Finnish homebrew game culture, so called “Suomipelit”. I lost my teenage years on those games and they really are always here to stay with me. MSC shares the same humor aspect. I feel like I am finally giving something back to the scene, 20 years too late. Maybe I am just grown up kid stuck in the past. But I miss that, nowadays we do mostly sterile mobile phones and I don’t even know if there is homebrew PC game culture anymore.”
Thank you Johannes for taking the time to talk to us.
“Thank you, this has been very interesting to answer these questions and get my own head sorted as well.”
Today’s simulations give you little to fear, because there is little to lose. Failure to finish a race might be frustrating, but usually little else. Likewise, other consequences such as a few docked points on your iRacing safety rating, or the inconvenience of having to start your lap again from the pits, are not likely to provide long-lasting cause for concern. Can a simulation hope to change this? We certainly believe so and, thankfully, we’re not alone.
My Summer Car gives you something to fear because it gives you something to lose, with a mistake seeing potentially seeing many hours of work and effort wiped out. But it does more than this. In raising the stakes and giving the player so much to risk, it also has the potential to give you something truly rewarding to achieve. Think of sim-racing achievements, for example an 8 minute lap of the Nordschleife in Grand Prix Legends. Imagine how much more rewarding that feat would be were you not just able to reset and start again every time it went wrong, but rather you had to deal with the consequence of your actions and earn the ability to take another shot at it. Lives might not be on the line, but a lot less people would have managed it, and the virtual achievement would have been a significant step closer to the reality.
When released, what My Summer Car ultimately gives the player in terms of experience and challenge will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes. How all of the different components, from simulated car maintenance to lighter humorous moments, come together and hold together as an experience remains to be seen. It could be an engaging and entertaining title which sucks the player in and holds them from first grasp of a spanner to fatality against a tree; or it could be that the title works more as a technical demonstration and proof-of-concept pointer towards future directions for the genre. Time will tell. Either way though, it is hard to argue it is not pushing realism forward on a number of fronts with a big shove, and I personally hope Johannes leaves the option to disable player death on the cutting room floor. My Summer Car is, if nothing else, attempting to do something that some of us have long yearned for. That it will do so with a beer-fuelled sense of humour and a few lairy moments along the way may make it all the more fun and, for some of us, perhaps even more realistic yet.