Stefano Casillo: Hey, Jon. If we have to do that thing today it has to be before Napoli’s match in the Champions League…
Jon Denton: Sorry, forgot to get in touch, I’ve been crazy today!
Stefano Casillo: It’s okay, we can reschedule.
Jon Denton: No, no. No, let’s start— so if I am correct, the first public release of a driving sim you made was netKar namie V0.9.4, right?
Stefano Casillo: namie was 0.9.9. Before that there were eight releases … long story …
Jon Denton: Did they all go public? I think the first one I drove was 0.9.8, at Newbury, there was a Formula Renault, Mini, and the Toyota Supra GT.
Stefano Casillo: That’s right, yes. They all went public, the netKar free stuff is all from 2002 to 2003—I started work on them a few days after 9/11.
Stefano Casillo takes the pilgrimage to Monza in 2011 for laser scanning.
Jon Denton: Then 2005 was when we started talking about netKar Pro.
Stefano Casillo: No, April 2006.
Jon Denton: Yes, the public release was April ‘06. We did a few interviews through 2005 for AutoSimSport and I got the beta from you in September 2005 for a test drive. Then we did some online races with Marco (Massarutto) and Simone (Trevisiol).
Stefano Casillo: We announced it at the end of 2004, yes, that sounds about right
Jon Denton: So at the time you worked for Quantel in the UK, a company that designs and manufactures digital production equipment for broadcast television and motion picture industries, based in Newbury, Berkshire. What was it that made you start up the idea of a racing sim after 9/11? Bored at work?
Stefano Casillo: No, not bored. I always had some kind of gaming project going in my own time. A racing sim was one of the things I thought I could actually do from start to finish.
Jon Denton: I seem to remember you released a Tennis sim too?
Stefano Casillo: Yes, that was right before I started with netKar, I also made a space sim! Usually those are the sort of things I get into. But the racing sim idea was cool because the simracing community at the time was awesome. I like unique things.
Jon Denton: So would you say you were, or maybe still are, a keen driver? At the time you had a new Mini?
Stefano Casillo: My Mini at the time was very a unique car on the road. I was working as C++ developer in the UK which gave me pretty decent pay so I could afford it, sadly I didn’t have the time I would have liked to enjoy it.
Jon Denton: Did you ever think about going racing in cars?
Stefano Casillo: I never had the financial background to even get into karting. It’s not something that people in the south of Italy really do.
Jon Denton: Where are you from, exactly?
Stefano Casillo: Napoli. Which in English is Naples.
Jon Denton: My Italian teacher says that people from the south are very pessimistic, I’ll add that he is from Sicily!
Stefano Casillo: Nah, I don’t think pessimistic is the right word. I would say people from the south tend to think about life as something that is already planned out in advance. Of course, I don’t consider myself the typical man of the south, considering my history of constantly jumping into the unknown.
Jon Denton: You moved to the UK to pursue a career as a developer in C++; was there a plan to work for a large company, or did you have no plans when arriving here?
Stefano Casillo: I moved there because I got the job offer from Quantel. It wasn’t a game company, which was what I had been looking for, but after visiting Newbury I loved the environment there. Coming from a messy noisy city like Napoli, it looked like a fairy tale town.
Jon Denton: Yes, very quiet and peaceful (This author lived in Newbury from 1990-2006.
Stefano Casillo: I would see lots of guys at lunch in the canteen, and they were not the twenty-something developers, in the job as a stepping stone to something better, they were experienced “grown-up” software engineers. It felt like a good company to be in for a long time.
Jon Denton: But your real dream was to be in game development? Or, at the time, did you foresee growing old at Quantel?
Stefano Casillo: Yes it was my dream, but I felt I couldn’t get into it. In Italy I was rejected after interviews with Milestone and Ubisoft. I got very close to a job with ISI, but there is no real game development in Italy, and the stuff Quantel does is as cool as games.
Jon Denton: Yes, true. Certainly from a technical point of view. So, when you started to develop games in your spare time, did you ever think it would go anywhere, or was it just a hobby? As in, was it a desire to find a way to a different career, to get noticed, or was it just an outlet?
The famous Newbury circuit, the first to feature in a Kunos based sim, has been ported by modders into Assetto Corsa
Stefano Casillo: No, it was just for me really. I never thought it would end up the way it has ten years later.
Jon Denton: So you started to push your work out to the public: was netKar the first game you went public with, or did netTennis go online?
Stefano Casillo: The tennis game was, maybe still is, on sourceforge.net. Open source was quite big at the time, 2001 was supposed to be the year of Linux on the desktop (this is an old joke that slashdot.org readers will understand), but there was no community for tennis games.
Jon Denton: Back then very few games had much community around them, online was a relatively new thing.
Stefano Casillo: For racing sims, Drivingitalia was huge. So it was very natural for me to get involved there, I was already part of that community as a gamer.
Jon Denton: Was DrivingItalia the birthplace of netKar, or did it go out on sourceforge too?
Stefano Casillo: netKar was only on DrivingItalia (DI). I never had the idea to go open source.
Jon Denton: As you said, you were around on DI for a while, were you racing online before netKar came along?
Stefano Casillo: Yes, with VROC a lot (For those not old enough to remember, Virtual Racers Online Connection, or VROC, was the third party application that allowed online internet racing to take place in Grand Prix Legends).
Jon Denton: So the first version went out, what was the initial reaction? And what did it entail in terms of cars and tracks and online?
Stefano Casillo: It was really nice. I think the first version had the Toyota Supra GT car and the original Newbury track which I modeled in 3D myself. The reaction was immediately very positive. The original, free netKar’s development had been supported with positive karma from the community.
Jon Denton: Did Newbury have the racecourse building back then?
Stefano Casillo: Yes sort of! It had my house at the back of the last hairpin, too!
Jon Denton: Were there online leagues and sessions right away? I seem to remember most of the coverage on DI was in Italian back then, and there was no English forum, so the audience was mainly Italian I suppose?
Stefano Casillo: No, there was no multiplayer until version 0.9.9 of namie. That is why namie is what most people know of nowadays. But the history of that release is crazy; I hit the ‘compile’ button for the last time while a removal person was pulling out the plug of my PC because I was leaving my house to go to live in Tokyo. I sent the build to Aristotelis Vasilakos and he had to sort out the mess and close a release that became 0.9.9 namie.
Jon Denton: Ah, so Aris coming back into Kunos again now is like competing the circle.
Stefano Casillo: Totally.
Jon Denton: The early days saw netKar as just a hotlapping sim—versions 0.1−0.8 I mean. How did you develop the tyre model and vehicle dynamics? Do you have a background in engineering, or was it a case reading lots of books?
Stefano Casillo: Lots of books. I lasted thirty days at university—schools are not for me. It took me seven years to get out of highschool, instead of the standard five. I just couldn’t be bothered.
Jon Denton: So there must have been quite a deep interest in vehicle physics? Learning this stuff is no walk in the park. I presume you had followed F1 racing and motor sports for a long time?
Stefano Casillo: Yes, but most of all there I had a love for Dave Kaemmer’s work: From Indianapolis 500 to Grand Prix Legends — not to forget IndyCar Racing, one of the finest.
Jon Denton: And Geoff Crammond?
Stefano Casillo: Of course, him too. I remember trying REVS on my C64—‘wow you can spin!’
Jon Denton: I had it on BBC Micro. My Dad could never understand how I could spend so much time on it!
Stefano Casillo: I come from a family that had a passion for F1 and Ferrari. On Sunday it was race day, early lunch and then watch the race.
Jon Denton: Good times, some things never change.
Stefano Casillo: I remember my parents didn’t have the courage to tell me Gilles was dead because I was crazy for him.
Working the metaphorical lathe
Jon Denton: I was a little too young to see much of Gilles. Senna was my hero, sadly I watched him go.
Stefano Casillo: I remember: with time I stopped being a Ferrari fan, I could never bring myself to cheer for Schumacher.
Jon Denton: Yes, I have only recently, with Alonso, re-found a love for Ferrari.
Stefano Casillo: It was also because I loved Alesi—I loved Raikkonen, too. I was in London when he won the title, it was amazing.
Jon Denton: Kimi was one of the biggest talents of the last decade. Such a shame he gave up caring.
Stefano Casillo: Yes, so true, such a character, but my wife likes him too much, so I’m glad he’s not appearing on TV that often anymore!
Jon Denton: So as namie v0.9.9, the first online version of netKar, was sent out into the wild, you moved to Tokyo, was this work related, or life?
Stefano Casillo: Both, really. Such a big change has to be about life, but Quantel made it happen so it was the easy way in.
Jon Denton: You worked for them in Japan?
Stefano Casillo: Yes. They have offices in Tokyo, but they don’t do development there, so my job was quite different.
Jon Denton: Namie brought us a raft of new cars to try too; was this when it opened-up to a wider audience as well?
Stefano Casillo: I think so. There was a car for everybody.
Jon Denton: And the English forums opened at DI…
Stefano Casillo: Yes, and there were websites like RaceSimCentral (RSC – At the time run by Tim Wheatley) that always followed netKar. I think, maybe, at that time RSC was the centre of the sim-racing community. That and the West Brothers forums!
Jon Denton: West Forums in 2001 was big news! Yeah, and High Gear, back in the day. I think that was where I heard of netKar originally. Around the time everyone was looking for something other than GPL to drive. Viper Racing was fun but not really good enough.
Stefano Casillo: Yes, you’re right, High Gear was where I started out, and met some people that are still friends today, crazy to think of it now. It’s a shame new sim drivers can’t experience the community feeling that was going on back then.
Jon Denton: It’s difficult to understand what has gone away really. Those of us there in the beginning are all much older now. Younger people have grown up with the internet. I seem to remember people’s online personas just had more respect for each other back then. So was it all positive karma coming in, or was there much in the way of moaners?
Stefano Casillo: Feedback was always good with netKar namie. Of course people started to get sore at me because I had to disappear.
Jon Denton: The move to Tokyo halted development I assume. We had namie for, what, four years before nKPro? What was going on during that time?
Stefano Casillo: Well, work in Tokyo was just too much to even consider having the time to develop netKar. Then when we started work on netKar Pro, it took much-much longer than I expected to get it done.
Jon Denton: Were you still in Tokyo when you started work on Pro?
Stefano Casillo: No, I had moved back to Italy and started here.
Jon Denton: Moving from bustling Tokyo to sleepy Trieste?
Stefano Casillo: Yes.
Jon Denton: A nice quiet town, miles to walk for bread. Must have been a big change from the madness of Tokyo?
Stefano Casillo: Absolutely! And I was really living in the middle of nowhere. It was very, very hard to adapt to that lifestyle after the glamorous days in Tokyo, and that was a huge problem for the development of netKar Pro.
Jon Denton: How so? Surely software development likes quietness?
Stefano Casillo: Yes, but I kept thinking it was a mistake to leave Tokyo, and my job there, it got pretty dark and depressing at times.
Jon Denton: Did you know people in Trieste? Or was it a big step into solitude?
Stefano Casillo: I knew Alessandro Piemontesi, who was in the Kunos team by then and helped me to move. He ended up leaving the team though, mostly because of my dark moods, and I lost many months in this constantly drunk state.
Jon Denton: You mentioned the team: Who is the team? I know Marco Massarutto has been around through thick and thin, was he there at the beginning?
Was netKar Pro too complex?
Stefano Casillo: Marco was the first person I asked to join the team when developing netKar Pro along with Alessandro and Aristotelis Vasilakos who also ended up leaving. So we asked Simone Trevisiol to join, and the three of us have been pretty much the core. Aris is back now, and we have more graphics guys around that we use, support, administration, etc.
Jon Denton: And who does what, broadly (I guess you all do a bit of everything to some extent)?
Stefano Casillo: It’s starting to resemble a software house these days, even if many of us are not physically in Rome. Marco is mostly in contact with graphics artists, checking their work schedule, and making sure that we’ll have that track or that car ready for that deadline, and that it looks as our content should look. Most of his work is hidden to netKarPro users at the moment, but he is Kunos Simulazioni for all our customers on the professional side. Simone is our track modeller guy, but he also modelled the Vintage for netKar Pro which is pretty good for a first time effort.
Jon Denton: And he works in Vallelunga, too. I guess the way technology is now, you don’t need to be in an office, unless you need to whip people!
Stefano Casillo: True. But face-to-face discussion is always clearest. It’s so easy to get the wrong impression by using voice chat or, even worse, text chat. Aris will now be in charge of car development, so basically I will sit on the beach and swim.
Jon Denton: It sounds good. You have earned it!
Stefano Casillo: Not really, of course. I’ll have more time to code and fix bugs, and I can work harder and deeper on physics development because Aris will be able to put that work into effect on the cars.
Jon Denton: Okay, going back to the dark days of Trieste. When things started to lighten up, it was you, Marco, Alessandro, and Aris. Then Simone came on board. What was the thought process behind netKar Pro’s development? At the time the sim-racing market was still quite bereft of any ‘killer’ titles. What did you want to achieve with it?
Stefano Casillo: Alessandro and Aris left pretty early so it was me, Simone, and a guy who can’t be named. The original plan was to take namie and make it into a solid sim. Then we started what we call the ‘taliban process’ in which we tried to make the sim as realistic as possible, not only on the physics side, but also with respect to the entire approach to the product. So in car HUD-style graphics were abolished—want to know your position in the race? Learn to read the pit board when you pass. Full mode was established, where repairs to the car after damage took time, setup adjustments too… What were we thinking?
Jon Denton: Well, you were thinking brilliantly! That giant pit board is still easier than a real one! But yes, the lack of an option to change it was maybe a little harsh.
Stefano Casillo: Yes, but honestly, I enjoy racing online now. I can see where my friends are, what lap times everybody is doing real-time, and so on. As a developer we should try to bring the fun of racing to the PC, not just the frustrations of it.
Jon Denton: Maybe, but when I’ve raced in real life, I don’t have those things, I don’t have the time to think about that. You know the car in front of you, and hopefully the one behind is too far back to see, but yes, you have a point there. I am a bit fascist with these things though.
Stefano Casillo: I understand you.
Jon Denton: So the plan was to go with ultra-realism, to push what had come before with GPL (Which also insisted on “pit board only” in car). I guess around then we had GTR on the market from Simbin, too. The main core of the community wanted realism, I think, back then: it wasn’t until they got it that they realised they didn’t like it!
Stefano Casillo: The idea was that nothing could top netKar Pro—if you were serious about sim-racing, you would have to go to nKP, no compromises.
Jon Denton: How did you come to the decision to go down the single-seater-only route?
Stefano Casillo: Differentiation, and the fact that you could stay true to reality without having to come up with a “Perrari G360”. After all, the entire netKar Pro project was funded using my savings from Japan, so there was no money available for licenses. During the last two weeks before we started the pre-order for netKar Pro I was also out of food. Just plain rice for two weeks. That’s living on a sim-racing project.
Jon Denton: And did you consider the “Perrari” or “Boyota Supra” option?
Stefano Casillo: We had lots of harsh meetings about the Perrari option, yes. Let’s say I won the argument, but history shows I was wrong because netKar sales went much better once cars like the Fiat 500 and the Vintage appeared, so if you’re doing a new sim, don’t rely on minor single-seaters. I love single seaters, but many don’t. People seem to want something that handles more like a car they understand.
Jon Denton: This surprises me. Some of the most popular cars in sim racing seem to be some of the most staid and dull road cars. Not something that makes sense to me.
Stefano Casillo: I love single-seaters. The only car I really love in nKPro is the FF1800.
Jon Denton: The 1800 and the KS2, I love the KS2 so very much.
Stefano Casillo: I think if you don’t have an F1 car, then any single-seater is seen as a surrogate of that.
Jon Denton: And if you do have an F1, it’s too hard to setup, and to drive at top pace for the majority of players.
Stefano Casillo: Let’s just say it’s not very inspiring to drive.
Jon Denton: Was there any thought to go to F1, or to scale the single-seater ladder higher? Why was the Formula 3 car the top end?
Stefano Casillo: We thought there would be more people who wanted to race cars like the F3 car because it’s a good car for online racing. I always thought F1 is too extreme—even the KS2 for that matter—the speed deltas are just too high.
Jon Denton: Overtaking becomes very hard.
Stefano Casillo: But you get addicted to the speed. After working on Ferrari Virtual Academy, it was hard to go back driving the 500! And that’s why we thought, let’s do the KS2 in netKar Pro.
Jon Denton: It’s true: I skipped from the KS2 to the F2000 over this weekend, and it was like going into slo-mo. Tell me a bit about the tracks in netKar Pro. How ‘designed’ were they? All named after towns in Italy, of course—do you think they reflect the feel of the areas they represent, or were they names out of a hat?
Stefano Casillo: They do, actually, some of them. Aviano is a NATO base with F15’s and F16’s taking off, and it feels as if you’re flying a fighter jet somehow—it fits.
Jon Denton: It feels open yes, like an airfield circuit, the light feels that way.
Stefano Casillo: Prato… I have no idea why it’s called Prato …I think I was watching the news about Prato, and there you have it. Aosta, well …what else? It’s in the Alps!
Jon Denton: I wish it was real and I could go there, it’s beautiful! So getting back to namie—you started to adapt the engine, how much more advanced did things start to get?
Stefano Casillo: Oh, how I wish I didn’t do it! But it’s too easy to say that now. The major difference was the implementation of the shader technology. Also, the entire car data structure changed—it went from a ‘code-driven’ approach in namie, where every car was a totally separated entity implemented into a .dll, to a more traditional data-driven approach where the code stays the same and the car is defined by a data file.
Jon Denton: The physics become more defined in a ‘world’, and the objects within it set their parameters?
Stefano Casillo: Yes, and the process was better. We started to have tools to implement tyres, car suspensions and so on. Now people can see a small part of that with Koflite (netKar Pro’s track editor software), but the real netKar is all the other tools behind it that allow the physics level to be where we want them to be.
Jon Denton: The tyres developed so much further too. Netkar Pro was the first sim to really give a feel of the lifecycle of the tyre, even visibly. Were you working with tyre manufacturers to get the data for this, or was it based more on theory?
Stefano Casillo: Tyre modelling is a constant process for me. It’s very, very hard because even testing the real thing is hard to do. NetKar Pro went through four tyre models in five years.
Jon Denton: Four tyre models before release?
Stefano Casillo: No, four tyre models since the release: Verions 1.0 to 1.0.2 are based on a Pacejka model, 1.0.3 is based on a model called the ‘similarity model’, 1.1 is based on the brush model, and 1.2 is based on a new tyre model I was working on for, <ahem> a new piece of software and it was so good that I thought “I can’t keep this on my HD, this has to go in netKar straight away.”
Jon Denton: I know Pacejka, and I have heard about brush, what is the similarity model?
Stefano Casillo: Similarity is a simplified Pacejka model developed by Hans Pacejka and Milliken.
Jon Denton: And the latest build does feel so very good, too, though it is surprising to hear this because the similarity between the models in different circumstances is quite remarkable.
Stefano Casillo: Yes, there was one single change in the equation for the final version 1.3 that made it better; that was supposed to be our ‘next gen’ tyre model, now it’s gone so I have to come up with something ‘next next gen’!
Jon Denton: There is always more to learn. As far as I can tell people are still learning when it comes to tyres in real life, let alone sims. The early releases with Pacejka had well documented problems at very low speed, if I recall—I remember the early models felt very good in some situations and a bit strange in others.
Stefano Casillo: Which is the nature of the beast if you work with a curve-fitting empirical model.
Jon Denton: It breaks down the closer to zero you get?
Stefano Casillo: Yes, because you always have the velocity appearing in something like X=Y/V so as V goes to zero. X goes to indefinite.
Jon Denton: And the world implodes…
Stefano Casillo: And people die and the ones who survive flame on the forums and ask PayPal for refunds!
Jon Denton: So the brush model is used in a few other places I think. I did not know netKar Pro ever used it, I think we had an interview with the guys who did Virtual Grand Prix 3 telling us it was revolutionary: Amazing in the world of sim-racing quite how many things have been a revolution!
Stefano Casillo: Differences are very subtle right now. I mean, think ten years ago, the difference between an arcade and a sim was huge: now you fire up Gran Turismo 5 and it feels very, very good.
Jon Denton: So this development was to be a big step, but at which point did you put a cap on what you were doing? Surely you could go on forever, adding more and more features, or developing physics more and more and never release anything? It was mid-2005 when you let AUTOSIMSPORT have a go with a test mule-build, at Newbury with a carbon effect Formula Target car. How close was this to something you felt happy with? And presumably you had had other people try it out before that? Racing drivers? Or just close friends?
Stefano Casillo: The driving experience in netKar Pro was always something all the guys felt very solid about: going from one tyre model to another just shows me that, at the end of the day, we’re not that far off. Things don’t really change that much. There are things in physics I keep coming back to; tyres and differentials are my favourite to work on when I have some time available, but lately I feel like I am pretty much exactly where I want it to be, so I end up experimenting with something different. The first release of netKar Pro was so bad, bugs wise, because we didn’t have a real beta testing team. Things got much better once we started working with Jaap Vagenvoort on the 1.0.3 release, and with the RSR guys for the latest releases.
Jon Denton: Well, and me, Alex, and Bob for a short while! Was it just the three of you testing in the early releases then?
Stefano Casillo: Yes, as crazy as it sounds, that was the case.
Jon Denton: Only so many configurations or situations can come up.
Stefano Casillo: I think we were very naïve in thinking: “well after all, it’s still netKar namie on steroids, and if it doesn’t work, people will support us as they did since back in 2002.” That of course wasn’t the case…
Jon Denton: I think the public suddenly changes their feelings on these things when you ask them to pay for something.
Stefano Casillo: It’s true—and mostly right too, it was just a bit weird for us to become like Microsoft in a day! Everybody hated us and wanted a piece of us.
Jon Denton: Yes, this was when suddenly it all changed for netKar didn’t it?
Continued in Part 2…