20 years is a lifetime to some, just a chapter to others. For some it feels like the elapsed time since this blog was last updated with an article.
They’d be wrong, of course, for only 2 small years have languorously rolled by since the halls of RAVSim were strolled; if that period of lassitude makes you feel old then what is to come may have you reaching for your medication.
Grand Prix Legends is 20 years old this year. There, I said it, it’s happened, it cannot now be unsaid. For anyone reading this who can remember that day around Halloween in the vivacious year of 1998 when they went to a real shop and bought a real box with a real manual and a real CD-ROM of a video game that changed their life, the phrase “Grand Prix Legends is 20 years old this year” will strike profoundly. For those reading this who cannot remember that day, those that may have been teeny-tiny children at the time, it will strike rather less of a chord.
You see, for someone that is celebrating their 21st birthday in the Autumn of 2018 the concept that a video game is 20 years old is not new; but for those of us that were deep into the trench of living a grown-up life in the Autumn of 1998, complete with Nokia 6110, Fiat Bravo and enormous B&O 28 inch TV, video games were a new and exciting thing. Each new release of just about any video game, let alone racing sim, was a technological step. To imagine what a world it was to live in one need only compare the physics and graphical complexity of 1978’s Night Driver on the Atari 2600 to Grand Prix Legends. 20 years is a long time for technology.
I was 21 in 1998, a fact that will allow the mathematically savvy amongst us to calculate how deeply old and decrepit I have become. When I was 21 I was obsessed with motor racing, and had been for most of my life. For years I had sat with my father watching Senna, Prost, Piquet and Mansell go at one-another on track, and ever since many failed attempts with REVS during the late 80’s I had sought a way to reproduce those battles on the family PC.
By ‘98 I had moved out, I was living in my own place and working to make ends meet. I had a PC of my own and at times booted up either Crammonds Grand Prix 2 or Papyrus IndyCar Racing 2 but it was not a focus in my life; the pursuit of fast cars, pretty ladies and as-yet undefined levels of weekend drunkenness were. Any gaming was on the Playstation, with more friends around the place than chairs, late night Tekken tournaments, Worms marathons and endless-endless-two player battles on Gran Turismo.
The PC gathered dust. Keeping up with new graphics cards or CPU technologies was too far beyond my price range when real petrol had to be bought, real late-night kebabs had to be ingested.
But I remained in the loop, and in quiet moments at work (broadband was not a thing yet at home, and dial-up was far too labourious for all but the most crucial of matters) I would head to the newsgroups and see the discourse on rec.autos.simulators (RAS), the place to be if you wanted to be on the forefront of racing sim news. There would be the regulars, with an almost daily discussion comparing the revolutionary physics within the simulators of Geoff Crammond and David Kaemmer, talk of various open source projects and usually some spirited discussion about the work of the West Brothers (you had to be there). 20 years ago this newsgroup was the simracing community, and some of those regulars (of which I guess I was one!) are people I have close friendships with today. Some have moved on to heroic work, some are simracing developers, some, sadly, have passed away. But all of them were there and crazy about racing sims in the 1990’s.
In 1998 there was talk of something new from Papyrus, not just another NASCAR sim, but something with a new and reworked physics engine. The talk was about SODA Off Road Racing, which was the first game using this new engine, and it was only released in the US. I made it a vital task to try to obtain the demo. I was able to download it from work, then split it across some floppy disks, then take it home, then re-merge the floppies onto my hard disk, then run the installer (things were simpler back then). At some point later that evening I was driving. I was initially somewhat crestfallen as the pristine photorealistic graphics that SODA offered were too much for my ageing machine, and keyboard control was exceptionally difficult. But with trial and effort I started to feel something special deep within the handling of my off-road truck, something almost mechanical. What I felt there and then took me back to the newsgroup, where I reeled off exciting paragraph after paragraph. “Just you wait…” said one of the old guard of RAS “…for GPL.”
I was going to need a new PC.
The hands of time passed, and no new PC came. A heavy workload left the PC once again gathering dust until issue 60 of PC Gamer found its way into my hands which headlined, alongside a polygonal Lara Croft: “Can Grand Prix Legends snatch pole position from Grand Prix 2?” I read every word of their preview, over and over. Before long there was a playable demo, this time on a magazine cover disk, the install was done… But I still had a terrible PC.
I played the demo using a CH joystick with the graphics on minimum. It was near unbearable but I could still feel something special beneath. This new physics engine not only modeled every individual wheel speed (many earlier sims had only modeled the front and rear axle, assuming that right and left wheels were matched on speed), every suspension component and even the drive train. For the first time we had to think about where we were changing gear, where we were braking, and what the track beneath us was doing. The demo dealt us Watkins Glen, but not the ‘Glen we’d enjoyed in Papyrus’ NASCAR titles to date, but rather the Glen from 1967. Crown in the road, terrifying inclines and sweeping turns; it was just a shame I couldn’t see where I was going.
It wasn’t until mid-1999 that I was able to upgrade to a new PC, what with a new job and accompanying pay increase. I start to wonder, looking back, how much of my motivation to change jobs and bring in more cash was driven by my need to make GPL playable; to really understand what everyone on RAS was saying. I’d bought the full game and read through the comprehensive “Four Wheel-Drift” drivers manual written by Steve Smith, I was positively aching to drive the sim in a meaningful way. When the time came, and with it a new machine (including a 3DFX card and a Microsoft Sidewinder Precision Racing Wheel), I was living the dream.
Living the dream
What, of course, followed was a missive about crashing lots of virtual cars, or being overwhelmed by cars so difficult to handle on such unforgiving tracks. The sort of stuff that every GPL retrospective has said for years. But GPL was so much more than that; it was a step back in time to Grand Prix racing as it was well before I was born; it was a simulation of history as much as of racing cars. The atmosphere afforded by the evocative sounds of the cars, the grey hessian tracks and the retro user interface was something a sim of modern cars could never create, and the performance of the cars when you got it right was so satisfying that it pushed you on and on to get it right every time.
RAS was suddenly devoid of arguments as the community of simracers the world over could all agree one thing: This sim was the one; what we’d all been waiting for, the one sim to rule them all!
We were all learning so much, about how to drive with a practiced finesse, about how these old circuits came to be, about the heroes that drove these fearsome cars. RAS would feature regular posts from excited simmers about what they had been researching, be it Hewland gearboxes, the Honda RA300’s exhaust design, I even remember someone typed out almost a full chapter on driving craft from Piero Taruffi’s The Technique of Motor Racing. A year before I didn’t know what any of these things were. What we’d been waiting for was such a simple thing back then; it was for a sim that really felt like driving a car, and that fired our imagination to learn more and more about a pastime that was rapidly becoming our passion.
It changed everything, and it changed my life. I would spend unreasonable amounts of hours driving the sim, my neighbour baffled at the strange noises from my back room. One lap of 1.23 felt special around Kyalami, until the next night I did a low 1.22, then a week later I was pumping out 1.20s. As the pace grew so did an almost trance like state as my interaction with the virtual car through my hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals became instinctive. Weekends became race weekends; calling in pizza, friends be damned!
But it had barely begun. In 2000 the cable operator threw in a 512Kbps “broadband” constant internet connection and those friends from RAS were all around me as various sites were popping up with forums to discuss GPL, and of course Virtual Racers Online Connection (VROC) arrived.
VROC put me into a chat channel with all those guys from RAS (and now other forums), and then out on track with them. Largely allowing me to realise that I needed to get much faster! Racing online like this had been a dream for us all for years, now we were doing it. Online simracing…
Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, Jim Clark, Dan Gurney and Graham Hill pound onward while spectator looks the wrong way.
This was a seminal time. In the late ‘90’s video games were a thing you did for fun but your Dad always told you that grown-ups didn’t do it. Yet here we were, living grown-up lives where we played video games. The first generation of kids to grow up with video games in the home were becoming the first generation of young adults playing video games with each-other online. We were passionate about simracing, as it had become termed, I remember nights where I raced on VROC for half an hour but talked with everyone in chat the whole night. Sharing setup tips, talking about races, reading people eulogising in depth about the fabulous cars this game gave us.
Largely the passion of this relatively small group of enthusiastic individuals led us onward to create the community as it has become. Tim Wheatley founded Legends Central which then became Race Sim Central, before moving to the US to work for both iRacing and ISI;Dom Duhan formed the legendary virtual racing team Team Redline; Greger Huttu would win in VROC and then become multiple iRacing world champion… The list goes on…
In 2005 Alex Martini created AutoSimSport, an online magazine covering the developing simracing community. I joined as a writer and the magazine ran until 2011 as we covered everything we could. Months of our lives ensued where our “real jobs” took a sideline to frantic editorial meetings and deadlines. Almost every day of my life involved meeting or talking to various people about racing sims, be they industry insiders, hardware creators, software developers, publishers or people that ran news or league sites. We would talk endlessly about what was coming next, about complexities of vehicle dynamics or tyre modelling. I learned all about Hans Pacejka, about ground effect aerodynamics, and about how dampers work.
Simracing became indelibly stamped upon my life with GPL in 1998, and when I talk to all the friends I made online at the time, friends now for 20 years, they all tell the same story.
Today so much has changed. The world inexorably marches on in its quest, and the people that we are take on their own quest. My eldest nephew, born in 1998, is a keen simracer but is only vaguely aware that GPL ever existed; to him it appears as aged and weak as the arcade cabinet of Night Driver may have appeared to me in my youth. He will never know the experience of a sim that doesn’t quite feel like driving a car but does a bit, he will never know the crippling pain of driving a 78 lap Monaco grand prix using the keyboard. Today Max Verstappen wins real Grand Prix having grown up enjoying rFactor and iRacing in a plush simracing rig, all the while online communities have grown to become vast and barely manageable.
In 1998 there wasn’t such a thing as “online friends”, the internet was young, simracing didn’t really exist, and the idea that a video game could be 20 years old seemed impossible.
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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.
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.
A picture that sums up My Summer Car beautifully: a fully functioning car, and a boot full of (100% physically handled) beer cargo.
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 player’s garage has a pit for accessing the underside of your car; making your life easier as you drain the oil and try and figure out what the hell is wrong with it.
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.”
How your engine may look quite a bit of the time. Thankfully you can work on it in the car as well as out.
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.”
Looking the part with twin-carbs and racing radiator, the level of detail is beautiful to behold. Whether or not it runs is a different matter altogether, however.
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.”
Money doesn’t buy taste. Lack of money doesn’t either.
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.”
One of the additional vehicles present in the game which the player is able to operate and drive. By Johannes’s own admission, “Final purpose is still yet to be decided, but it is something job related.”
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.”
Different rims (which can be painted) are one of the many personalisation options available to the player. Similarly, a variety of tyre types provide different characteristics.
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.”
Not all is lost when the player meets their demise. A new gravestone will appear in the churchyard detailing the player’s name, date of birth (game start), and date of death (game over). Lovely stuff.
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.
[Note: at the time of writing, Jalopy went under the working title HAC. The article has been updated to reflect the new name.]
Although in recent times I have alluded to sim racing as a whole being in pretty rude health, said health perhaps covers quality and quantity if not diversity. All of the big sim racing titles bring their own unique properties and qualities (along with faults and shortcomings) to the table, and are clearly different enough to divide opinion. But it could be argued that there isn’t a huge amount of variety right now within the sim market.
Predominantly, this is a by-product of the ever-increasing content rosters forcing overlap between titles. When Grand Prix Legends came out, it was completely different by virtue of featuring period content. That very same content (or at least a sample of it) now appears in a number of today’s titles, along with all the other usual suspects. We’ve seen that Reiza have been able to demonstrate the ability to tap into lesser known subject matter, though most sim racing titles are generally rather homogeneous on this front.
But a title isn’t just defined by its content; how it delivers that content, and what it allows you to do with it, is what shapes the experience. It’s true that all of the big titles certainly differ, but I don’t think it’s being unfair to say there is a certain lack of creativity or originality when it comes to driving sims. That isn’t as much of a criticism as it might sound; what creators are doing is developing and evolving a certain type of title, a certain type of experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But again, we see from the evidence a considerable level of uniformity across the board.
I have long craved for some extra attention to be lavished upon the vehicles found within our simulations, and with it a shift in emphasis and direction from pure lap times to an element of existence and persistence within a virtual world.
One title taking the driving simulator and turning it on its head is Jalopy (formally HAC). Aside from the stylised visuals and presentation, Jalopy is doing something that few vehicle based titles to date have done: shifting the emphasis from getting from one place to another as quickly as possible, to the journey itself.
Time for a journey, not a race.
So what is Jalopy exactly? At first glance, a classical genre-centric, and perhaps slightly lazy, description of Jalopy would be a merging of RPG elements, A-to-B driving dynamics, and deep lying elements of vehicle simulation. For a better explanation, Jalopy’s developer Greg Pryjmachuk explains:
“I’d describe Jalopy as an immersive road-trip simulation game. There’s elements from RPG games like ‘Borderlands’ with the ability to ‘gear’ the car with improved components. There’s elements from survival games with scavenging for fuel, water, repair kits, etc. There’s procedurally generated elements from rogue-likes like ‘The Binding of Isaac’ with both town and the routes between them being generated at runtime. There’s also simulated elements in there, with the fuel consumption, tyre grip, component conditions, water level, battery charge, weight, etc. all defining how the car performs. And then there’s even a little narrative in there that you can choose to investigate further.”
Yes, that is a fully interactive cockpit. At last!
As mentioned, Jalopy adds something unfamiliar to the driving sim: narrative. Whilst some titles have flirted with this to varying degrees (perhaps most notably in Codemaster’s career modes), the driving titles covered on this site typically start and finish with the car and a track, and not a lot else. netKar Pro’s “Doom mode” added an extra level of immersion by allowing the driver to exit the car and explore the surroundings on foot, but it was ultimately a fairly superficial, though not unwelcome, addition to the sim. But that is a long way short of providing a context, a story, a reason or a purpose to be driving in the first place. Jalopy is pushing the limits and boundaries we are used to seeing in driving games, though this wasn’t explicitly the goal for the title:
“I wouldn’t say I’m trying to define genre limits, the project originally started as me wanting to do something like ‘Gone Home’ in a ‘Euro Truck Simulator’ setting, and it’s gradually evolved into a big, comfy road-trip simulator.“
“Evolving” seems to be an important word when it comes to Jalopy’s gestation and development. From the way Pryjmachuk codes and implements ideas to the broader direction the title has taken, it has been one of natural evolution and change rather than meticulous planning and regimented execution.
“I’d say it’s all a pretty natural process, I don’t use paper design except for tracking statistical stuff and task-lists. Some of the really off the cuff design is my favourite, like recently I’ve started thinking about a gating system for scavenging, where different gates would require different tools to open, anything from a crowbar for breaking a lock or the car jack to lift a shutter to using the battery of your car to open an electrical gate.
The best additions to Jalopy have been stuff I’ve just bashed out and then refined later on. I think it was Kerouac who said “something you feel will find it’s own form” and I like that crazy bum, I mean he wrote ‘On the road’ which is like the travel bible so he must have done something right.”
A large part of this approach lies in stark contrast to Pryjmachuk’s past development career, which saw him work for a number of years at Codemasters developing their F1 series of games.
“The process of working on the F1 games, or any mid sized studio, is weird because you have so many ideas of what making games in team is like and it ends up mostly just being a whole lot of meetings and paper design. I’m not really one for paper design, I think it’s pretty worthless with how quick you can prototype stuff these days, but the thing with working in a corporate studio is you need to convince producers the value of something. That’s all paper design is for me, a big sales pitch, coders don’t ever read them because why would they when they can just walk up to you and ask how to implement something?”
No road trip is complete without a visit to the pumps.
Having the freedom to make games for himself, and not being solely motivated by the commercial requirements and deadline demands of a large development team in a big publisher, have clearly lead to a very different kind of game and player experience. Again, Jalopy as it stands wasn’t always the dream or the plan, but rather it is the result of a process:
“I wouldn’t say it’s the game I’ve always wanted to make, but I’m now finally making games with the sensibilities I’ve always wanted. I love road trips but I’d never thought about how that could be a game of sorts till I’d worked at Codies long enough to be desperate for a change.
And yeah, I guess Jalopy is very much an antithesis to those F1 games I was a part of. Rather than driving the premier in Motorsports engineering, your driving a scrappy little 2-stroke. Rather than throwing your engineering around the tax-dodging haven’s of Monaco, you’re pottering through the crumbling socialist states of East Germany, ČSFR, Yugoslavia, etc. On paper, Jalopy sounds so boring in comparison to F1, but I think the values in the execution of things, ideas are overrated.”
As I have read more about Jalopy and its development, and in speaking with Pryjmachuk, I find myself in the unusual but nice position of really not knowing what to expect from the experience. For all the developments and improvements over the years, if you look at any of the main driving titles the unanswered questions before driving for yourself is usually a simple “How good is it?”; there’s typically very little in the way of surprise or discovery but for at the level of subtle driving dynamics and performance. As someone who drives and enjoys driving, the simple fact is that the pleasure I derive from driving is not out on a track, it isn’t racing or trying to beat the clock. The pleasure comes from both the driving experience itself, but also from the context; where am I going, what am I doing, why am I doing it etc. These are notions that few driving titles ever really touch upon, and those that do are usually within the confines of a workplace scenario (for example the likes of OMSI and ETS2).
There is a love and care put into this project which is hard not to applaud. Here we see the readable and interactive car manual (which you are probably going to have to consult!).
Jalopy is clearly aiming to deliver on both of these fronts: the driving experience in itself, and also a broader, more holistic experiences of car ownership and making a journey. So first of all, what might the driving itself offer? If Jalopy is a journey simulator, is it also a driving simulator?
“The simulation stuff for the car depends on a bunch of factors. For example, we get the car’s fuel consumption rate from the quality and condition of the carburettor, the weight of the car the level of torque exerted and even the fuel mixture (The car is based on the old Trabants of East Germany which used 2-stroke engines).
Each component under the hood has a unique effect on the car. Some components don’t appear to have a direct effect on performance, like the air filter for example, which reduces the rate at which the engine will wear, but a mindful driver will know that the weight of each component also affects the car’s performance, and will keep a look out for a lighter air filter where possible.
The simulations aren’t all number based as such, I’m looking to put in components with unique properties in the future. Right now my minds drawn to typical travel gear; a roof rack which doubles your trunk and spare tyre space, or even something like mud flaps, which reduce the dirt accumulation on the car.
I’m keen to express this is a game about car travel, rather than car performance. While you can certainly develop your scrappy 2-stroke into a bit of a beast, it’s still a 2-stroke car, so expect some performance issues and constant love and understanding towards it. The joy’s in getting through the journey with your car, rather than just simply in it.”
Returning to the narrative element Jalopy adds to your journey, much of this is provided by your in-trip companion: your elder uncle. Anyone who has made a road trip will likely know that the most memorable and meaningful adventures include the company as a part of the context and experience. Pryjmachuk is no exception:
“I don’t think any road trip is complete without someone to share it with. I was originally worried the story would remove some agency from the game, I’ve actually embraced it and now found the opposite. So, the story is told entirely through your uncle, who you’re sharing the journey with, through dialogue and his letters. Rather than have a hard fail or win state, I wanted something more forgiving but equally reactive to a game over screen, which I feel is a bit of a hangover from the arcade era of games we’re still clutching onto. So, rather than saying at any point “game over, you ran out of fuel”, we use the Uncle, and change the relationship with him based on factors like this. Run out of fuel, then you’re uncle will leave you in the car and walk off to a petrol station, we flash time forward and have him bring back some fuel during the night. You can now resume your journey, but at the cost of the Uncle not opening up to you and cutting some narrative threads, and, more mechanically, arriving at the next town during the night, which will mean the shops and mechanics will be closed.”
The title shows some great little touches and attention to detail.
The inclusion of a companion, and the role they play within the experience, is nothing new to computer games at large. In this respect, Jalopy is treading paths that aren’t necessarily ground breaking or novel in themselves. But within such a context, and within such an experience, nothing springs to mind which has attempted to deliver on such a scenario when it comes to driving a simulated car.
This is in stark contrast to the typical driving title experience. Outside the likes of the Grand Theft Auto series, it is usually a case of “you and the road”. How well this all works and holds together will remain to be seen, and despite the unusual setting, it’s the same sort of tweaking, tuning and balancing that any other game that provides a sidekick will need to deal with (Half Life 2 and Resident Evil 4 being two great examples where my feelings towards my in-game company have contrasted markedly – just piss off Ashley!). For those fearing that someone else imposing on your road trip might somehow spoil the experience, Pryjmachuk seems fully aware of the potential consequences:
As a developer, I think you have to be careful not to take control away and force something on players. I want to tell a personal story, but I fully understand that if it’s not working for someone, they can quite easily leave it at the sidelines.
As mentioned previously, the title and its content have seen significant changes over the course of its development (see here for weekly development updates that detail the changes and decisions behind them). When you start making a game following more a “feeling” than a concrete game design specification, that is not unsurprising. In terms of where the title now stands, the foundations are in place and no doubt other things will change as development continues:
“The core loop’s nearly there. You can get from A to B between each country easy enough, the problem now is adding in a comfortable enough level of challenge, and providing enough reason to be travelling between these locations. I’m pretty set on two solutions I have to make it worth your time, one being the narrative elements, the other being self-development of both in the car and another location I’m not ready to reveal just yet.”
Sit back and take it in.
Quite how the development pans out, and what that means for the player and the final experience, remains to be seen. Jalopy is certainly atypical of the content normally featured on this site, and for those wanting “<conventional sim> in open world setting”, Jalopy may not be that title. However, as a car fan (real world and simulated), and as someone who feels there are lots of directions with plenty of room for today’s crop of titles to expand into, I wholly welcome someone taking the driving genre and doing something novel and unique with it. I will certainly be keeping a close eye on developments. Oh, and it looks bloody gorgeous to my eyes.
I have no idea what getting into that 2-stroke Trabant and embarking on a journey will be like or quite what it will entail, but then that’s all part of the mystery, romance and adventure of a road trip.
Rice vs Wheat. Beer vs Wine. Alien vs Predator. Mario vs Sonic. As long as man has walked the Earth, there has been opinion based conflict. Whilst some carry far more serious weight and consequences than others, typically they are petty and ultimately trivial and pointless. Sim racing is no exception, with adults reduced to insults and trolling with the aim of proclaiming their sim of choice to be better than another person’s. What does it achieve? Well, as an outsider to it all, not a lot more than causing moderators a bit of hassle cleaning up their forums, and normal people feeling inspired to stop frequenting said forums.
In the fifteen or so years that I would consider myself having been “serious” about sim racing, there have been lean times and rich periods. Right now, be it through coincidence or otherwise (I think in no small part due the success and propensity for alternative funding routes to the classic publisher/box on shelf model), we have a rich selection of sim racing titles available to own and play. One could argue that, with titles such as Assetto Corsa, rFactor 2, iRacing, Game Stock Car Extreme, Raceroom Racing Experience and Project CARS, we are in a golden age for sim racing software.
Assetto Corsa: a great sim.
Yet, despite the fact that there are more titles, cars, and tracks to drive than there is time to fully explore and experience, people use their time to bitch and moan and, in extreme cases, run what can only be described as hate campaigns against their favourite title’s “competitors”. Putting aside the fact these people must have too much time on their hands, for me it begs one simple question: why?
The best answer I can find is that they seem to have a misguided notion that such action is somehow helping their favourite sim win some kind of invisible war. It isn’t. If you love AC, posting about how much you think iRacing and rF2 are awful does not help AC gain sales. Likewise, if rF2 is your thing, waging some kind of vendetta against any other title is not doing ISI any favours. As much as these campaigns might frustrate the developers of the titles you target, I can assure you it annoys the developers of your chosen sim equally if not more.
Project CARS: a great sim.
But, let’s be honest here, if someone can and does behave in such a way in the first place, it is likely that they are not the sort to listen to a reasoned plea to change their ways. So what do we do? Just accept the old “Hey, it’s the internet” argument? Walk away, ignore it, and hope it will go away? Well, I suppose that’s what I have done. My response, to the reality that public forums for sim racing titles have become oft unpleasant places to be, has been to seclude myself from them and to instead talk about sims in cosy private circles. There is a better level of conversation, and no one barking at me telling me I am wrong. I can talk with people that are reasonable, and that might disagree with me but don’t berate me. Is that the best way for all of us reasonable people?
Yeah, sure, in the short term. But it smacks a little of giving in. And what’s more, that doesn’t help sim racing developers or the community.
Game Stock Car Extreme: a great sim.
I buy most titles that come out (even ones I know I won’t play). I’ve donated to projects, Kickstarted, Indiegogoed, Early Accessed, Invested supported; with my wallet and/or with some words I support/have supported the development of numerous titles over many years. That’s all well and good, but am I guilty of turning away and ignoring community behaviour I don’t like? And whilst that’s not necessarily wrong per se, it is just leaving the mess for someone else to deal with? Ultimately, one way or another, that someone is often the developers themselves. For the time, effort, sweat and tears they heave into creating a comprehensive suite of eminently drivable racing simulators, is that in any way fair? Do they deserve to hear hateful, spiteful negativity when they put their money on the line to create niche video games that will sell less copies than Goat Simulator?
Raceroom Racing Experience: a great sim.
If I truly want to support them then perhaps I should also be a little more vocal in tackling problems in our community head on rather than avoiding them for an easy life. I’m in a position to be able to block it out, but if you’re the poor sod at the coalface and on the receiving end of the vitriol people throw, you can’t just keep ducking for cover.
What’s more, some of the bile will hit, and the potential effects of that loom large for all of us. Contrary to popular belief, video game developers are human beings, with feelings and emotions. When they are verbally attacked in a non-constructive, and sometimes downright cruel, way, just like the rest of us, they can be hurt. They can end up questioning why they do it. What’s more, I know for a fact that some do ask themselves the question.
Whilst I know little about the finances of any of the dev teams behind our most beloved and treasured titles, I can tell you that a number of the talented individuals who compose those teams could be making a lot more money and living a far easier life if they upped sticks and set up elsewhere. Prod them -make them question themselves enough about just why it is they are bothering- and we’ll soon lose them. When we lose the titles we hold dear, the development stops on racing simulators, and the community is left to ponder the mainstream offerings, will we then wish we’d acted? I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit by and watch us lose what we have.
iRacing: a great sim.
I can’t protect the guys at ISI, Kunos, iRacing, Reiza, Sector3, SMS and so on from the nonsense that people throw around all of the time, and neither can anyone else. However, we can remind them of why they bother. This doesn’t mean blowing smoke up their arses and telling them they operate without fault. It just means rejecting some of the dialogue that all too often passes for normal, and forcing a shift toward constructive criticism and productive discourse. They say you shouldn’t feed the troll, but you can call someone out for disrespectful behaviour. In a respectful manner, obviously.
rFactor 2: a great sim.
Will this happen? Will anything ever change? Probably not. But I know I’m fortunate to not just have a selection of great titles available, but also to know some of the great guys behind them. Right now, I don’t feel I can just sit here and say nothing. We as consumers may pay for these products, but these titles are the projects built from the passion of ordinary people. People will only take so much before they turn around and walk away. This truly is a great time to be a sim racer, and it’s in our collective power to keep it that way. It is arguably also our collective responsibility.
There’s no point me saying “Don’t be a dick” to the bile spouting imbecile; they won’t listen. I can, however, tell you not to tolerate them. Don’t let them ruin sim racing for the developers, because that will ruin it for everyone.
As another year draws to a close, it seems as good a time as any to look back over the past 12 months and pick out a few personal highlights. In no particular order, and without further ado, here’s what tickled our sim bits in 2013:
Niels Heusinkveld’s “Talk & Drive” videos
Simon:- Niels has long since established himself as a prominent member of our community. He has worked on and released a number of stand out mods for the aging rFactor (and, along with a short list of other noticeable content makers, shown just what the original rF is capable of given some TLC and understanding), as well as having a professional role at Reiza Studios (not to mention ventures into hardware, and having fingers in a number of other sim-flavoured pies).
But here I want to focus on his relatively recent “Talk & Drive” series of videos, and one in particular. The T&D series do exactly what they say on the tin; Niels drives a car (often one of his own making) around a track, and talks about various facets of what we are seeing. Light-hearted and humorous, the videos are also insightful both into the machinery at his disposal, but also often some of the details that went into making them.
Be it teasing an NSX around a karting track, a no-nonsense first look at AC, or drifting an NSX around a snowy (and very slippery) Nordschliefe, the videos always entertain, and pay testament to Niel’s personality as well as his (more than ample) driving ability. With the NSX/karting track combo I thought the series might peak, but then he released what, for me, has to be the sim-video highlight of the year- Episode 7: Ninja Turbo F1 at Adelaide.
The signs of what are about to follow are immediately obvious as an out of breath and rather moist Niels introduces the video. As a demonstration of physicality, insane performance, and also some bloody amazing driving, this video is right up there. I honestly can’t think of a sim video that has had me as tense whilst watching it. During the first viewing (I’ve watched it quite a few times now), I realised I was taught and clenching my tablet, and would have literally been on the edge of my seat were I not literally, erm, lying in bed. As much as I find Niels’ videos interesting and entertaining, this one took it to a different level where it simply had me in awe; there are hairy moments aplenty. It also makes me very much want to go and spend some serious quantities of money on new hardware…
As 2014 approaches, I very much look forward to future installments of this instant classic series. One thing does niggle away at the back of my mind though; his “Merry NSXmas” video surely does beg the questions: what would one of these videos be like if Niels were drunk?…
If you haven’t already, just go watch it.
Jon:- About says it all really. Niels is a top guy and what he has given back to simracing over the many years is impossible to quantify, I avoided these videos for a while on the basis of: “oh, I’ve been sent another YouTube link” fatigue, but hearing Niels brace himself onto a brake pedal and grunt in exertion is a classic simracing video moment.
Jon:- It seems to be quite fashionable to bash iRacing, as the evil empire over there in the shadows that tries to steal all the money anyone had. But the reality is that iRacing is a probably the best all-round simracing product in the market and that has not changed in 2013. Sure, for a new starter it costs a lot, but once you have the content you need, the subs cost is no different to buying two triple A games a year. For that you get problem-free online racing, a huge range of laser scanned tracks and an every growing list of series, all wrapped up into a “game” that gives you something to actually race for.
This year in particular has seen continued development of Big Dave’s (Yes, Mr Kaemmer, for services to simracing you have the honour of being magisterially titled thusly) experimental tyre model, and additions of two remarkable cars that test any sims physics to the limit. Whilst the Lotus 49 may not hit the mark on all yaw angles, the RUF labelled Porsche 911’s feel very pleasant to drive indeed. As well as this, in 2013 we have seen the addition of three not good, but great tracks in Interlagos, Montreal and Bathurst. If there is a car series that suits a driver in iRacing, I can see no reason why they would look elsewhere.
Sometimes it’s good to return to the past.
Simon:- The attention to detail and utter commitment to accuracy in their tracks is arguably unrivaled. I don’t dispute whether or not iRacing offer value for money, as I think it is something one has to decide for themselves. For some it all adds up and makes sense, for others it doesn’t. But when you see the man hours poured into the creation of likes of their Bathurst circuit, I think it’s very difficult to contest the asking price, and hard to argue they’re not doing things right.
Simon:- What started with a few highly tempting (but very low on detailed information) videos fairly quickly became a tech demo release. As soon as the demo was available for purchase I slapped down my money, and put it to one side. Now before I go any further, I would like to add that I have spent very little time with it since (hence why nothing has been written as yet). I’m not here to laud it as being anything other than it is for me right now: an incredibly exciting development for simming with huge potential.
Why haven’t I spent any real time with it? Well, mainly because it was released at an incredibly busy time in my life where I was trying my best to avoid all distractions, and since then I just haven’t gotten around to sitting down and having a good play. But even if I were to play it and find it massively disappointing as a driving experience, I wouldn’t really care. For me this is just enthralling and thrilling as a piece of “look what can be done” technology. If they can craft a game around it that ticks all the boxes, then great; if not, I’ve no doubt this technology’s time will come. Watch this space.
Look past the fancy smashes and crashes, and the possibilities here are huge.
Simon:- Before I go any further with discussing AC, I’d first like to clear up a couple of points (that sadly do seem to need to be cleared up):
My last piece was not serious. It was satire. Those who thought/think otherwise, read it again: there are a couple of subtle clues in there. It isn’t even really about AC.
I am not an AC “fanboy”, on their payroll or anything else.
This blog site is put together by a few of us with limited free time. We have jobs, families, commitments and so on, and get nothing from writing this site other than a small sense of satisfaction, a few complimentary comments, and a bit of abuse. As such, we write about things we want to write about. Not being sadists, we tend to spend time playing titles we enjoy, and we prefer to write positive things about stuff we like, than spend time putting ourselves through misery (no thanks to Kunos… <- ******THAT WAS A JOKE******).
I have written positive words about AC for no other reason than I feel positive about it. Since its release a short while ago, it has dragged me back to my rig countless times and has seen me rack up a not insignificant number of hours behind the wheel. My heartfelt apologies to any offended by my liking it and wanting to say so. AC still has a long way to go, and still has a lot of areas in which, in time, it really needs to prove itself. But as it stands, for a title at the current stage of development, I see far more to be happy about and to celebrate than to complain about. The recent arrival of the Grp A E30 M3 has given me what I always said I was looking forward to from AC, and right now I am not in the least bit disappointed with it.
If the next year brings continued development, improvements, refinements and content (inclusive and paid), I don’t see that position changing. Unless the AI and MP suck monkey balls. Time will tell.
I think I found the limits.
Jon:- I wrote the exclusive “first drive” piece on Assetto Corsa in AutoSimSport after a journey to Italy to meet the team in March 2011, and was lucky enough to be the first ‘journalist’ to get behind the wheel in the sim. AC has come a long way since then, but the core base of the physics was clear even back then. Over the last couple of years I’ve managed to have the odd go here and there when meeting up with the Kunos team but only recently, when the Early Access Beta hit the public, did everyone else get to see what I was raving about.
Seeing the sim “up in lights” in Steam is a pleasing moment in 2013, and though AC recently seems to have developed a little too much of a social media reality TV show, driving the sim itself never fails to raise a smile. Next year, however, will be the proof of the pudding for AC, and I look forward to the development as it goes on. Oh, and FERRARI F40!
Simon:- First of all, confession time: I haven’t purchased all of Reiza’s releases, let alone played them. As above, that is a simple restriction of time on my part. So I am not here to tell you all to go and play them and how brilliant they are. No, instead I am simply here to celebrate a company who is mixing tradition with some forward thinking. Whilst the conventional business model for sim releases has changed significantly over the last few years, Reiza have stuck to the good old ‘pick a series, model all the relevant cars and tracks, and give people a full series’ approach. Where they’ve diversified is in their choice of series; lacking the clout and finances required to go after the traditional big licenses, they have instead (no doubt partly through choice, too) gone for more abstract and obscure series, with Brazilian stock cars and now Brazilian truck racing given the full treatment.
Not everyone wants the disparate collections of machinery today’s sims tend to offer, and for those who want a full field of similarly specced (but not identical) machinery to race against, Reiza seem to be the only ones offering a solution. They’ve also continued to offer, in my eyes, fantastic value for money, with generous (too generous, perhaps?!?) offerings of content and updates to customers.
If it is a dying way of doing business, it’s at least nice to see someone carrying the flag and making sure it goes out with a bang, rather than a sad “remember the days of Papyrus?” whimper.
And you thought the F40 had some torque?
Jon:- When GTR3 was rumoured to be coming up from Simbin there was a remarkable reaction in the community, and I think this was partly related to the nature of the previous GTR sims. It is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to licence an entire series and pick up all tracks and cars in one package, as so many of the entities involved have become savvy to securing their own royalty deals. This makes it even more pleasing to see a small group of, what once were, modders, grabbing the bull by the horns and sticking with the tried and tested method and making it work; not unlike Ian Bell’s development of GTR1.
Reiza’s products ooze detail and though the underlying engine may struggle to display graphics on the level of pCARS or AC, each one of their products deserves a space on any simracers hard drive. I mean, where else can you drive an enormous racing truck?
DIY pedal “mod”
Simon:- More. We always want more. More and better than before. Oh, and it has to cost next to nothing. Otherwise it’s a ripoff. Well this year saw me make a very small and cheap modification to my hardware that has made a surprisingly large difference to the experience. After the best part of 10 year’s solid service, I decided to make a modification to my trusty BRD Speed 7 pedals. It wasn’t a fancy load cell mod or anything near as adventurous, rather I simply replaced the pedal pads. £10 on eBay saw a genuine set of OMP rally pedals delivered (for free) from the Italian factory to rainy old York. A quick trip to B&Q, a small pack of screw cup washers, 10 minutes with some pliers and some slightly sore hands later, and my pedals were updated to be a little more car like and a little less computer peripheral. The effect? Apart from just generally feeling nicer underfoot, the key benefit is avoiding the need to contort my legs in weird ways to avoid accidental throttle presses under braking. Not only is braking vastly improved, but heal and toeing is now much easier and more comfortable. For a few quid and a little effort it has made a big difference to my sim driving experience, and leaves me kicking myself for not doing it earlier. For those of you who are angered by the thought of paying for anything, I’m sure you could model something from leftover tin foil or whatever you have lying around.
Before and after. Accidental throttle presses be gone.
Jon:- Quietly plugging away in the background the small team at ISI still have a racing sim on their hands that is daring to dream when it comes to the overall race driving experience. Put simply, nothing does weather, live track rubbering, and overall customisation better. Whether rFactor 2 will go on to become the commercial sim platform of choice, as its predecessor did, remains to be seen. The downside is that it can be troublesome for the non-tech savvy to get the sim running right, and some aspects of the sim seem curiously worked out (I see you there, baseline setups!). In beta now for around two years it will be fascinating to see where ISI can take this platform in 2014.
Track rubbery goodness.
Simon:- It seems quite easy for rF2 to slip under the radar at times. ISI seem quite content to just quietly get on with things without much fanfare along the way. So much of what ISI are doing brings a smile to my face; the environmental side, for example, is so far ahead of what others are doing as to be in a league of their own. But whatever it is, for whatever reason, it just hasn’t quite clicked with me recently. But whilst rF2 might not have been receiving much seat time from me lately, it most definitely has my attention and, like Jon, I’m excited to see where the new year will take it. If Tim Wheatley keeps working on licenses like he has been doing, I dare say sooner or later I will be lured right back in.
Simon:- As I have written before, I am quite a fan of iGP Manager. Christmas day saw the final race of The League Of Rooks’ sixth season, and thankfully all major honours were already tied up and so attendance wasn’t required. This season has seen a few changes in the league, with perhaps the biggest being that we have seen a number of managers reaching the level cap (that’s another discussion for another day…), and so things are plateauing at the top and bunching up from below. Although far from what could described as a tight season for top honours, there was an increased level of competition across the board, with a number of closely contested battles throughout the running order.
The closing up of the field has put more of an emphasis on the manager getting things right on the track rather than behind the scenes, and subtle changes to strategies have made all the difference from race to race. Six seasons (a bit over two years) in, and whilst a few names have come and gone, I know I’m not alone in still being rather hooked. Next season should only see things get closer, and there are probably a good eight or so teams who have a real chance of competing for wins, providing their managers don’t forget to top up the fuel (yes Suresh, I’m looking at you… ;-)).
Your office for the next 90 minutes.
Jon:- iGP Manager has not really changed much since it’s inception, with focus from the small development team being on stability over the addition of new features. Regardless, the formula for the game has not needed much change, because it is a game of constant learning. Very much in the style of games made twenty years ago, this game leaves the onus on the player to work out what it is they are supposed to do, nothing is on a plate, and so a fresh league starting up with new players will see victory going to those that work it out the fastest. Over the two years and over a hundred races we’ve contested, each new development has been a race to see who can get there first and the competitive order has been shaped by those with the most open minds to creative thinking. As Simon notes, the teams are all levelling out now, which means a different focus will be required for us all.
Most of all what I have enjoyed about iGPManager is that every Wednesday a group of sixteen players have got together to race, but not in a “sweaty in your sim rig” way, but in a “sitting quietly with a beer” way. Friendships have been bolstered and in some cases formed anew, and a sense of kinship exists that makes us all celebrate milestones for other players as well as unite in annoyance against the dominance of team Spamsac! iGP races are a cherished time of the week for me, regardless of where my drivers bring the cars home, and I hope it will be for many years to come.
Jon:- A highlight? What? Yes, yes, I know, in recent years the simracing community has kept up with the rest of the world when it comes to its rants, entitled pricks and comments sections that should be deleted and put at the bottom of the sea.
However, at the same time, solid community sites such as RaceDepartment, DrivingItalia.net, NoGrip and SimHQ Motorsport have retained a semblance of normalcy amongst the many maelstroms that have come and gone. As well as this there are dedicated game forums for the likes of iRacing, ISI, Kunos Sim and SMS that do a great job of bringing players together where other “emergent” social media may be failing. Ultimately, this community grew out of web forums (and newsgroups, hands up who posted on rec.autos.simulators back in the day?), and to this day they can remain a great source of information to newcomers and experienced hands alike, provided they can find the right place to look.
The natural downside is that, just as it ever was, too many people still don’t read through their post and have a think before clicking “post”. It remains a truism that taking a quiet moment to think about whether one’s post will achieve anything productive is a golden art that we all need to try to engage sometimes.
Can’t we all just… get along?
Simon:- It’s all in our hands guys…
So there you have it, a few select highlights from the past year. If we didn’t mention something, it doesn’t mean we hate it or are biased, or they’re not paying us enough; it just wasn’t something we picked out in this hurried together list. Thanks for reading, all the kind words and the feedback this year, and wishing you all a happy and healthy 2014.
I’m pissed off. In case it escaped your attentions, it was Christmas day yesterday. What should be a day of joy, gifts, beer and sprouts, was for me a day of great misery and sadness. It really was probably the worst day of my life.
“Why so sad?” you might ask. I’ll tell you why: I was betrayed and let down. You see, Kunos Simulazioni have announced some DLC… and expect people to pay for it. Yes, I kid you not: they want people to pay for more content.
This is just all so wrong on so many levels. First of all, let’s rewind a bit to try and explain why I am so pissed off about this. They revealed that on the 24th of December, they would make an announcement. They quickly clarified that this would not be something being released to download. So obviously, taking this on board, I came to the only logical conclusion: they were going to release some new content or features for us to download and play with. Then the announcement came: they were going to laser scan the Nordschleife (the track voted most wanted by users of AC), put together a pack of ten cars (as voted for by the users of AC), and that this would be released towards the end of next year.
Well… where to begin? It really is difficult to know where to start. These polls to vote for most wanted tracks and cars were a couple of weeks ago, so surely they could have stuff ready for release now? This is simply greed and laziness on their part; they want to lie back, do nothing, rake in all the money. Speaking of raking in money, here comes the real kicker: they want people to pay for it. Unbelievable… They want to have a holiday in Germany, spend ages on the Ring having fun taking measurements, and then they want us to pay for it all? Yeah right!
I personally don’t like the Ring anyway, so how can this make any sense for the community as a whole? Surely if I don’t like it, no one else will? And besides the fact no one really wants the Ring in AC, they could easily do, what, 40-50 other tracks as easily as the Ring, and give them all to us for free? And these ten cars? Well I personally want a version of my Mum’s Peugeot 107 in there, so what the fuck would I want with these cars? They’re not all exactly what I would choose, so what a load of bollocks, and as if anyone else would want them. These guys really are fucking clueless.
If you’re still not understanding why I’m so angry, let me try and break it down. AC isn’t finished yet (despite them forcing me to buy a copy!). It costs £30 on Steam to get AC in Early Access form (£30! Can you believe it?!?). The game isn’t fucking finished! It doesn’t have all of the content they PROMISED it would have, it doesn’t have all of the features they PROMISED it would have, and they force me to pay £30 for it?!? I paid £30 and have only had 50 hours of enjoyment from it so far, and it isn’t bloody finished… What planet are these guys on? Do they honestly think I paid £300 for my new graphics card to go and spend more than a few quid on content to play on it? They’re in dream land.
Their “plan” is you pay less now than you will when the finished game comes out (more than £30!), and they will keep working on it and adding stuff. Then once they’ve put in all of the stuff they said they would, you will be able to get extra stuff on top… For a fee! That’s right: once they deliver what you’ve paid for, to get extra stuff you have to pay. This is just so unfair.
I got my calculator out and crunched a few numbers. They have about ten members on the team; AC must have easily sold like 10 million copies by now, so that’s 30 million each they have AND COUNTING. 30 million each for playing on computers whilst on holiday at a race track. And they want us to pay money in the future for more stuff to come? Pffff, they can go fuck themselves.
To give them credit, there is one thing I can’t fault them on. They were clever enough to trust that people like me in the community would take stuff at face value, actually read things that were said, and also think things through calmly and rationally. But that’s too little to rescue things here. That’s the one thing they got right; everything else was a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
So yeah, thanks Kunos, thanks for FUCKING RUINING CHRISTMAS. You guys don’t know what it’s like to want to spend Christmas with friends or family of loved ones. You don’t know what it’s like to have to pay bills and stuff. Whilst you live in your millionaire mansions snorting drugs off of scantily clad ladies strewn across Ferraris and Paganis, some of us live in the real world where numbers have to add up, where incomings have to meet outgoings, and where money doesn’t just grow on trees and everything doesn’t just come for free with a click of the fingers. FUCK YOU.
So happy Christmas everyone. I hope for some of you it wasn’t ruined as it was for me. I’m off to blow money on shit I don’t really want or need to make myself feel better. Then maybe later I’ll go on 4chan and make disparaging remarks about female genitalia whilst wondering what it’s actually like in real life. Real life. Some of us have to live in it.
Whilst RAVSim’s bread-and-butter genre, the humble racing sim, appears in many ways to be in pretty rude health right now, there is another “simulation” genre that is also enjoying something of a boom period: space combat and exploration. “Simulation”? Obviously this stuff isn’t going on in the real world (or, rather, real universe) right now, at least not by our species, so can such titles really be called simulators? It’s perhaps up for debate, but physics are physics regardless of the setting, and a number of these titles look to incorporate realism into many areas on a level that matches the most accomplished of traditional simulators.
To my knowledge, nowhere is this more true than for Michael Juliano’s Rogue System title. Following a varied career that currently sees him on ISI’s staff books leading up the environment team on rFactor2, Juliano decided to scratch a long standing itch and start working on the project that he wanted to make and to play: Rogue System. In a nutshell, Rogue System is a space combat, exploration and trade game, and Juliano is hoping to secure funding through a Kickstarter campaign to safeguard the future development of the title.
If words like “space”, “combat”, “trade”, “exploration” and “Kickstarter” are eliciting thoughts of words like “Braben”, “Elite”, “Roberts”, “Star” and “Citizen”, you won’t be alone. But make no mistake: Juliano is no bandwagon jumper, and Rogue System is no simple “me too” title. Initially (and quietly) announced over a year ago, Rogue System has been a quarter of a century in the making within the mind of its creator.
With a focus on intricate systems modeling, realistic physics and detailed avatar health modeling, Rogue System is going for the jugular of the genre and attempting to stamp a “Hardcore Simulation” tattoo across its forehead. In a genre that is quickly beginning to look crowded, it will increasingly take something extra special to standout. Thankfully, Rogue System’s uncompromised focus and approach could see it do just that. In the midst of final Kickstarter preparations, Michael kindly took time to answer some questions about the title.
This man is aiming for the stars.
When combining the concepts of flight-sim realism and a science fiction setting, in regard to flight control systems, how do you envision your approach to the player’s responsibility for system management given that it could be argued that futuristic systems could eliminate the need for micromanagement? How do you see using the fiction aspect to manage the balance between engaging gameplay and ‘hard science fiction’ realism?
In response to a couple of the early WIP videos I released I “heard” a few comments along the lines of ‘not very realistic, you could start a ship in one button press’ and ‘there wouldn’t be nearly that many buttons in a futuristic spacecraft’. Presumably because the systems would take care of themselves. So, since I was still in a prototype phase, I tested a ship with only a start button. That alone was pretty boring. But then I took the ship out and got into a small bit of combat and systems started being damaged—I had no way to shut them down (again, thinking as a pilot would inside the ship), or alter their operation. How could you trust a damaged system to manage itself properly? You could argue that the ship’s computer could manage this; but what if THAT is knocked out? At that point you’d be pretty much dead-stick, which would be silly if the rest of the ship was mostly functional.
I also saw a few comments about not needing hard switches. So, I tried that, too (and you can see this in the teaser videos I recently released), with an EFD-only (Eye’s Front Display—sort of my interactive HUD) controlled ship. First, you’ll notice I STILL had to resort to a few buttons on the “dash”. Second, if the EFD system is knocked out, again, you’re left with no way to control the ship.
So, long story short, as I see it as it applies to Rogue System, as long as there is a pilot in the cockpit, even if you have assistance from the ship’s computer (which I do in RogSys), and you have systems that can aid you in their operation (again, which I do), you HAVE to be able to manage your ship in a real and tangible way. If an engine has a fuel cut-off valve, you must be able to close it manually if all other automatic means have been disabled, for example.
Do you plan to include atmospheric modeling for atmospheric flight and combat at some point? If so, what sort of possibilities do you see for this sort of combat in potentially interesting alien atmospheres (extremes of temperatures, pressure, gravity, wind speed, and so on)?
This is a long term goal, yes. However, I will NOT do it if we can’t do it better than previous attempts. So far, every time someone has tried this it turns out being a mostly barren planet with maybe one or two star ports to visit and that’s all. For something like a dead, inhospitable world this sort of makes sense I suppose. But for a world supposedly inhabited it’s just… Well, it doesn’t “feel” right.
From a simulation point of view I’d want to model at least a very good approximation of various gravities, pressures, temperatures, etc. All these things would affect flight performance drastically. Using density as an example, you’d have higher drag and would need more power to “push” through the atmosphere. You’d also have a risk of more easily pushing the ship beyond its structural limits. So, I could envision a situation where the player is chasing a potential bounty who took their ship down planet side. Before continuing the chase the player would have to scan that world and get an idea of what was in store (or even know if their ship could manage planet side to begin with).
To sum up though, if I can’t present terrestrial flight in an appealing way, that also offers a rewarding simulation experience I won’t do it. I don’t do fluff; and I don’t add half-baked ideas just for the sake of the feature list. I’d rather leave it out than weaken the rest of the sim by including it…
Early Intruder fighter concept art.
If atmospheric flight were deemed appropriate to include, this would obviously present not just a new set of challenges from a programming/implementation point of view, but also as you mention different stresses on the craft themselves. On this front, how challenging is it to create a craft that can function across a variety of atmospheric condition? Different air densities, gravitational forces etc. would place different needs on the ships for thrust, lift and so on; whilst things like thrust levels can be set somewhat arbitrarily (this ship uses an X13 3.0 thruster which creates X newtons of thrust), from an aerodynamical point of view that’s something much more difficult to work around within a simulation framework. Designing a craft to fly well within the Earth’s atmosphere is enough of a challenge as it is; how would you approach this from a craft design point of view?
What you’re asking is another one of those, “If we can do it right” items. What I imagine is that any ship that could perform atmospheric flight would need some form of lifting bodies (such as the Space Shuttle), and that these would need to have some sort of shape shifting ability (similar to how flaps and slats and the wing sweep change the lift and drag properties on the B1-b, for example). You’d not only need to change the cord, but also the entire surface area in some cases. Even then, you’d still encounter atmospheric types that your ship wouldn’t be able to deal with, which is where my ‘evaluate the planet’s atmosphere before entering’ statement came from.
Sure, you could just say, “We have this anti-gravity device so you can go anywhere,” but that seems the easy way out. If we try to tackle this later I really want to take a different approach to what’s been done previously. Entering an atmosphere is no small feat, and it should be an endeavour you’d only want to do in the sim if you REALLY had to.
Now, all that said, I want to tackle this issue in steps (just as the entire sim is being built). At first we’ll provide a way to set down on asteroids and small moons with no atmosphere. All you’d have to worry about with these is having enough escape velocity to get away (and you’d want to think about that BEFORE setting down 🙂 ). Then, we’ll try for larger moons with an atmosphere, and finally planets. For bodies with no atmosphere–we’ll be able to do this and I’d like to include it with the “Maverick Module” (exploration and trading) for mining and such. We’ll take the rest in stages and see what we can do…
How do you keep a game world open and devoid of gameplay related barriers? You could obviously just create planets with atmospheres unsuitable for flight, and so burn up on entry negates the need for worrying about planet-side detail, but such an approach would perhaps feel a little artificial. When creating a game where the environment is on such a large scale, how do you aim to limit and condense the experience without killing the atmosphere associated with “go anywhere, do anything” freedom, especially when the trading/exploration side to the game develops?
A bit of RogSys lore here: when the race that the player belongs to first started colonizing space, they sent out these massive colony ships to various locations. Once there, they parked in orbit and over time were added to (much as we added to the ISS over time until it was complete) using resources from the planet below. These “Orbital Stations” are the trading hub for each planet, since it’s more efficient to allow ships to park in orbit, dump and pick up cargo in a zero-g environment, and then leave. The cargo is shuttled to and from the planet by dedicated ships.
So, in the core module the player flies small fighter-like craft from this station that simply cannot handle atmospheric transition. Plus, in every outing the player is on a mission–they need to be where they are SUPPOSED to be in order for the mission to succeed. So that takes care of that..
Once exploration play is added we simply provide ships with no lifting bodies; and, since we don’t have anti-gravity devices, if they enter the atmosphere they just crash and burn since they can’t fly. As we add the ability to land on various objects then we will begin providing ships, systems and equipment that can deal with that.
That’s really the only “limiting” factor–atmospheric flight. Otherwise, yes, you can fly anywhere within your ship’s range. As far as keeping that interesting and focused? There are (when the Maverick Module is added) events going on all the time around the known colonies. These events occur at random, based on other events, etc. The player will have access to this “news” as often these events will provide work–specific trade items to pick-up/deliver, people to ferry or track down, and so on. So, that will provide a way for the player to find interesting things to do.
I also have a mechanic for what I’ll call “Local Events”. These are things that occur locally around the player, based on certain factors, to give the player other things to do if they choose; and I don’t simply mean dropping in a couple enemy ships every five minutes to provide something to shoot at. If there are no enemies in that area then you won’t see any. Think of these more as… quests. Some of these can include strange signals to investigate, derelict space craft to interact with, and many other things. I have a lot already planned. The cool thing is that I already have an event data structure in place that allows for expansion, so we can add new events all the time.
Again, all this is really important when exploration play is added. The trick is not to limit the player, but to keep the player the focus of attention where appropriate…
Another early fighter craft concept.
To what degree do you see the pilot’s physical limitations affecting the usable performance of in game space craft? Are you planning on limiting this to the human limits of acceleration and environmental conditions, or might there be some technologies to limit or overcome this? A Newtonian model for ship-to-ship ‘space fighter’ combat can often become a series of repeated high-speed jousts, but limiting the g-stresses a pilot can take would significantly alter that equation in a potentially positive way from a gameplay perspective. If you’ve tested this sort of thing, what have your findings been?
While you can fly pure “Newtonian Style” (and in some cases you HAVE to) we do also have limits on both the “pilot” and the ship. I’ll begin with the pilot:
One of the things we’re trying to do is pull you into the cockpit by simulating your pilot “avatar”, as well as the ship they fly. We track their heart rate, we track every inhale and exhale (so we can properly remove oxygen and add CO2), and we track their physical and mental states and how they are reacting to the current situation. You’ll see condensed breath when the cabin temp is too low. If you pull too many negative g’s you’ll hear your heartbeat in your head, etc. For the AI, all this affects their flight performance.
Now, speaking along the lines of flight limitation, while we offer systems to allow higher load tolerances, there IS still a limit, and the pilot will react to this properly. That alone limits the player so that they don’t overstress their pilot. To aid in this we have something called a FIS (Friction Induction System). The theory behind this is that a field is generated around the ship that reacts with the particles outside to form a minimal amount of friction, which causes flight to feel a bit more atmospheric. You can control the strength of it, as well as turn it on and off.
The ship has its limits, too. For example, use of the FIS DOES increase hull temperature, and engaging it while going too fast can have catastrophic results (on this ship as well as the pilot). Also, many weapon systems can only be used within certain flight parameters. Exceeding these parameters can cause “space-frame” failures, jammed weapons, “frozen” moveable controls (such as a vectored thruster).
All this does affect combat obviously. We have several levels of long range engagement—BVR, WBVR (well-beyond) and FBVR (far beyond). But, once those weapon systems are spent, and you have to take it to VR, I have to say the combat feels a lot like “overclocked” WWI flying–maneuvering is deliberate and methodical. Engagement can easily break down into circle fights if you allow it, which makes you an easy target. You’re only saving grace is you can’t stall out. But, what CAN happen is you can become almost “stationary” (relatively speaking in relation to the combat area), making you a very easy target. Scoring a victory in a properly managed dogfight is actually very gratifying, I’ve found, even when the target is not completely destroyed (the AI suffer the same system failures as the player).
How do you anticipate space-dogfighting might unfold? One-to-many, many-to-many? Capital ships involvement?
I’ve tested most of these (one vs. one, one vs. many, many vs. many). Unless you’re employing WBVR or FBVR the merge happens pretty quickly. The pilot who uses his sensors best will have the advantage in pre-engagement maneuvering. To that end, you’ll have proper wingman commands for pincer moves and that sort of thing. Newton can help on the initial merge as you can disengage FIS and, while maneuvering in one direction, aim in another. However, after the initial this advantage is gone. You reengage FIS to help you stay oriented properly with your opponent and the combat area in general. It also helps you stay within the operational limits of your weapons.
You start thinking about energy management, trying to avoid circle fights so you can extend or escape if you have to. Getting “slow” is bad—you can only accelerate so quickly from a stand-still (again, in relation to the combat zone and the ships around you). Again, you can get Newton’s help by disengaging FIS—removing the friction so you can accelerate faster. Just be careful not to overstress your ship or your pilot avatar. You also have to think about energy management in relation to certain weapons. Energy-based weapons require both a fuel source and a charge to create a successful shot. You have to monitor these levels. You also can’t just lie on the trigger. Weapons build up heat and too much can cause them to fail (excessive heat also shortens their operational life—important when you’re the one paying the bills later on).
You also start thinking about WHICH weapons to use. Short-range missiles, while effective, can have a large blast radius. You can easily get caught up in it and damage your own ship if your target is too close. Some weapons are affected by shields and reactive armor, others could care less about them. In a typical space shooter you get a lock, fire a missile or two, and lay on the guns until the target is dead. Not here. In Rogue System your head is in the cockpit, thinking about your ship and how best to get the most out of it, at LEAST as much as it is outside the cockpit trying to aim and make the kill.
Space. It’s pretty big.
The information you’ve released so-far indicates a pretty hardcore approach to realism. It’s not difficult to imagine a player might find themselves with damaged systems that prevented long-range travel, or even any sort of maneuvering at all, left endlessly adrift in space. How might these circumstances be handled? Is it game over or might there be game-world systems in place to help?
It’s not “game over” by any means, but yes, it is VERY easy to become “dead-stick” if you’re not careful. It depends on who you are, who you fly for and WHERE you are as to how quickly, and by what means, you get recovered. As well as for long distance flight, this is where SAN (Suspended ANinmation) comes in. Beyond that, I have some cool gameplay mechanics planned here that I really don’t want to divulge just yet.
On the subject of the scale of your universe, are you going for 1:1 across the board, or keeping some distances realistic while scaling others? How do you propose keeping the environment interesting while respecting the fact that space is vast and largely empty?
Our scaling is 1:1 in that a meter is a meter. You can travel anywhere you like—there are no “zones” or regions that you jump to. So, yes, there is a lot of space to fill. Obviously some “space” is more interesting than other “space”. Of course, in the initial sim, unless Kickstarter does exceedingly well, we’re focusing on a military campaign and as such we don’t have as much space to fill at first. Later, when trading/exploration is added there are several things we can do to help focus the player to areas of interest—scanners can pick up ships and objects to investigate, news events will keep you alerted to things to check out, random events will happen from time to time, etc. The great thing is we can add events long after release.
Visually, procedural generation makes filling such large voids possible. We’ll be implementing this once we start making the assets to support it. The base code is already there, so it’s really just a matter of adding all the art and then debugging.
Also, you’ll be able to move around inside larger ships, so during those times when things are a bit slow you can get up from the pilot’s seat and go to another section of the ship. We have some great ideas to help keep you entertained. And, if all else fails, there’s always SAN, which will allow you to sleep until you reach your destination (or until your computer wakes you up for various reasons). While in SAN time is accelerated, so planets and moons still orbit, other ships go about their business, etc.
Have you found the recent resurgence in the genre to be encouraging, or perhaps even in some ways discouraging?
I have mixed feelings here. On the one hand, being a long time flight/space sim fan, it’s absolutely fantastic to see this resurgence. As I suspected for a LONG time, there is still a LOT of interest in this genre. If anything, people are longing for a new space-sim that offers a fresh, intelligent and exciting take on the genre. Although I’m probably locking myself into a very niche audience, I think it’s worth it. Rogue System is going to be a very unique, even if on a global scale it is similar to other recently announced titles.
I’m not sure if “discouraged” is the correct word. When I first announced Rogue System a year ago I received excellent feedback and a lot of support. If I could have gone to Kickstarter in June of last year as I wanted I think it would have done exceedingly well. But, we just weren’t quite ready to show yet. In the meantime Braben and Roberts beat me to the punch. It’s thrilling to see their names again; but it has made it harder for me to get my foot in the door. I currently don’t have a team to work on promotional material. I don’t have a bunch of artists building high detailed game assets yet. I mean I COULD have focused on art for the past two years in my spare time, but I choose to focus on gameplay. I worked on the initial ship systems and core elements on which I can add all the art later and fancy stuff later.
I now have to work very hard to prove that Rogue System is worthy to stand alongside these two big titles; and I only have the game design, current technology, and the few early art assets I’ve created to do it with. I’m up for the challenge though. If Rogue System’s Kickstarter is successful it will be on its own merit and because people feel that what I’m trying to do is worth giving me the means to build a proper team to see it to completion.
Going back before the current Kickstarter trend, there has been a steady stream of space-sims announced as in development; some that looked fairly ambitious and many even had impressive tech demonstration videos, but almost all of these failed to materialise. It seems there is a sizable demand for space-sims (if still firmly niche relative to the AAA titles of the world); what do you think has made the space-sim genre one that seems to invoke so much passion in both players and potential developers? Do you think there is a particular technical or design challenge that makes getting these projects past the core technology development stage to the playable game stage especially difficult?
Space and flight sims really were the genres that gave PC gaming the boot in the pants it needed in the early days. When people look back to the heyday of PC gaming these are the titles that they tend to fondly recall. Certainly, the LACK of space-sims since the late 90’s has been a reason to try and build a new one. If anyone could have made a great space-sim that invoked the same feelings that the early games did they would have been a hero. However, building a tech demo is a lot different to actually taking that and creating a complete product.
To create any game/sim project and actually finish it takes a huge commitment in time and resources. For one or two people, sooner or later life gets in the way, I think. Even I had to pause the development of Rogue System for about 6 months because of my “day job”. You have to have tremendous dedication to your project to come back to it after an extended delay like that. Then, too, you realize that there’s a LOT of work to be done, so much that it can become overwhelming. When you have a job and a family to support and all that other life stuff, eventually most of these just get left by the wayside.
Even if you have people to do the work needed, you have to be able to manage them and their schedules. To get the commitment you need from talented people you HAVE to be able to pay them. They can’t dedicate themselves to a project long term if the project can dedicate itself to them. Let’s not forget that making a game doesn’t auto-magically make it a fun game. Lots of people “feel” they are great designers, but not many of them truly are. If you have all of THAT, then you still need to invest to create your company, to advertise, to get trademarks, to purchase software and licenses. It’s just a huge, HUGE endeavor.
I’ve taken a LOT of time and money away from my family to get to this point. I have the experience to manage people and scheduling. I certainly have the commitment to see this through. Finally, with all the positive feedback I’ve received I know I’m on the right track as to design. All I need now are the funds to build a proper team to support the project.
Does going the Kickstarter route reflect an unwillingness to go down the traditional developer/publisher path on your part, or is it more a reflection of the current market and broader economic climate? Would you like to see Rogue System potentially picked up by a publisher further down the line?
I honestly can’t imagine any publisher would touch Rogue System because it simply wouldn’t return what they’d want it to. Sure, I believe it will turn enough to support itself and generate a modest profit (mainly to keep handy for a “rainy day”), which is GREAT for me–it supports my goal of building up Rogue System over time and giving it a long life. But, it’s my experience that big investors (publishers) want big returns.
Besides, for Rogue System to go under a publisher’s banner I’d have to have very explicate, contractual assurance that I’d have complete creative control, and that’s VERY hard to get. Publishers can be funny in that, they see a project and like it enough to support it. But then, when they do, they start asking (and many times demanding) for changes based on focus groups and other whims, normally turning the project into something completely different. I KNOW exactly what I want Rogue System to be. If a publisher was willing to stand behind that I’d consider it. But again, based on past experience I just don’t see that happening. I’d be pleasantly surprised if it did, honestly.
“Crowd funding,” asking the potential audience to provide the financial support early, is the only way I can think of to get this thing off and running. Kickstarter, bless them, have offered an incredible way for many creative, independent people to get their foot in the door with all sorts of projects. One just has to prove their project is worthy of others’ support, and get the word out there enough to generate enough support for success. Finally, if they are supported, they have to deliver what they promise. I KNOW I can deliver Rogue System–I just need the support to do it.
There is a clear demand for, and also now a presence of, space combat/exploration/trading titles in the works. Whilst hardcore aficionados of the genre may well buy into all titles, there are a lot of people, like myself, who have yet you step into this world. From my point of view, I found the announcements of Braben and Roberts’ projects both enticing and exciting, and for me personally your focus on the simulation side with Rogue System is highly appealing. A focus on hardcore, simulation based gameplay probably has the double edged effect of appealing to some and drawing them in, but at the same time perhaps discouraging others looking to dip their toes in the water. Have you made a conscious decision to cut your losses with some players to maximise appeal to others, or do you plan to try and keep a balanced, broad (within the context of a niche title) appeal? Racing simulations, for example, can feature aids and other “artificial” features to soften the blow for new comers; will Rogue System have an equivalent suite of features to help players of varying ability, experience, and desire for hardcore?
Yes, I realize that I’m going to cater to a rather specific audience. I accept this. Were I out to make a lot of money I’d provide a more arcade-like experience (and I’m NOT saying Roberts and Braben are–I’m simply speaking for myself here) to try and draw in large numbers. But I don’t want that. What I want is for Rogue System to support itself over the course of its life while providing this unique type of “hardcore” simulation. I believe that even a small, dedicated audience can provide this if we are as willing to provide Rogue System with new content to keep it exciting and entertaining. Besides, each title (Rogue System, Star Citizen and Elite) ALL will have unique features that will appeal to different people. There’s enough personal preference, opinion and “taste” to support multiple titles as long as each one provides something unique.
Now, that said, OBVIOUSLY I want to try to bring in new people to experience Rogue System, as well as simulation in general. While I will NOT alter the simulation in any way as far as how systems work, how the flight model operates, etc., what I will do (and am) is provide things that I call “Accessibility Options”. These include more typical things like invisibility, unlimited ammo, turning off system damage, etc.; but also things more subtle such as having the ship in various states of readiness when you enter it (all off, switches set, already running, etc.). These don’t alter the simulation, just how much of it is presented to the player–they can turn things “on” as they get more comfortable. Plus, there is a “simulator” the player can use to get up to speed without sacrificing their pilot’s life. I also have a small flight training campaign planned, but that will depend on resources if we’ll be able to tackle that the way I’d like to.
Finally, when multiplayer is added, the server will be able to allow or disallow these options…
This brings me onto something you mentioned in your previous SimHQ interview, that you plan for expanding the team and building up assets, but also the progressive implementation of gameplay styles and features (solo scripted missions -> dynamic missions -> multiplayer -> open ended trader play…). Thinking long term, you seem to be taking a very pragmatic, ground up approach: start with the basics and fundamental foundations, and steadily built from there. In terms of the lifespan of the project, potentially how long do you see Rogue System persisting as a developing platform? Will the approach taken allow in the future for the core to be updated with everything else remaining in place around it (a Rogue System 2.0 as it were)?
Indeed, my approach is very progressive. I only want the team focusing on one goal at a time. For a small team this is essential because you can’t afford one minute to wonder aimlessly through a forest of design items. For a large team, it offers the chance to really NAIL the implementation of each goal–making each one a quality effort.
Yes, as long as all the “hooks” and tie-in’s remain the same, the core of Rogue System can be updated. The main thing that would cause this is if we switched engines at some point. The idea is to make sure that nothing that we add later sits apart from the core, but rather rests on it. In a way this can cause a bottleneck as some information could be handled more efficiently on its own. But again, the idea is to be able to add on to the core AND be able to update the core later while still allowing everything to work.
I don’t want to put out a new version every year–adding one or two new features and calling it 2.0–just to generate more income. The main reason being that in doing that all you do is focus on the same thing over and over and over. I don’t want Rogue System to stay the same. I want it to grow. Maybe I’m being naive; but, I believe there’s a better way–that a project can have a long life and not have to get old in the process.
“You call that a HUD? This is a HUD!”
With a futuristic genre, not only do crafts and environments provide you with a lot of freedom, but also I imagine the implementation of input devices. Do you envision the best way to get the most out of Rogue System to be to go down the traditional joystick approach that many space shooters have adopted from the world of flight sims and Hollywood, or might a console style controller offer a more appropriate, “futuristic” control mechanism?
The engine Rogue System uses currently supports up to three joystick devices. These can be anything–joysticks, pedals, quadrants or even game controllers–that use this interface. I’ve requested more joystick support in the future. The creator of the engine is always adding and updating, so there’s no reason to think this wouldn’t be a possibility. It’s really personal preference as to what feels better for each player–I’ll let them decide. All I have to do is give them the means. I will say that for pitch, roll and yaw you REALLY want something linear, rather than on/off. You do need a certain level of finesse when performing some manoeuvres.
Could you give some details about the engine behind Rogue System? Is it an “off the shelf” engine like Unity, or a collection of sub parts (graphics, physics etc.) that you have picked for the specific task? Has the engine choice in anyway particularly empowered (beyond giving you an engine!) or limited what you can achieve in reference to what you would ideally like to do?
The engine used is called Nuclear Fusion (NF). It’s been in development since 2005, and still is actively supported. It’s a very robust, efficient multi-core engine that has so far handled everything I’ve thrown at it. Graphically, it’s quite modern in that it will support HLSL shaders up to DX11. It is also platform non-specific so, at least from an engine point-of-view, there’s not a reason we couldn’t try for a port to another OS later.
I did “shop around” for several months looking for an engine that, at the time, I could afford. Although the plan was to “upgrade” to a more well-known engine when funds were available I’ve been so impressed with this so far I don’t see a reason to do that.
While it does support things such as skinned animation and such, this is really more of a backbone engine rather than a complete game engine. For example, I had to code the particle system we use because NF doesn’t come with one built in. In a way, I prefer this–I can add exactly what we need and the engine isn’t bogged down by a bunch of stuff we’ll never use.
About the only thing I had to add is irrKlang for full sound support, as NF’s sound engine doesn’t have the feature set Rogue System required…
Funny you should ask this. I just added a section to the Kickstarter page the other day about future peripheral support. One thing I’d REALLY like to explore is using a touch-screen monitor to interact with the EFD (Eye’s Front Display)–I think this would offer a fantastic sense of immersion. I’ve actually sat at my monitor while testing and reached out to touch the buttons to see how it feels–I think it would work REALLY well, ESPECIALLY if you had a dedicated cockpit for simming.
The OculusVR is also something I REALLY want to support. From everything I’ve heard it’s fantastic. I plan on ordering a dev unit soon so that I can at least evaluate it. If it’s all they say it is I’ll be sure to support it.
The initial concept art for the player’s Orbital Station looks suitably vast and impressive.
With the Kickstarter now live, it’s obviously going to be a case of wait and see for how things pan out. Where do you go from here providing the project exceeds targets, meets them or, gulp, fails to reach the goals? You’ve obviously been working on the title for some time now and put a lot of effort into it; I assume a potentially failed Kickstarter does not signal game over for the project?
On the Kickstarter page I go into some detail as to what can be expected at the base goal, and what happens if we exceed that. They are not glamorous, grand jumps in content; but rather honest, well-thought items that we can achieve based on the amount of people we’ll have (based on salaries and other expenses). For example, the first “stretch goal” talks about adding a “tools” programmer so we can deliver a full complement of mod tools. This isn’t just for the end-user–we NEED these in order to develop the base content more efficiently. The other addition is another content artist. With the accelerated art production we should be able to offer 4 flyable ships rather than two.
If we go WELL above what I have planned then we’ll figure out how best to use it to reward the community for their support. I only planned out up to a certain dollar amount because I feel that’s about what we could expect to achieve at maximum.
I’ve thought long and hard about what happens if the Kickstarter fails. It’s really going to come down to how much it fails, if it does. If we only miss by a few thousand dollars then what I’ll do is open a store over at our site and ask everyone to donate there, offering the same rewards. Missing by such a small amount would STILL allow us to get started and then hopefully the rest will come in over time. But, we’d have to run the store ourselves. Kickstarter is all or nothing–missing the base goal by even one dollar means the entire campaign fails.
If it fails horribly–well what can I do? I’ve invested far too much time and money to simply let it all go. If nothing else it would be a huge insult to my wife and daughters who have honestly sacrificed a lot so that I could do this. I owe it to them to finish it SOMEHOW if for no other reason than to say, “thank you for believing in me”. So, I’ll press on as I have been–a little here, a little there. Perhaps in time something will present itself to give Rogue System the proper support that I really feel it deserves.
As you say, we’ll just have to wait and see and then go from there…
You are still working at ISI along with working on Rogue System; what has the reaction been from the guys at ISI, and will you be leaving subject to the success of the Kickstarter campaign? Has Gjon had to warn you off from poaching staff? 🙂
Yes, I am still employed with ISI happily. This HAS made the last few months a bit trying because I didn’t have all the prep time I could have to get Rogue System ready for Kickstarter. But, I still have a family to support and, until I know what the future holds, I have a responsibility to ISI to do my assign duties to the best of my abilities.
If the Kickstarter is successful I will have a big obligation to fulfil that will require all my attention. So yes, I don’t think I’d have any other recourse than to resign my position. Gjon and I have already discussed this and we’ve prepared for both outcomes. I am eternally grateful to him for allowing me the opportunity to give this a shot AND retain my position at the same time.
As far as the reaction to the guys at ISI, they’ve all been incredibly supportive. I never hid the fact that my ultimate goal has ALWAYS been to have my own studio. They seem to truly want me to succeed at this, and I’m very grateful for this.
You’ve obviously had (and no doubt will continue) to weather the comparisons to similarly themed titles out there, so either in relation to those titles or just on Rogue System’s own merits, in a hundred words or less tell our readers why they should get on over to Kickstarter and lay down some money to support Rogue System?
I can’t really compare Rogue System to the others on a detail-for-detail basis because I only know what info they’ve provided. All I can say is that Rogue System is the space combat sim that I, as a “hardcore” flight-simmer, have always wanted to play. If you want control of your ship at a system by system level–to be able to use your knowledge of it to complete your objective, survive and succeed in combat, and bring it and the pilot inside back home alive–I believe Rogue System is where you want to look. I am dedicated to it heart and soul, 100%–it WILL succeed given the chance. I’ve given it everything because I believe that.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, and good luck with the Rogue System Kickstarter campaign and beyond!
I’d like to thank everyone at RAVSim for taking such an interest in Rogue System, and allowing me the opportunity to present it to your readers. It is always my pleasure to talk about Rogue System, and any chance to do so (and to help get the word “out there”) is a most appreciated opportunity. So, again, thank you so much!
It could be seen as unfortunate that Michael Juliano has got his project onto the Kickstarter table after the Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen banquettes have taken place, but in many respects I’m really not sure it matters. Whilst some might adopt the stance that backing one space combat title at a time is enough for them, there are others who will probably be willing to put their money down to support anyone ambitious enough to attempt such an undertaking.
But in some ways being late to the table could even be beneficial. Juliano has enough faith and belief in himself and his project to not be perturbed by the success of his competitors. Rogue System as it stands is not the result of a few months hurriedly scraping together some concept art and an idea for a game; in terms of code it is a basis, a platform, on which to build, to flesh out and to develop. But Rogue System is clearly much more than that: it is a vision, a belief and a philosophy.
Roberts and Braben might have got in there first by securing their crowd-sourced funding, but just as Braben successfully followed Roberts by offering something different to entice potential consumers into becoming paying customers, Juliano is proposing something quite different once again. Just as I found Roberts and Braben’s visions and scope for their respective titles alluring and exciting, I can now easily add Juliano to that list.
You can find more detail on Rogue System at the following sources:
Realism is the enemy of fun in video games, or so is the feeling in the wider gaming community. In a recent blog post, the mysteriously named “qntm” posited that, had Deus Ex been focussed on realism, then realistic password security may have been a significant block to gameplay progress. He states “making a game which is realistic is a goal totally opposed with making a game which is enjoyable to play.” So where, then, does this leave simulators; a genre that has strived for realism in everything it does since its inception?
Anyone that remembers playing vehicle simulations over twenty years ago will look upon some of the titles released at the time with a certain fondness. Driving laps in 1988’s “Grand Prix Circuit” was never something you thought of as stunningly realistic, just as no one would have extolled the complexity of the flight model in “F-15 Strike Eagle 2”. Yet, as our PCs got stronger, and could move more polygons and make more calculations, we began to demand more from simulators, so some software houses took up the challenge and delivered.
When we look to the modern day, where people travel on hovering skateboards and pictures of cats occupy more of the totality of human free time than politics, what has changed? Instead of “F-15 Strike Eagle II” we have “DCS:A10 Warthog”, featuring realism so fearsome as to require a 670 page manual for one aircraft. As well as this we have racing simulators that have put in so much work replicating real-world tyres and vehicle dynamics that their technology goes beyond the understanding of all but the longest of beards. It’s what we wanted, it’s what we demanded, but is it still fun? Well, I derive a lot of fun from it, and I know a few other people that do as well, but how about the millions of people that play video games day to day; the enthusiasts, the knowledgeable, the keen? Oh, they know about vehicle simulators; they read PC Gamer and see the reviews, and they remember the days when they fired up “Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco Grand Prix II” on their Mega Drive, they look at screenshots wistfully, and they dream. Then they see the reality: that racing simulators of the highest calibre are hard, very hard, and not an easy genre to break into. Can it be played with a joypad? Can I play from a camera on the roof, or maybe from behind the car on a ladder? The concerns of the everyday gamer are at odds with what most hard core simulator pilots would yearn for; on the one hand you have a niche market of simracers and simpilots that regard any compromise to realism to negatively impact on their enjoyment of the title, on the other hand you have a much larger demographic that wonders what fun can really come out of studying Motec to ascertain optimum ride height settings.
Not everyone’s idea of fun.
I remember reading an exceptionally long thread on rec.autos.simulators concerning whether simulators should be classified as video games or not. Whether there should be conventional concepts of video gaming implanted into simulators to broaden their appeal, or whether they should always be pure simulators, with no compromises. The argument suggested that a pure simulation of a vehicle, such as those we now see in use with F1 teams, is a different form of software, a training tool such as the aviation industry has used for years, and not for entertainment. Indeed, the recently released “Prepar3D” states in its terms of service that it is not for entertainment use. When it comes to racing car simulators, this is a difficult angle to level at any sim on the market now. As much as the likes of iRacing will tell you that they can be used as a professional driver training tool, there is inevitable compromise in its design that ensures a “game” element to the whole process. Online racing is a game, and very few will argue, beyond a press release, that it is a tool they use to get better at racing in real life. However, the core simulations have continued to become more and more realistic, but whilst realism is near the top of the design criteria, where is it getting the developers?
If you’re a casual gamer and you look at iRacing, you see a video game that is focussed only on online racing, and an existing player base with up to five years’ experience under its belt. What drags you in? Would it be the assertion that racing without a wheel and pedal set is unlikely to be much use? That competitiveness requires a concerted commitment to practice over a potentially long period? That your experience of most online only gaming environments tells you that making a mistake and crashing into a fellow player could result in a torrent of vile abuse coming your way?
Well, maybe, but what is more likely is that the casual gamer will play a simulator for fun; to have a bit of time away from more mainstream games, as a diversion, and to enjoy delving into something new. When they see the website for a given simulator, terms like “ultimate realism” might as well translate as “It’s really tricky and you haven’t got the time.”
It’s the same thing I ponder when I consider it might be a bit of fun to do a different type of simracing in “Virtual Skipper 5.” What fun, I imagine, racing sailing boats online against the world’s best. Then, as the download slowly grinds on I think a little more: “But hang on, I don’t know the slightest thing about sailing. Am I going to have to learn? Is it going to use terms like “gaff rigged” or “scow”? Am I going to look like an inept buffoon in front of the assembled masses of the world’s best virtual sailors? I know I shouldn’t think these things, but all of it becomes daunting, and before I’ve hit confirm on the sign up page, I’ve abandoned the whole idea and gone out to get a baguette.
Once I’ve got my baguette and I sit down and have a think, I can only wonder as to quite how many people really want to race virtual sailing boats, or how many people want to be the best simulated fighter pilot and, really, how many people want to drive a tooth grindingly accurate racing simulator?
The answer to the question is clear: not that many. iRacing’s 30,000 odd members seems to tie up with assorted sales numbers here and there, but could it be more? Should it be more? I don’t know. From an outsider’s perspective, many of the current crop of racing simulators have been based around the desires of the online racer for many years now. Instead of the delights of Grand Prix Legends, that let us drive a variety of cars in the 1967 F1 field against AI versions of the heroes of the time, we now have a selection of sims that let us drive this or that car on this or that track, with little or no correlation between tracks and cars, and in many cases no option to drive the car in question against its contemporaries. In the same sense, we can look at flight simulators such as X-Plane 10, that give us a broad mix of aircraft to fly around the world, but no purpose in doing so. I’m a big fan of realism in simulators, I positively revel in it, but when a simulator has nothing to offer beyond the driving of a vehicle, is it still video game? It’s all good and well flying a Boeing 737 from LAX to San Diego, but why? What are you doing it for other than to prove to yourself that you can? Similarly, what’s the point in finishing fourth in a Renault Clio race in rFactor 2 against people you don’t know? This absence of purpose breeds a deficit in immersion, which can fail to capture the imagination of all but the most committed.
Why are these guys here?
There is a contention that in a racing simulator you can win, and winning is important for humans. We find winning a special thing, even if it is pointless. We like that we can say that we won at something, sometime; it gives us a warm glow inside. It’s a curious thing, and not one I really partake in. Whenever I have won an online race I don’t really feel any different to how I do when coming second or third. In fact, a few weeks ago I came second after starting last and it felt better than any win I can remember. It didn’t achieve much when it comes to “game” though, and it could be said that the simulator I was playing didn’t involve any emotional moments at all. Had I failed and crashed, there would be another race in 20 minutes to try again, and by that time everyone involved will have forgotten who won the last race.
This is all good and well for simracing enthusiasts; in a good sim I can usually find myself sufficiently motivated to run plenty of laps on my own. I have lots of equipment specific to the task, and I derive fun from just driving the virtual car. But what of our forsaken casual player? When they look at some simulators, do they wonder where the game really is?
It’s long been a thought of mine that racing simulators could do a lot more in this respect, and the push towards online meant that many sims left behind their single player elements over ten years ago. It is a shame, but fairly common amongst developers across the video game spectrum: online was new and exciting back then. Now many players actively avoid online gaming if they seek a relaxed and immersive experience. Immersion depends on imagination; playing with others, who may not be in the same imagination space as you, can easily break that immersion. Playing alone, just you against the game, can also be more relaxing, because everything you do only matters to you, and not to someone on the other side of the world who might get unreasonably upset with something you do in the game.
What’s quite apparent to me in the simracing arena right now is that the single player is not being catered for particularly, and in the larger scale, over the many years we’ve had virtual cars to race, single player aspects of racing simulators have not really changed much since Grand Prix Circuit.
Kazunori Yamauchi, creator of the Gran Turismo series (who curiously cites Grand Prix Circuit as the first racing game he enjoyed), has tried to change this. His approach, that allows cars to be customised and upgraded -along with bought and sold- based on money made from race winnings has been duplicated in a number of other racing games since. Whilst the driving physics were never class leading, they were pleasing to drive, and the Gran Turismo series has been an undoubted hit for console simracers. This “Elite” like method adds a simple financial aspect to the game that allows players to progress steadily and provides various gameplay advantages such as: players never end up in a car that is beyond their skills before they have the experience to cope; players have a considerable number of races to partake in and cars to buy, making the game have significant longevity; and finally, when the player is competing in their Mazda Demio against a fleet of Hyundai Atoz (Atozez?), they have a purpose to do so. This strive for more, the good fight in the Demio, is based around the desire to be able to afford a Subaru Impreza, and then a Lotus Evora, and onwards and upwards.
Ultimately, however, this design leaves the player flat. As with Elite, once a player has huge reserves of money and a vehicle that is nigh-on unbeatable, the purpose starts to ebb away. It becomes simply about expanding ones garage, and watching the “completion” number increase.
So how can a single player racing sim become more of an engaging game for the casual player, but not at the expense of realism? What’s that, no compromise to realism? Well, I am not convinced compromising realism is necessary. A good car driving sim should be able to implement simple aids to help a player get around the track using any control device; how many of us played Crammond’s F1GP on keyboard? How many people play Gran Turismo on a joypad? It shouldn’t be impossible, and may not be the way to get the best out of the game, but if you’re the only one playing and you can lower the difficulty to your tastes, then what does it matter? If a casual player gathers from reviews that a sim is unplayable without a Logitech G27, they turn away. So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the whole controller issue is fixed.
Bringing narrative and story elements into racing simulators has been loosely tried before as well, initially with Codemasters’ “Race Driver” series. This was not met with huge interest by the hard core simracers at the time (Oh yes, in 2002 the hard core were just as vociferous in their judgement in the “simcade” debates!), but sold well in the wider world, aided by its cross-platform release.
The plot of the game saw the player take the role of a young, up and coming racing driver, trying to make a name for themselves in a variety of different racing series. This push for triumph was clouded by the tragedy in their life of having witnessed their father die in a racing car on track. If that were not enough, they also, like Ralf, had an older brother who raced cars -with a considerable amount more success- to contend with.
It’s all good stuff, maybe a little clichéd, but it covers the excitement of racing, the pressures of a superior sibling, it even approaches the tragedy in motor racing that is rarely addressed by any simulation of the subject. Clichés exist for a reason, and this plotline mirrors the kind of stories we see in motor racing all the time.
We’ve seen from other media that motor racing can be portrayed well alongside compelling storylines: Steve McQueen made for an enjoyable watch in Le Mans, and Garth Stein’s novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” told a splendid, heart wrenching tale of a man obsessed by his career as a racing driver. So even if Codemasters didn’t necessarily bang the ball out of the park, why has this concept not been picked up and developed further by anyone else?
Well, a story, when written, usually needs to have a beginning, middle and end; so if you are a video game writer you often have to work the “beginning, middle, more than one end” angle, and this is generally accepted as normal. If you’re talking about a motorsports simulation, you’re putting a player in various situations in which they must perform, and the level to which they perform determines the development of the storyline.
So what happens when your objective is to finish second or above and you finish sixth? Well, you do it again, and again, and again… Storm off, rant at girlfriend, back to it, again, and again, then you make it and the story can move on. It’s not great gameplay, some might even say a touch frustrating, but how else can it be? The alternative of a game that dynamically modifies your “campaign” as you advance surely would involve too many endings?
For a potential answer, the simracing world could do worse than take a look at “Rise of Flight” from 777 Studios. This World War One flight sim is a tremendous piece of simulation software that models various aircraft used in the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. It features meticulous vehicle detail, outstanding flight physics and sumptuous graphics. In its own right, this alone makes it a success in the genre, but you can also go online and test your skills against the world’s finest sim pilots.
However, another aspect to its online modes is the career mode. Essentially a single player campaign, the player is baffled (if they are me) initially as to why this is classed as online play, until one delves deeper. Each sortie you fly in Rise of Flight (ROF) is treacherous; there is a very real chance you will not make it back alive, and there is also a very real chance that your other (AI) squadron members won’t survive either. Thus, a major part of the career mode is to survive. This means that often you may find yourself in your Sopwith Camel getting rather shot and struggling to keep the engine running. If, in said scenario, you elude your attacker, the best thing to do is to head back to base, thus failing to fulfil your mission objectives, but fundamentally living to fight another day.
What happens next is where the fun comes in, because the results of your mission are uploaded magically to 777 Studios servers and taken into account to establish what your next mission will be and, ultimately, how your tour of duty will play out. This means that every foray into the career mode will result in a potentially different result for every player, but there is always a purpose and an overbearing campaign that links in with ground forces and an ever changing front line that forces a narrative. Whilst you will never change the outcome of the war, you can make the kind of small difference that one fighter pilot could. All of this, I remind you, in a sim that makes no bones about keeping everything “hard core” in the physics department.
Rise of Flight’s career mode is full of surprises.
I would say that this system could well work in a racing simulator, and add a vast amount to a single player experience. A championship campaign over fifteen or more races is something a single player could embark on knowing full well they may not win, but if you take the example of TOCA Race Driver’s career mode, allied to a dynamic system as seen in ROF, then a driver’s performance could change the way the AI respond to them, to other teams or series interest in them as a driver. Maybe they would get to the end of that first season and their career has to end, maybe they would get a test contract in a shiny red Ferrari that leads to a race contract after the surprise retirement of their star driver. The survival aspect of ROF could also be employed to great effect, with persistent vehicles needing to be repaired or maintained, as well as the important maintenance of the player character should they get involved in any scrapes. Hospital time, or bodyshop time could make for missed races. And, macabre as it sounds, historic sims could address the reality or their given eras’ accident survival rate, thus forcing a cleaner style of racing, in the name of verisimilitude.
The possibilities are endless, and present the chance for a truly dynamic offline racing experience that engages the player over a longer time period.
But why stop there? Such a system is not dissimilar (though maybe more complex) than that seen in Codemasters current round of F1 based games. Motor racing is a sport filled with emotion and human stories, it is not all about the cars and the driving, often there are complex human relationships that influence the smallest of matters. How can video games bring this to life?
RPGs have long been making complex algorithms seem like social interrelationships via the use of tools that the player can use to their advantage or detriment. In many RPGs a player’s attributes are based around various unseen numbers, some of which will govern the player’s “reputation” in the game world, this attribute reflecting the way the many non-player characters (NPCs) you have interacted with regard you. Thus, if you talk to old Greybeard McMountainface in the village, and your responses to his requests for help are dismissive, or maybe even scornful, this NPC will react to you differently the next time you speak. It will then be assumed that one NPC will talk to a number of other NPCs, and your reputation around the whole village can become one of being a surly, scornful, misery guts. This then potentially affects gameplay in the future as and when you may need help from the people of said village.
It’s not the most groundbreaking concept, but the unseen nature of these attributes makes for a mystique to the playing experience. What if it were employed in a racing simulator? RPG elements that let you walk around the paddock, interact with other drivers, team owners, press officers, or even just the guys that run the burger van? Coupled with an over arcing storyline that offers a rich experience outside of the car, your ability to make friends, or conscious decision to be a strong, silent type, could directly influence the way other drivers react to you on track. Paradoxically, how you behave on track with some drivers may change the way they feel about you off it. Bundle this with the detail of vehicle simulation put forth by Simon here and you end up with a game that gives you plenty to do outside of the car as well as inside it.
All of these suggestions: a varying and complex career mode; storyline with RPG elements; and a reactive and adaptive system for dynamic AI throughout a campaign, could all add a noted richness to any racing simulator if done right, and provide a chance for the offline player to have an experience that goes beyond just pure driving simulation. Any such game could sit alongside an online mode that can keep the hard-core players happy, and ultimately appeal to a broader spectrum of players.
The downside? Building a game like this would require a large development team with a broad range of skills and, fundamentally, a reasonably large budget. Modern day video games are all too often bereft of innovation as publishers strive for the safest route to their ultimate goal: making profit. It’s not really unreasonable as publishers are in business to make money, but this stifling of the art form is causing a theme which results in video games homogenising throughout the genres. Simulators have been following a similar trend, and by focussing on the desires of their committed player base they have rejected the gameplay elements that could make them appeal to a broader sphere. Is it time for something new?
I know this guy who says stuff like “racing drivers, you know, they are just like regular people only they have a bit of a weird day-job”. And he’d know because he’s been one and worked with many.
Well, it must follow that sim-racers are just like regular folk too, only with a bit of a weird hobby, right? And I’d know because I am one and so are a lot of my friends.
So why is it we seem unable to share any kind of forum without being utter fools? To ourselves, and everyone else? Wouldn’t you expect some sort of averagely decent level of behaviour and insight, with a few exceptions on either side of average? Like a bell curve, probably.
You’d be wrong.
I have been frequenting race-sim forums since back when they were newsgroups. The only good ones I remember are those where everyone who posts regularly races against each other regularly. Once you get a place where people who never meet on track meet to discuss their hobby, all humanity and decency seem to fly out of the window faster than your little sister’s pet hamster in your radio controlled plane.
What you end up with is a kind of mostly on-topic YouTube comments thread. And everyone knows what that’s like; everyone who has ever read the comments on any YouTube video has felt their brain leaking out through their ears and their IQ lowering, anyone who has ever posted a comment has been for the duration of said posting more thick than your average high street shop’s Saturday staff.
I have been an Admin on a forum with many members who all raced against each other, and of a forum with six members who race against each other every week. I have been a member of iRacing, rFactor and RaceSimCentral forums. There must be some sort of psychological study on group mentality and behaviour on internet forums, and if there is I am probably not smart enough to understand it.
It has been suggested to me by someone who spends far too much time thinking about these things that you only get this sort of mass forum hysteria when The Community is waiting for something to be released. When the new game eventually comes out everyone gets back into their little box and gets down to the serious business of finding any/every exploitable bug in the game’s physics/dynamics engine, and forums become that little bit more sane for a while. Or maybe all the whining is drowned out by a million and one threads started along the lines of “How Do I Turn On The Rear View Mirrors?” and “Which FOV Settings Is Better Again?”
So while we all wait eagerly for every little piece of news about the forthcoming rFactor2 release, ISI’s forum is inundated with the worst signal to noise ratio since forums were ablaze with frantic iRacing speculation.
RACER Online Motorsports had a neat trick. There they required that people sign up with a real name, and somehow that dilutes the utter bellendery that an assumed level of anonymity affords. Maybe people behave better when their real name is on display rather than their amazingly brilliant forum handle like TheRealAyrtonSennaHonest86. Or maybe it was just that the people there raced against each other in a lot of events and series, and learned to respect each other on and off the track, with very few exceptions.
Other of the smaller forums keep things sane in other ways. For instance, AutoSimSport banned the boss for months at a time. Crash Test Dummies raced against each other once a week, and talked about other simulations.
Somehow, the iRacing forums appear to be immune to any kind of attempt at appeasement; the game is out and people on there race against each other. But like RSC before, the iRacing forums seem to be in a state of permanently buckling under their own hate.
So how do you survive the large crazy places without losing your mind? Here’s a few tips:
Watch out for people who end sentences with “lol” or similar, followed by an emoticon. These people are obviously crazy. They probably also think they are funny and better than you.
Watch out for people who shoehorn some idea they have into every possible thread like the world is their own personal soapy box. These people are clearly deluded and don’t understand that if their idea were any good it would have been picked up first time, they probably think that chanting/shouting something makes it more true.
Avoid any thread that appears to be a sensible discussion on the following topics: real life vs sim, assists on or off, cockpit vs any other view, etc. These threads are pits of unrest. Here you will find people who really, really hate each other, and they are going to hate you too.
Remember Godwin’s law at all times.
Read everything you have written before clicking “Send”. Check your spelling and grammar to the best of your ability. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but any mistake you make will be picked up and used to beat you about the head with by someone more stupid than you.
Remember that English isn’t everyone’s first language. Or even second, or third.
But mostly, follow Wil Wheaton’s golden rule: Don’t Be A Dick.
After a quick debriefing about his visit to Kunos Simulazioni and hands-on experiences with their Assetto Corsa title, there was one detail that Jon revealed that struck me more than any other. It wasn’t the effective confirmation of a delayed release, nor details about how the team are toying with the introduction of “live track” functionality. It had nothing to do with graphics, sound or UI. It wasn’t even anything about how the title drove, though my appetite is very much whetted. No, what jumped out at me and immediately caused me to send an email demanding confirmation was the inclusion of BMW’s incredible E30 M3 Evo DTM car. The E30 M3 is a car I love, a car I adore, a car that ignites a flutter of passion from merely reading those three numbers punctuated by two letters. I knew of the road car’s inclusion and was excited by that, but a competition version was what I really craved. A childhood spent watching E30s battling away in rallying, rallycross and touring car competitions on the TV, and in the flesh (my father rallied in an ex-Vatanen, ex-Prodrive works M3), has ingrained BMW’s original M3 deeply in my emotional subconscious.
Assetto Corsa (AC) is a title I am very much looking forward to, and have been for a while. Prior to my knowledge of the DTM E30’s inclusion, I saw a solid line up of machinery and accompanying playgrounds to enjoy them in; the road going E30 firmly on top of my “to try” list. But confirmation of the presence of the competition car just a few short days ago has transformed my view and approach to the title. What it has done is stoked the embers, and raging fires of “want” are winning in the battle against my best efforts to temper expectations.
Come here, you…
It stands to reason that a car which holds such emotional appeal would be a warmly welcomed inclusion. Many of AC’s so-far announced cars hold more appeal for me than many of the vehicles that frequent other titles (Pontiac Solstice, I am looking you!), but in the E30 racing machine I see a car that there is every chance I will never want to jump out of. I can very realistically see myself driving nothing else in AC not just for hours or days, but weeks, and months. So, it’s all good, right? Roll on AC and the good times? In many ways, yes. But I foresee that as the weeks and months pass, that a problem will emerge. The problem? I’ll want more.
More? Surely there’s an obvious remedy for this problem: drive the other cars. This has for a long time been the solution to sim racing longevity. There was a time when content needn’t be anywhere near as plentiful as is now deemed necessary. Grand Prix Legends (GPL) gave a smattering of content by today’s standards, yet few can doubt its staying power. Even as included content levels increase with each generation of titles, the baton is soon passed on from developers to modders to appease the community’s desire for more and extend a title’s lifespan. Whilst I don’t imagine many would complain about increasing choice, it’s not just the quantity of content that is increasing with passing titles. Whilst I’d love to say it’s the quality too, I feel this is perhaps not always the case (in relative terms, at least). What has undoubtedly grown is the complexity and detail of the content, and the size of the task involved in getting a vehicle properly implemented within a title.
This increase in level of detail can easily be seen by casting an eye over the screenshots of upcoming titles like AC and PCARS. In terms of visuals, we are seeing orders of magnitude in increased model complexity. What once would have been ignored, and a few years later maybe drawn on in a texture, is now created in full polygonal glory. Nuts and bolts and rivets brought to life by the artists’ loving touch and skilled hands. Ten years ago, West Racing released renders of their in-game models for the never-to-be-released (as yet, at least) Racing Legends. They were greeted with a mixture of sore jaws from impacts with the floor, and laughter and derision for thinking such models could run in real-time. Today we have models running in-game, on our humble home PCs, that show levels of detail that eclipse those on show in those renders (well, sort of).
Racing Legends: poly counts might have sky rocketed since, but has “detail”? No, no it hasn’t. It hasn’t come close.
The noises coming from the mod teams working on content for rFactor2 reflect that it is a big jump from what was involved with content creation for its predecessor. It’s not just the graphics side of things that have moved on; ever more complex tyre and aerodynamic models have had a significant impact on the difficulty, knowledge and understanding encountered and required to get a car working properly. Whilst this undoubtedly has something to do with a new title and a new learning curve (modders have had a long time to get used to the original rF infrastructure), you only have to look at the ongoing troubles experienced by the iRacing boffins in getting the Lotus 49 to work properly to see that there is more going on than simply learning new software.
What would allay my fears for my long-term relationship with the E30 is not more content; I don’t need or even really want more content. Whilst I’m not sure I would go quite as far as to say current titles ship with too many cars, I do think a fundamental shift in the approach taken by racing sims could see (and indeed would likely necessitate) a reduction in quantity, whilst at the same time leaving the player with no less to see and do. What I want is an increase in quality. A big increase in quality.
I don’t look at the beautiful models being produced by any of the major sim teams out there and wish they had higher polygon counts, were better textured, or just somehow better captured the likeness of their real-world counterparts. Kunos Simulazioni, SIMBIN, Reiza, iRacing, SMS, ISI… some may do this or that better than the others, but not a single developer I can think of struggles for talented and competent artists doing a superb job of serving up gorgeous slices of virtual car cake. Whilst on the physics side variability might be a bit more critical to the overall experience, I don’t doubt that each team has their knowledgeable, passionate individuals or teams trying their best to shoehorn the experience of handling a car into numerous lines of code. Whilst we can always wish for better graphics, sounds and physics engines, or more accurate tracks, the fact is the teams are doing their best. Some do better than others, but wishing for more isn’t likely to achieve much. These are things that have continued to evolve and develop over the history of sim racing, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But there are areas where dev teams could improve. There are areas where I think, without fail, every single race sim developer could do more, and do it better. Because, frankly, they aren’t really doing it at all.
My fears for my adventures with AC’s E30 depend not on running out of tracks to drive around. It has nothing to with wanting more power, or a new challenge, or anything that another car could offer. My fear is that as my connection to the car, and my understanding of how it behaves and how it responds, increases, so too will my desire to jump under the bonnet and explore and tinker. I don’t mean adjusting camber levels or tyre pressures. I mean I’ll literally want to explore the car. I’ll want to look after it, to maintain it. I want to care for the car and feel like that care is rewarded with its smooth running. I want to check oil levels. I want to warm her up before thrashing her on track. I want to know her history, what she’s been through, where she’s been. I want her scars and imperfections not to be wiped as I get out of the seat, but to tell the story of our time together, and instead be signs or pride, or hard-fought battles. I don’t just want a simulation of driving a car on track; I want a simulation of a car.
My first car was a Peugeot 205 Rallye; K220 HWX. It was an absolute shitter. It cost far more to run it for the (all too brief) time it remained on the road under my ownership than it did to buy. It leaked, it squeaked, it wouldn’t start. But I loved it. The short ratio gearbox was sweet-as-a-nut, the 1.4l engine might only have packed 75 horses under the bonnet, but it was relatively torquey and the car weighed about as much as a crisp packet. It had shit, cheap tyres on it that offered limited grip, and anyone who has driven a 205 in anger will know why their lift-off oversteer is revered by car journalists the world over.
Getting her going became something of an art form. I eventually learned that the DIY choke pull it came with wasn’t quite set up right. You needed to pull it all the way out, then back in a few millimetres until it gave a slight click. Then with a turn of the key, and an ever so slight squeeze of the throttle, eventually you would be in business. When the old girl would eventually start on a cold morning, the next ten minutes would be spent waiting for the heater to slowly dissipate the condensation from the inside of the windscreen, and often a small pool of water in the passenger foot-well Once visibility was sorted (often with the assistance of a jumper pulled over the back of the hand), off you’d go. You needed to be careful though; those first five minutes of use were crucial. Watching the engine temperature needle slowly but surely rise, and hearing and feeling the engine’s characteristics slowly evolve, you’d need to carefully feed the choke in. Leave it out and she’d start to run rough and have no go. Push it in too quick and you’d be stalled at the first stop. Oh, and you’d better hope that wasn’t on a hill, as the handbrake didn’t have enough purchase to stop her rolling backwards. Walter Röhrl might be the king of heel and toe, but the two-footed-three-pedalled dancing I used to have to do to keep the old girl running would have made for YouTube gold. Once she was warmed up and the choke fully pushed back into the dash (or at least as far as the ill-fitting, taped-on handle would go), it was shits and giggles aplenty. Except when you touched the brakes in the rain, as water would pour in through the roof lining and down the inside of the windscreen.
But had one day I woke to find a sparkly, as-new 205 waiting outside the house for me to start at the first time of asking, whilst on the one hand I would have been rather pleased (after, you know, I’d gotten over the improbable turn of events), I would also miss and bemoan the passing of my old partner in crime (literal, and metaphorical). Yet this is what happens every time a simulation is started. Your brand new, pristine, faultless car is there waiting for you to bin at the first turn, press Shift+R, and repeat as many times as your desire, or inability to negotiate a turn, demands.
My 205 was a shitter of massive proportions in so many ways, and fantastic in so many more, but she was my shitter. What I had with my little yellow 205 was an emotional connection. It wasn’t just because it was my first car either. Every car I have owned has given me that feeling to some degree or another, even the dullest: a plain old 5 door 1.6 Focus whose lack of overtaking ability was surpassed only by its impressive inability to stop.
What was the last sim title to give me anything even approaching this level of connection? Has there ever even been one? Two examples spring to mind. Well, sort of. The first was the Ferrari in GPL. More than anything, I just loved the sound. I can admit that in all the time I drove GPL (which is nothing compared to many of the old hands in the community, but a reasonable chunk of ‘should-have-been-homework-time’ nonetheless), with the exception of one run out in the Lotus to see how it compared, every single spin, crash, lap, spin, crash, race, spin and crash I ever did was in the Ferrari. Here was a sim with just eight cars, and yet I only ever felt the need or desire to drive one of them (we don’t talk about my time with the Lotus; it was a mistake. A moment of madness that the Ferrari 312 and I put down to stress, put behind us and moved on).
The other title to offer me a glimmer of car love is slightly less highly esteemed in sim circles, Need For Speed: Shift. Shift was a title I reviewed upon release for AutoSimSport, and as a result it was a title I needed to spend some time with and persevere. There were things I didn’t like. There were things I hated. But it also wasn’t, I don’t think, half as bad as some people made out. Indeed, I found things to like. Take the right car and try to remove as much of the “game” as possible, and it offered a fairly fun experience to my mind. But how good or bad Shift was is neither here nor there. The reason Shift provided an increased sense of connection to vehicles could only be attributed to a few simple factors: you chose and bought a car; you could upgrade it; it had a working odometer. I can safely say it must be down to those small, seemingly insignificant things as they are only elements that differentiate the cars in Shift from other PC titles past or present. Of those three elements, you can scrap upgrades from the list too, since I didn’t upgrade my favourite car at all. I chose the colour of Walter (white with black decals), my Porsche 911 GT3 RS, handed over some imaginary cash, and it kept a record of my mileage. Given in-game money was easier to come by than rain in England, I can only conclude that the tiny, simple inclusion of a working odometer was all it took to transform this sim car (in far from the world’s greatest sim), from simply another car in another title, into something personal to me.
In a previous article, I argued that there is a lot of room still left to be explored when simulating the “racing” part of racing sims. I think that there also remains a huge amount to simulate in the “vehicle” part of vehicle sims. But here’s the rub: vehicle sims of the non-racing kind are doing these things already.
OMSI Bus Simulator is a title I expect few of you are likely to be familiar with. It is a title I am only aware of due to Jon picking it up and sending many, many emails about it. In brief, as the title might suggest, it is a bus simulator. More specifically, OMSI sees the player transported back to 1980s West-Berlin, and running the Omnibus line 92 through the Spandau district. Jon bought this during a period of sim experimentation which also saw him dabbling with railway and underground simulators, and when he told me of his latest acquisition, a bus simulator, I was slightly puzzled.
On the surface, OMSI holds no real interest for me. I’m not a particular fan of buses, I have never felt much of an inclination to be a bus driver, and generally don’t particularly enjoy driving in city traffic. I expect, were it well done, that it might hold a level of novelty value for me, but there was very little in the way of incentive to go out and buy it. But as conversations between Jon and I continued over the ensuing months, OMSI kept cropping up over and over. Sometimes it was a simple “Just taken my bus out on the night route; traffic was nice and quiet”, and not a lot more to it. But often, OMSI came into the conversation when talking about racing sims, and specifically where we felt they were lacking.
Bus simulations may hold little obvious interest for me, but what I have learnt from Jon’s experiences with OMSI are that simulators in other areas are taking certain things a lot more seriously than racing sims. OMSI might not have to tackle the same on-the-edge tyre behaviour that every racing sim practically lives (and, sometimes, dies) by, but it is doing things that go way beyond what racing sims do in other areas. Many of these things, if they were announced in a racing sim, would be dismissed by a significant number as gimmicks, not important, inconsequential. But individual fleet numbers on the different buses; fully persistent features like accruing dirt and grime; fully modelled systems like the gearbox, heating system, pneumatics and IBIS (Integrated Board Information System- the thing that tells passenger where you’re going) all contribute massively to the experience of hustling your double-decker around historic Deutschland.
If, after stepping out of a bus in OMSI, you turned your back and had some fictional stationhand park your bus amongst a dozen “identical” vehicles (to clarify, this doesn’t happen; you must park your own bus), you’d be able to identify “your” bus. That shiny E30 in AC? Well, it’s just another shiny E30. You’d have no reason to care if you picked the wrong one, because it would be exactly the same as any other.
Don’t worry, you’ll be able to find it later.
But it’s not just vehicle identification where these features matter. The IBIS is obviously pretty genre dependent, but whilst the fully modelled heating system might take on bus-simulation-specific importance in some respects (I gather the passengers can get rather cranky if the bus is too hot or too cold; no, I am not joking), it is also essential in that it guarantees your windows are clear to see through as you negotiate the city traffic. Anyone who has watched a reasonable amount of motorsport in their time (or anyone who drove my old 205) will know just how debilitating a critical lack of effective condensation dissipation can be to the pace of a driver. Yet I don’t know of a single racing sim that has modelled misting windows and functioning heaters. Many titles don’t even model a windscreen. Hell, when iRacing finally introduced windscreen dirt build-up (something which was in NR2003) after a number of years it divided the community.
When looking into other simulation genres, flight sims seem to be an area that take a drastically different approach to racing sims. The level of detail and modelling that go into a top quality sim-plane simply dwarfs that of the comparative car model. The fully interactive cockpits, the full system modelling… There is very good reason that these individual planes have been sold, in some cases, at a price far higher than any racing sim. There’s also a reason that these individual planes come with huge manuals and guides: planes and cars are very different things, and so are the arts of pilot and driver. Is there any point drawing parallel between the two? I certainly think there is, and the differences are as important as the similarities.
First of all, the vehicles themselves. Planes, as vehicles, are on a much grander scale than cars, both in a literal physical sense, but also in terms of complexity. Even the most complicated car dash effectively has a relatively meagre smattering of buttons and switches, that typically do relatively easily understood functions. Of course, there are exceptions; I doubt many can look a modern F1 wheel square on without feeling a slight sense of intimidation at the prospect of mastering its numerous functions in the heat of a race. But that is perhaps the extreme, and compared to the myriad of dials, screens, buttons and switches adorning the cockpit of a modern plane, there is no real comparison. There is quite simply a lot more to flying a plane than driving a car, and this brings us onto what you do with these machines.
In a car out on track, the experience is primarily led by the directional inputs of the driver; the throttle, brake and steering. Gears and clutch are just ways of managing acceleration, braking and changes of direction. In a plane, it’s quite the opposite. On a flight of any real distance, you aren’t there making drastic changes of direction. You’re not making split second decisions about throttle and steering adjustments. As much as directing it, you are managing the plane. It makes perfect sense then that racing sims should be so focussed on the immediate, and similarly that flight sims see such a focus on complex underlying details of the aircraft. But to me that doesn’t form an argument for why racing sims can’t and shouldn’t embrace more of this side of things.
The pilot in a Boeing 747 might have a lot more time on their hands under normal conditions to fiddle around flicking switches on his or her dashboard than the driver grappling with their E30 does, but similarly the 747 pilot has a lot more switches to flick, and a lot more need to flick them. Why can’t a simulated E30 have a working everything that a real E30 has? If flight sims can tackle the complexity, scope and scale of a Concorde or the like, why can’t race sims tackle the simpler (I’m not saying simple!) task of realising the full complexity of a given car? If the flight sim modders and community can achieve such things, offer them at the respective price point, and find a market for them, why can’t cars be recreated in similar levels of detail and sold for prices reflecting the level of work? Perhaps more to the point, why aren’t the community willing to support such an approach?
Piece of piss. Very complicated piss.
Another “sim” genre seems to also offer an interesting point of comparison. Space sims (yes, something of an oxymoron, so let’s just consider them simulations of what life in space might be like) look set for an interesting future. Not long ago, Star Citizen (from the creator of the Wing Commander franchise) smashed through its Kickstarter campaign target, and Elite: Dangerous, the next instalment of the highly respected Elite series, has at the time of writing secured half of its £1.25 million target with some time yet to go. Further to these, the Minecraft team have 0x10c in the pipeline. Whatever becomes of these titles, the hype and activity around them right now, and the backing they have received, at least demonstrates one thing: there is demand.
Many have for years bemoaned the lack of a modern version of Elite. It isn’t just about having the Elite moniker either, but the type of gameplay and approach. Early feedback and comments I have seen accumulating around each of these titles seems to suggest quite strongly that people want a deep, detailed, full experience. There are requests for full ship modelling; not just graphical, but systems and technical aspects. Here you have a genre “simulating” something that doesn’t exist; there is effectively a blank canvas that, provided they obey the known laws of physics (and of course, who knows what our understanding and technology will enable in thousands of years from now), no one could call unrealistic. And yet people are demanding this level of detail. They positively crave it.
Of course, the world of racing sims has also had its own foray into the world of crowd-sourcing with SMS’s PCARS title. A big difference between the approach taken there and that seen with the aforementioned Kickstarter initiatives is one of the crowd’s involvement beyond putting up the cash. This could have gone either way, and we won’t know until the final product is delivered just how it has turned out. What the PCARS project has successfully shown is that people are willing to put money up front for a non-existent racing sim, in the hope that in return they get the product they want. The “inclusivity” offered to investors, and the way the project seems to be heading, does not, however, provide an answer as to whether or not people are willing to pay for a full depth, no compromise racing simulation (no, this isn’t a slight against PCARS). In the Kickstarter video for Star Citizen, its creator Chris Roberts makes it quite clear the title is aiming itself as a title that simply could not be done on console; a celebration of what the PC is all about as a gaming platform. But conversely, in some ways PC racing sims seem to be moving away from this and towards the console titles.
Today’s simulators seem to be taking increasingly large steps to broaden their appeal. GPL was truly a formidable title. Despite the presence of lower powered cars and variable difficulty levels, GPL didn’t really have a learning curve as such; it had a learning line. That was vertical. Although quite primitive in many respects when compared to the best on offer today, it was an uncompromising title. It was difficult, it was challenging, and it felt pure. Its physics simulations might not have been wholly accurate by today’s standards, but you got the feeling it was trying its best. GPL was not just a benchmark and genre defining simulation, it was also a fantastic game (very much in keeping with the Elite series, which had a very steep learning curve and immersive experience). The (now sadly quite rare) full line-up of cars, tracks and drivers that comprise a full season provided the game with soul and with a narrative. It didn’t need CGI cut-scenes or RPG elements, it just put you in race after race with the same familiar names: your team-mates, your respected peers, and your fiercest adversaries (often not mutually exclusive).
GPL’s AI and league structure (i.e. a proper championship roster of drivers and tracks) was what provided the “game” element. However it might compare to today’s offerings, it was a sim through and through in terms of the driving experience. Flawed and inaccurate? Probably. Tightly focussed on trying to offer the experience of competing in the GP world of yesteryear with little concession to accessibility or crash-bang-wallop fun? Very much so.
AC looks set to be a truly great title, and one I am very much looking forward to. I don’t want there to be any doubt about that. But I look back at some of netKar Pro’s now gone and forgotten features, such as the interactive cockpits and fully modelled start-up procedures, and can’t help but feel sad that there is effectively a backward step going on. AC will no doubt be a big march in the right direction in many areas, and I’m not for a second suggesting it will be an inferior title to its predecessor. But there are features that the devs are not only capable of implementing, they have already implemented them in the past, that may not be making it into an all new sim. This, to me, is a crying shame.
I can sit here and wish the devs would include this or include that, but these things are only going to make it into a title if one of two things happens: you get some devs so focussed and passionate about the subject matter at hand that they won’t rest until they have modelled every little detail they can manage; or the audience makes it clear that this is what they want. The former is something of a difficult stance to adopt. One title springs to mind when I think of such an approach. As I have mentioned many times before, whilst Racing Legends might stand head and shoulders above all others in my mind as the sim of my dreams, the fact it is the sim of my dreams and not a sim on my hard-drive tells its own story. Developers don’t sit in the privileged position of having all of the time and resources their every whim may desire; they are individuals, groups and companies, with mortgages, children and bills to pay like everyone else.
So what do simmers want? I must confess I get confused by the racing sim community. On the one hand, I see no other community so quick and willing to criticise a title for its lack of realism, or for deviating from the well-worn sim path. And yet, with that, I see a community which, on the whole, does not seem to really crave the realism they claim to demand. I don’t really know why this is, but I think people need to consider exactly what it is they do want before being so vocal and vociferous about what it is they do not.
I get the impression that the simulations many in the community wish they could have are those used by the F1 teams. If teams spending hundreds of millions of pounds a year going racing invest time and resources into these simulations, they obviously judge them to be of worth. As such, what better verification of quality and accuracy can you get than that which comes from the people at the cutting edge of automotive design and implementation, running the most tightly monitored and scrutinised cars in history? It would be easy to make an argument that such set-ups are the ultimate vehicle simulators. But I am not convinced they are; the role of the F1 team simulators are not to simulate the experience of driving a car per se, but to provide a tool to help with car and driver development.
F1 drivers in a simulator will not be interested in the simulated form of many of the real aspects of driving. The aim is to work on learning the track, general set up work; they won’t be testing with dirty visors, mechanical frailties and failures, other cars etc. Despite the name, an F1 simulator is, in many ways, not really concerned with simulating. You would expect the physics engine and modelling to be top drawer, but in terms of simulating reality, they only really have to concern themselves with a small subset of the real world’s complexities. In this respect, iRacing’s strive to market itself as a driver training tool does not necessarily mean the product is automatically moving in the right direction in terms of absolute simulation. I agree with the general sentiment within the community that physics are more important that graphics, but I think it’s worth remembering that physics aren’t everything.
Curiously, I seem to detect a sentiment that this stripped back approach is what a racing simulation should be. That anything else is gimmicky; is somehow making the experience a “game”. But I don’t think simulations and games need be mutually exclusive, and indeed think that at times they necessarily overlap. The sims we play are video games, fundamentally.
Whatever a simulation is simulating, the end point is that is needs to be fun for the people “playing” it. What is or isn’t fun is obviously going to vary immensely from person to person, but there seems to be a sometimes strange approach to fun in racing sims. It is quite obvious that for some people, winning is all that matters. iRacing, the title with undoubtedly the best organised, structured approach to assessing performance via numerous metrics, positively thrives on the element of competition. But I’ve heard numerous stories that really make me wonder why people go to the effort. The use of loopholes and exploits provide a case in point, but stories of people deliberately using inferior hardware as a means to obtain a competitive edge seem a particularly striking one. Here people are diminishing the experience, reducing the accuracy of the simulation, for the sake of being “better” at it. It’s not hard to see when simulating a sport that competition comes into it, but I can’t help but ask the question: why bother?
The fun for me comes from the challenge, from the experience. I would rather be slow and off the pace but know I am experiencing something as close to reality as possible, than be winning in the knowledge that I am deliberately diluting the simulation. On a broader scale, I think this behaviour manifests itself in subtler ways, perhaps subconsciously. I think it’s fair to say that some people would rather think they are good at something than face up to the fact that they are not. Many of the people who enjoy bashing around in Gran Turismo, invincible to damage, generally doing a terrible job of race driving would likely not have much fun in the world of netKar Pro. Whilst toning down netKar Pro’s more extreme elements of simulation might make the title have a broader appeal, there are also a number of people for whom such feature reduction diminishes the appeal.
I can very much sympathise with the developer’s position here, and completely understand the AC team’s comments about how “everyone wants to race a 24 hour race, driving at night, under heavy rain, with broken suspension and a puncture. But just one time for a try.“ I get the sentiment, but it seems to me to miss the mark a bit.
I might be in a minority of the whole gaming scale in wishing for more and more intricacy in my racing sims, but I’m also a little disheartened by being told what people do or don’t want; they don’t seem to be speaking for me. Many in the community raised an eyebrow when Codemasters announced they would be dropping cockpit views from some titles as “no one uses them”. But similarly, I raise an eyebrow when I’m told proper that start up procedures, interactive cockpits, deeper vehicle systems simulation, component modelling and management are not being included because it’s not what people want. Of course it won’t appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t appeal to others.
To return to the topic of space simulations, an interesting video recently came to light featuring an interview with David Braben and Chris Roberts about their respective titles in the works. Some of the things they discuss are the issues of trends in genres, and the effect of publishers. Both of their titles are being made publisher free, and in doing so removing the restrictions and demands that accompany going down the traditional development path. Fundamentally, they are taking out the money men who reduce games to the lowest common denominator, and giving themselves the chance to make the games they want to make. In a sense, this is the artist taking back their art. None of the big players in the racing sim market run through the conventional publisher model, but there still seems to be lot of (self-imposed) restrictions on development. Some of this is necessary; it’s called discipline, and it is essential if a title is going be released in a reasonable time frame without the developer going bankrupt in the process. But some of it seems, for want of a better word, a little short-sighted.
As someone with no prior interest in Space sims, the words and conviction of Braben and Roberts regarding their new projects are highly appealing.
I wouldn’t have thought there would be much of a market for a hardcore bus driving simulation. Whilst I don’t know how OMSI has fared in terms of sale figures, the forums are very busy and it certainly seems to be doing ok for itself and gaining plenty of recognition and positive response. How many people want a fully featured racing sim, with as many details modelled and included as can possibly be incorporated? In short, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that. But I’m not convinced the devs do either. As people look for what separates one title from another, such a change in approach could at least make a title stand out.
It’s taken decades for Roberts and Braben to put their latest titles forward as propositions for the gaming public, but the millions of pounds being put down as backing show that there is plenty of want and demand. If we can’t have a bit of “Build it and they will come” in the sim racing community, how about a bit of “Show them the architect’s drawings and see if they would like to”?