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Simbin, ISI and the State of Sim Racing

Simbin, ISI and the State of Sim Racing

As many of you will know, VirtualR is open for guest articles. Jean-François Chardon is the first one to take up the opportunity, allowing me to publish his very interesting article for you to enjoy.

Please make sure to read his indepth story as it contains lot’s of interesting infos and quotes from developers and drivers involved in our favorite hobby. And when you´re done, why not let him know what you think in the comments?

By : Jean-François Chardon aka [GTR-O]Slowest –

The universe of the online simracing is about to shake a bit. Until recently, it was mainly populated by three big entities: GTR2 (SimBin), GT Legends (SimBin) and rFactor (Image Space Inc.).

In November 2006, our little world received a new life form: Race (SimBin). It was a very promising and nervous one, due to its main licence: the WTCC. Eleven months later was it only reaching leagues championships calendars that an unexpected game arrived and jeopardised its elder’s future: Race07 (SimBin). Some sort of a little brother to Race06, only more powerful, handsome and immersive.

As we speak, here, this youngest member of the Race family is already about to give birth to an addon, scheduled for 14th of August 2008. You’ll all have recognized “GTR-Evolution”. This game, as an addon, will still be using the old 3D engine, but with consequent improvements made by the SimBin team. The gameplay will also offer new features such as the long time requested possibility to schedule a pit stop from inside your cockpit.

This is a bone to bite for all of us who are waiting for a still hypothetical GTR3 on Lizard engine. Noone knows if GTR3 will someday be a reality, and SimBin won’t comment on this matter. What we know is that Atari has just announced a “Race Pro” game for Xbox console, and that the game will use Lizard, the new SimBin 3D&physics engine. Lizard should then be quite ready for console, but maybe does it need some work for PC usage?

SimBin team has been quite busy these last months: Race’07, its addons, Race Pro (XBOX). We can presume that now, they’re free to begin a new project. Will it be GTR3?

A sure thing that I learned directly from SimBin, though, is that their future titles will continue to be available on Steam. It offers them useful tools and features along with the ability to reach a larger audience, and thus contributes to raise the sales for their games.

So, SimBin seems to be really determined to become bigger and even more successful: increased work-and-release rhythm, wider variety of licensed series, presence on the consoles market (we’re still waiting for the Xbox version of GTR), together with the will of a better listening and reactivity to the feedback coming from the community. For instance, we’ve been very pleased to see that the bugs that we had pointed out in Race07 have all been fixed in a record-beating time. Even the smallest details! So, in Sweden, they’re doing really fine, thanks for asking.

From Image Space Inc.’s point of view, that success is quite a good thing in a way because all SimBin’s titles have always been based on ISI’s engine: GMotor2, each commercial success making the license money flow into ISI’s cashing machine. But this is all going to end! It’s been a while now that SimBin has been thinking about developing their own engine to avoid extra costs, but also to be able to better control the long term production by knowing every bit of the engine and being able to update it when needed. And as Diego Sartori (Creative Director at SimBin) says: “The ISI engine we have been using until now would require massive investments to make it work for us in terms of the game-play we want our games to have and in terms of the tech advances we would like to do, this money was spent (and a lot more) on developing the Lizard engine. Now that we control the future of our game engine we can make long term plans and prepare the engine for new game-play innovations.”

This new engine, called “Lizard”, will of course support DirectX10 – and thus will feature all kinds of nice special effects that DX10 allows – but also will be able to handle any kind of 3D game. That’s sort of obvious… Nevertheless, SimBin thought it would be good to insist on this particular point on the Lizard presentation webpage. Does it mean that the Swedish studio is about to extend its activities to other gaming genres, or is it just a call to other developers to license the new engine for their own games and thus create an additional income for SimBin? Those two options could be both true, but SimBin won’t comment on this matter.

ISI has got to react to this new balance in the force. In fact, the GTR-Evolution, and the STCC addon also scheduled for 2008, should logically be the last SimBin projects using GMotor1. But ISI is quite confident in the future. As Gjon Camaj explains, “Each product including rFactor, has its only niche and each new game contributes to expand the racing sim community, which is ultimately good for ISI. As a small company, we have the luxury of reacting quickly to both the marketplace and our own whims. We plan to fully exploit both! (laughs)”.

Because here is a fact : SimBin being quite a big « factory », its workers must always think in terms of budget, have to calculate the cost / benefits ratio for any innovating idea they might have before actually working on it. For instance, any member of the sim racing community would love to buy a game including both SimBin games’ quality on physics, sounds and looks and rFactor’s online game-play features, like the ability to switch seats in a same car with a co-pilot when racing an endurance. This feature being one of the biggest advantages rFactor can claim over its concurrent. “Could we ever see such a thing in a SimBin game?” I’ve asked. Here’s Sartori’s answer:

“The racing game genre on PC is small, in fact so small that you don’t even see it on a pie chart of the different genres popularity. What is worth noting is that the cost/benefit ratio for such a feature makes very little financial sense. In what we know, as an already small genre there are very few users that would benefit from these requested features. So we would be faced with the question of how many new cars or car classes, or for that matter tracks, could we do with the same money… And then, it is time to do the math on whether the requested features or additional tracks/cars/car classes would generate most sales. Nothing is of course this black and white, but in general, this is how we need to approach it when doing the budget for our game productions. There are so many things we would love to give and share with the community, but it needs to make financial sense so that we can continue to make games without going under like so many other small developers do…”

And, as I said, in ISI studios, the atmosphere is quite the opposite: they have time to listen and provide any help and answers to the community – because it is, still today, almost the only pool of customers for this very multiplayer oriented game -, they have great reactivity, and freedom of action when it comes to adding a special feature requested by the players. And talking about action, there’s going to be some in the upcoming months… ISI is presently working on rFactor2, an evolution of this small company’s biggest success that will include everything that the previous version lacked. The most obvious example would be a weather system including rain and varying humidity and temperatures. Other improvements like the ability to save one’s game when it needs to be interrupted, or the presence of multiple official and licensed series. ISI, by the way, is currently asking for ideas on the RSC forums to improve the game. One sure thing, though, is that the rFactor philosophy will remain: modding possibilities!

rFactor had soon become a must-have game when it was released. But since that time, there have always been very passionate debates and opinions duels: on the blue side, the fans, who just love rFactor’s “do it yourself” spirit, its accurate physics engine and its innovative multiplayer gameplay. Those often say that other games are just crap, without any deeply-thought arguments to support this very brainy theory. And on the red side, those who say, quite wrongly as we’re going to see, that those mods, being made by amateurs, are hence less realistic and badly modelled as they have not been built and developed with real data and models.

This is a wrong opinion, because modding has become quite a professional thing these last years: the best modders have gathered into teams to work together on big projects, each member being specialized in a specific task. They manage to create top quality mods, as some teams even work with the help and feedback of real-life pilots such as Sean Edwards (Porsche Supercup & FIA GT), Stuart Moseley (LMS) or Tom Milner (ALMS) who all play rFactor a lot and are leagues members and forums addicts. With such help in the feedback, they can improve the car physics and try to reach the maximum realism with their mod.

Some real-life racing teams even ask the best modders to model their car for promotional use and place a simulator in the paddock for the visitors to use. Sometimes, the most talented modders are contacted by SimBin, as it might have been the case for Renato Simioni and the Race07 addon. The modders are not really interested in making money from their work (lots have failed while trying to professionalize themselves), so, as a payment for an order, they receive, for example, a VIP access for the next race, which is all a racing fan could wish.

But for the huge majority of modders, the hardest part is to get real data. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to search… That’s why we can see some really particular mods which are probably the cause of some prejudges about rFactor mods.

The ISI developers are aware of this problem and will try to upgrade the tools available for modding. On this subject, Terence Groning says: “I think it’s difficult to expect the vast majority of modders to be able to model physics as accurately as possible: that would require engineering knowledge as well as access to real-life data. Accurate race tire data, for example, is nearly impossible to obtain due to the fact that the tire companies keep that data very proprietary. That being said, it is important to many of our users to have accurate physics, and therefore it is important to ISI. While some 3rd party physics tools have been developed for rFactor (often with significant help from ISI employees), our main focus is on future products. For our next title, we do plan on offering tools that will enable more consistent mods.”

And Laurent Evenisse adds: “It is more a matter of data than of tools. You know, with a simple text editor, you can change the behaviour of any car in the game. The question really is about what you encode. We, at ISI, work with almost the same developing tools as the community. It is quite easy to add a car to rFactor, and that’s probably why we can see many mods with inconstant quality. That’s an unavoidable consequence! We can rely on the excellent job done by, though, where you can choose a mod with the help of commentaries and notes given by other players. There must be like a dozen of perfect quality series and tracks on that website!”

The demand for realism by the community and the bad faith contests between pro-simbins and pro-rfactors have only one benefit: pushing the virtual always further towards the real. And that’s the only reason why we could continue to argue. We have to admit that the realism of a simulator is a utopia. We can only approach it asymptotically. We will never (or in quite a long time and with controllers and display devices that are still to be invented) see a programme that gives us the exact same sensations and car behaviours than the real thing.

The pleasure that you get from driving on a game should be the unique valuable argument when it comes to defending a game. Valuable? Not really, as the pleasure is a very subjective notion. Each player having a different feeling from his mates on a same game, it is quite useless to use it as an argument. What we can do, though, as racing games users, is to applause each effort made by the developers, the modders or the devices makers in the direction of a better immersion, to encourage each upgrade leading to a better realism. And it has been working quite well for quite a time, now. If you look back to GTR1, the progress made since that time is astonishing! To get a better view of this fact, I’ve asked Pierre-Yves Corthals to share his experience of both real and virtual WTCC driver with us:

“I had played GTR1 a lot because my Viper Belmondo and the Ferrari JMB that I had for the 24Hours of Spa were included in the game. It was nice to be able to drive my cars in a game, but I had no sensations with the driving, even if, at that time, GTR1 was a big step forward in the world of racing simulators. When Race07 was released, I immediately tried my WTCC Seat.

It goes without saying that the evolution between GTR1 and Race07 is extraordinary because at last, we can feel something when driving. And moreover, there is grip, which GTR1 lacked a lot! But it’s not perfect yet and quite far from it, actually. There’s still a huge difference between the real grip and the one we have in Race07, but all in all, it is much better now, even if a real WTCC car will be much more bonded to the road. For instance, it’s quite surprising to see how easy it is to block the wheels when braking. Normally, you almost never do, even when you brake a bit late. It happens quite often in the game, in my opinion.

Apart from that, the rest of the behaviour is relatively quite accurate. The corner speeds are the same, more or less, as well as the way you enter a corner: where you just release the right pedal without braking, you can do the same in the game without problem. On this matter, it is quite realistic. The track models are just perfect, except maybe Porto, which is really strange in the game, but anyway, it’s an excellent work. I used approx the same gearbox settings in the game than I did in real at Macau. In fact, playing Race07 is a very good training when you have to learn a track before a race week-end!

On the visual level, the least I could say is that it is really well done! It’s quite logical because they were present on every race in 2006 and 2007 and they were taking pictures of everything, all the time: the steering wheels, the suits, the gloves, absolutely everything! They asked us to try different versions of the game during the WTCC season, asking for our feedback, it was really cool! And the sounds are very well done too! They have put recording devices in our cars to help them making the sounds for the game. Hum… by the way, I think they might have made a mistake because my Seat sounds like a Honda! (Laughs)

It is pretty obvious that on a psychological dimension, it has nothing to do with the reality any more. Because racing in a game is nice and all, but in reality, you’ve got the pressure, the real contacts with cars and walls, the sponsors behind you that you must not disappoint, the objectives, your contract… Those things you don’t have to cope with in the game!

When I first played Race07, I realised that it’s the game you learn to handle. Not the car. The controls not being 100% the same than in reality (pedals, steering wheels, speed sensations, for example), it requires a big amount of practise before you can get the same results than in a real car. You have to play a lot before being able to estimate accurately the speed at which you’re going to enter the next corner.

About the car setup, I’ve already tried to use the exact same one I was using in reality and to be honest, I was quite puzzled not to feel any significant change. For instance, the differential setting of the car seems a bit useless in the game where it should actually change the behaviour more radically. If you decrease it, the car will turn much more easily when you release the brakes and when you accelerate at the corner exit. This means less understeer! In the game, I didn’t feel the change I was expecting on a traction car like the Seat.

But I must acknowledge that I don’t really play a lot, as I don’t really have time for it! I can hardly play two hours a month, so my opinion is somehow incomplete as I have not sufficiently learned to handle the game to feel the effects of those setup changes.”

What Corthals got right for sure is the reduced amount of grip compared to reality. SimBin is aware of the fact. Diego Sartori explains: “Yes, it is a valid point: we introduced a new tire model with RACE 07. Whether we did good or bad is subject to taste, we have received input from many race drivers and there is so far no red line in the inputs, some like it, some don’t.” That’s a fact… What are you supposed to do when 50% of the testers say it is ok and the 50 others say it is not? A 100% is impossible to reach, as we’ve seen before: all players react differently to a same game.

Anyway, the lack of grip is quite a big slap on the cheeks of those who said that GTR2 was “crap” because too grippy, too easy, too “console”. In fact, they were so wrong… it’s still not grippy enough! They were just too much used to the slippy behaviours the cars had in GTR1! “Realism” never means “difficulty”. Never.

Lots of people criticize this or that game or mod with more or less eagerness and when they’re asked if they have tested the game, they usually answer “yeah, a couple of laps were enough to get the idea”. Quite sad, isn’t it? Because as Corthals explains very well, the knowledge of a game, whichever it is, and the practise on it are two essential things prior to make oneself an opinion: you can be a professional WTCC driver and still be beaten by hard-core gamers on a Race07 server who master the game controls and their equipment. When he speaks, for instance, about the blocked wheels while braking, we immediately think that if his brake pedal offered the same pressure resistance that the one in his Seat, he would not have those difficulties. With more practise, he could better proportion the pressure applied on the pedal, which is much softer than real ones. Although I have my driving license and own a manual clutch car, I experience some problems myself when using the clutch pedal in a game. And when I play a particular game during a few days, and then switch to another, I need a certain time to recover my driving.

I also wanted to have some feedback from another great pilot, in both virtual and real worlds: Thierry Labagnère, who’s a sport driving teacher in real life and an excellent and untiring online driver:

“In Race07, despite the great things the game brings, something is still missing that makes me sad: the chassis height has no effect on the weight applied on the different wheels. I was disappointed when I tried to modify the height of the car on each tyre to balance the temperatures of the gums. I expected to see a variable next to each tyre with Kg as unit, varying as I changed the height of each side of the car.

In simple words, when you heighten the chassis on a single tyre, the car weight balance changes and that tyre has less weight to deal with, but also less grip to offer you. That allows you to keep the tyre at a nominal temperature, avoiding overheating. I didn’t see any change in the temperatures ingame, though. That’s a bit sad because that’s one of the most important setup modifications we make. One of the first things we change. I had tried other sims and none of them except Nascar Series by Papyrus managed the weight balance…

And about what Pierre Yves Corthals said, I think that when you’re not used to video games, the speed sensations are hard to get on a flat screen. I personally still have some difficulties to drive in a game without the hud displaying the current speed. So many things are missing… details… but enough, though, to confuse the real pilot. Let’s take a single example: we could use a force feedback in the brake pedal to really use the brakes like in reality. A brake pedal that would reproduce the brakes overheating effect would be so good… Let’s dream of a Logitech G30 ! (laughs)”

As we know, now, the usual costs / benefits ratio question is brought on the table when the weights applied on each tire feature is to be discussed. According to SimBin, the present games already feature more setup options than most players, even the hardcore, can manage. So, adding support for corner weights would only add value to very few people and therefore, it would be hard to justify the added production cost. So that is something we most probably will not see in future SimBin games, except maybe if the majority of customers ask for it.

In conclusion, even if the perfect simulator does not exist and undoubtedly never will, our games do not cease to improve, for our greatest happiness. So, even if SimBin’s “Get Real” motto seems to be sometimes overtaken by money considerations, the games they sell to us are pure enjoyment jewels and the driving sensations never cease to increase. We also look forward to rFactor2, with great curiosity and impatience. With a good licensed series and a Dvd box distribution, it could be the surprise of the year 2009. So, even if those two working methods often divide the community, we have to remember that we are, above all, a big family, with the same interest and the same passion: SimRacing!

Interested in publishing a guest article like the one above? Just contact me!