Over the last couple of years, on-line games have become more and more popular, and there are genres that are so popular you can even make a living out of being a player, if you’re really good.
Paradoxically, on-line racing, or “simracing” as most people call it, has always been somewhat of a niche market when it comes to competing on-line.
Looking back in history, racing games have been around since the start of computer games. The first games sported a top down view, vertically scrolling track, and cars that threw themselves onto the player’s car.
As soon as computers became more powerful, the games moved from 2D to 3D and the first forms of competing head to head were split screen modes. The internet at that time was still too expensive, and modem connections too slow and cumbersome. That did not prevent people from coming up with hotlap competitions, where people simply submitted their fastest laps, either as a time or even with a replay. There were even off-line races, where everybody drove a predetermined number of laps and posted their total times. People could often choose when to race, and it was up to them not to cheat by trying more than once.
Then, in 1998, a game called Grand Prix Legends was released. Built by Papyrus, who was at that time already well known for their NASCAR titles that also allowed you to race on-line, this became the simulation that started on-line simracing. The game itself was unforgiving. It was a true simulation of the 1967 season of Formula One, when these cars sported powerful engines and no wings to produce downforce. Driving one of these cars in the simulation was hard and the system requirements at that time were brutal, so people needed a really fast computer to get acceptable frame rates. The simulation came with a dedicated server that allowed up to 20 people to race each other on a LAN and the internet. The community quickly caught on and added match making software and pretty soon, races were hosted around the clock and leagues started organizing championships.
After a while, when computer hardware had caught up, people also started providing “mods”, pieces of add-on software that upgraded the graphics, added new tracks and even new cars. GPL became a platform that was enhanced by its community so extensively that even after fifteen years the game was still being played.
The next big step was rFactor. Built by a studio called Image Space Inc., or ISI as most people call them, this was a simulation that was designed from the ground up to be “moddable”. ISI had their roots in commercial simulations and moved to racing games when they first released Sports Car GT. Already this title contained an engine that was very open and the studio was then asked to do a couple of F1 titles for Electronic Arts. License wise, those titles were not allowed to be moddable, but the community found out that if you knew how to, they still were. The contract with EA ended, and ISI decided to produce their own engine: rFactor.
This really is the “Flight Simulator” of simracing. Out of the box, rFactor came with some fantasy tracks and cars, but because it was so open, almost immediately after its release in 2005??, mods started appearing. Today there are literally hundreds of cars and tracks available, often built by enthousiasts that spend more time on such projects than professionals ever could.
ISI went on to enhance their simulation for the professional market and currently has many racing and formula one teams as their customer for “rFactor Pro”. In the last couple of years they have been busy migrating much of what they did and learned there into rFactor 2, currently out in beta.
Papyrus, after producing GPL, went on to create a few more NASCAR titles and in their last one, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (or NR2003 as most people called it), they had a few TransAm cars that were unlocked by a patch that appeared well after the initial release. Unfortunately, Papyrus went bankrupt a year after it’s release. Most of the studio’s assets and developers were later picked up by a company that initially went by the name First Racing. Arguably, they soon were forced to ditch that name after getting an extremely bad reputation in the simracing community. The reason for this was a modding group called Redline Developments. They developed a mod called GTP that featured four “GTP” spec Group C cars from the golden age of endurance racing, which in those years became more popular than formula one and was killed by the FIA because of that. Not only did this mod feature four totally new car models with new physics, but somehow they even managed to add night-time driving to the simulation. This mod in many ways was a showcase of what the original codebase was capable of and for this, and various other reasons, First Racing had to take legal action. Needless to say the community was not pleased at all, as everybody was extremely excited about this mod. Eventually, before launching their new product, First Racing changed their name to iRacing. They have a subscription based title with quality content out of the box, with the downside of not being moddable at all and being more expensive.
Other, mostly small companies, worth mentioning here are Live For Speed, which have a simulation with very good on-line play and mostly fantasy tracks and cars. Assetto Corsa is a simulation that is still in development, made by a small team that previously had a very hardcore simulation called netKar.
Now why hasn’t simracing become extremely popular by now? The software is capable of simulating a wide range of cars fairly accurately and runs on standard PCs. There is lots of hardware, ranging from a relatively simple set of wheel and pedals up to full cockpits, even with various forms of motion feedback. In fact the whole package is so good that lots of racing teams use these simulators for training and even trying out different new components and setups on their cars. By now there are even many examples of people who started as simracers and ended up driving real cars in real competitions very successfully.
I guess the answer is a combination of several factors. First of all, driving a car at the limit of its grip is still hard. It might look easy, but most people who try a simulator for the first time have a hard time keeping the car on the track, at any pace, for only a single lap. Secondly, you do need to invest in a wheel and pedals, which is a barrier to get started. Finally, races take a considerable amount of time, so like real racing, simracing might not be the best form of sports to watch. Some of its aspects are also hard to bring across on a video stream.
Still, I think simracing has a bright future. A lot more races are broadcast live nowadays and watched by people. Tools to do so are becoming better and easier to use. Simulations themselves are becoming good enough to be as much fun as real driving, if not more because you get the chance to drive many different cars you could never ever drive in real life, even if you were a really good driver.