Sean Cleaver spoke to Slightly Mad Studios’ Andy Tudor about Project CARS 2, the improvements in their Livetrack technology and how the developer balances feedback
Following the release of Project CARS in May 2015, its sequel was announced on Kickstarter just one month later. "We're still educatiing the public on how games get made with crowdfunding,” says Andy Tudor, creative director at Slightly Mad Studios. “Traditionally you would not even hear about the game until it’s announced at E3 and you’d think ‘well they must have been working on this for a year and a half of so.’ With crowd funding, you have to announce it straight away so you can start work, so we can send our art guys off to foreign locations to take photos and stuff.”
Racing games have been plentiful in recent years. Rally is making a big comeback and realism is paramount, and that’s not just photorealism. Slightly Mad’s Livetrack 3.0 software looks to create the most realistic racing experience we’ve seen. “It’s the sum of all its parts,” Tudor explains.
“Livetrack 3.0 is the ongoing technology we’ve had from back in the GTR days. What it brings to the table is that the tracks feel alive now. So it’s not just geometry where you turn up at a track and you drive on it.” During an event at Bandai Namco's headquarters we are shown more on the evolution of this technology. Laser scanning of tracks is now accomplished by drone flyovers, which not only get great geometry readings but can also show you the entirety of the visible field of view. Seasonal changes in the surrounding landscape can be more meticulously observed too.
We’re shown some screenshots with grids and lines that tracks the way wind moves across the Paddock Hill Bend at Brands Hatch, a track notorious for its variables, both designed and influenced by nature. All of this data is important for the aim of recreating realism.
“We look at what the competition are doing and they’re adding in dynamic weather or time of day. But it’s still a subset of all the tracks. So even the games that are coming out, even ones coming out this year. You can only go to a subset of those.”
Tudor is highlighting that many games can only have a race at a specific time of day and with only a specific pre-set length or what is often termend as 'pre-baked' situations and conditions. "It feels a bit odd to use that we're all in this realistic racing spae yet they're doing things that aren't technically possible or chose not to. Whereas our ethos is to make it as accurate as possible.
“Now there are all sorts of surfaces that can be swept onto other surfaces. The grass can now absorb rain. We’ve added fluid dynamics, which now causes puddles to form. The wind is a factor now. We take track temperatures, ambient temperatures, height above sea level and now with the seasonal stuff we’re adding in there as well, you’ll be faster in the summer than you are in the winter just for the natural atmospheric conditions that there are there. All that stuff means hopefully it’s going to be quite different every time you visit a track”
Project CARS was and will continue to be at the forefront of new technology too, being an early adopter of VR and having released Oculus Rift support for the full game. “We put the full game on there because we were so happy that you could sit in there for an hour or two and play the game without the motion sickness, without the issues you might have on other games. But you have to remember we were working with Oculus as well three years before it came out.
“I kickstarted it immediately and then made the terrible mistake of playing Team Fortress 2 as my first game. Which is, looking back, ridiculous. Because in that you’re jumping about, up is down, you’re firing rockets – you’re going everywhere. So of course you immediately feel quite motion sick.
“But over the time, over the three years, we found that we had to take stuff out of the game to make it more realistic. Stuff that we’d added in to make you feel G-forces, make you feel motion in the cockpit. And actually the stuff that we added into the Shift 2 Unleashed game, we had to actually take out because in VR that stuff will make you throw up because it’s motion of your head without motion of your real head. The racing genre has always been really, really supportive of third party peripherals. We’ve always had steering wheels, we’ve always had pedals and now we’ve got a helmet.”
Being a crowdfunded game, you have to be careful of what you promise to the backer. There comes a point where the features you want or could put into a game would be more damaging than if they were separated and included in a new sequel. I asked Tudor where the line is for a developer when they make these decisions.
“There’s three major criteria. The first is: Is it worthy of a sequel? If we added that would you think ‘that feels like a freebie, giving it away in a patch?’ So if it’s something where you’re like ‘oh this is really engaging, this is really an awesome feature,’ is it worthy of a sequel?
“The second is technically, does it involve rewriting a whole load of the game, like over 50 per cent? If so then technically it really can’t go in the same game because you’re changing so many underlying systems that it’d be kind of dangerous to do that.
“And the third thing is if a feature we want to add snowballs into other features. Go back in time to Shift 2, we wanted to add dynamic weather in there. We couldn’t add that stuff because it meant that you had to have pit stops, then you had to have different tyres and all that sort of stuff.
“In Project CARS 2 that extra thing is the Livetrack 3.0 stuff, the fluid dynamics, the seasonal changes, absolutely everything to do with the rendering and the physics. They’re all tangled together in a big web. So you can’t just add one of those into a patch because then you’ll go ‘something’s missing.’ All the other big features that support it aren’t in there.”
To create such realism is a balancing act for Slightly Mad Studios. “We’ve been making racing games for over 17 years now,” Tudor says, “and they’ve all been pretty well acclaimed so we think we know what we’re doing right and we know when things are wrong as well.”
When making a game that requires this level of realism, you rely on reality, specifically racing drivers. For Project CARS 2, Slightly Mad has recruited seven of them, across many disciplines. “The team have got lots of expertise in that area and know how to do it on a core level. The community know what they want and they play other racing games as well. It’s unfortunate but we often get a comparison like ‘oh it doesn’t feel like it plays in this game’. But we’re not trying to make it compare to another game, we’re trying to make it compare to reality.
“But really it’s the drivers and getting us out on the track and experiencing it first hand that really solidifies things. An example of this is a year ago we sent our physics guys and our art guys and all major key players off to Sweden to an ice track, to get it as authentic as possible.
Then the drivers give us feedback on what it should feel like. And then we go out there and we drive it and we’re like ‘oh, we haven’t got it quite right.’ So even though we think we know what we’re doing and we’ve got heritage in doing this kind of stuff, and even though the community are playing it and having a good time as well, when we actually go there and the drivers go out there and give us feedback like ‘actually it’s too slippery, it needs to have more grip.’
“That is extremely valuable feedback. So that acts as a large portion of the feedback that we put into the game.”