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Why Are Racing Developers Heading to the PC?

January 12, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Opportunities for developers of racing games seem to have taken a detour. The console track has narrowed to just a few high-profile vehicles, like Sony's Gran Turismo, Microsoft's Forza Motorsport, Electronic Arts' Need For Speed and Codemasters' Dirt. Indeed, many studios with racing experience have shuttered as demand for other titles has disappeared.

Meanwhile, independent racing specialists -- mostly European, like Eutechnyx, Slightly Mad Studios, Nadeo, and ShortRound Games -- say the PC track is wide open and they can only speculate why the confusing traffic pattern exists.

For instance, Andy Hubbard, creative director at ShortRound Games, believes a number of factors have hurt the console racing sector, including the fact that gamers have less money to spend than they did previously, and so they're less likely to invest their limited cash on a new IP when they can buy something more familiar.

"In addition, players seem to want to race in cars that they recognize and possibly dream about driving," he says, "which is one reason why the Forza, GT, and Need For Speed franchises do so well. It's not hard to see why if you're a car fan; which would you rather drive -- a completely fictional vehicle that you've never seen before or the latest Ferrari that you've seen on Top Gear?"

ShortRound's four founders -- Hubbard, Stu Pharoah, Kim Burrows and Steve Uphill -- had all worked on such racers as the Moto GP series, the Burnout franchise, Pure, and Split/Second at Black Rock Studio before Disney Interactive closed it down in June. ShortRound opened its doors just days afterward.

"There were some great plans for a sequel to Split/Second but, because it's so hard to make a decent profit on any game nowadays -- let alone one in a genre that's in decline -- it was decided not to proceed with another game. From what I understand, Black Rock's closure was largely due to the racing game genre and, in particular, the arcade aspect of it, being in decline," recalls Hubbard.

He also suspects that, with money and budgets being so tight, publishers are less willing to properly invest in everything that a new IP needs to get successfully off the ground and to grow a fanbase.

"If you look at all the successful racing franchises that are out there now, they've all been around for a very long time and have had many iterations to get them to this stage," he says.

Slightly Mad Studios' Project C.A.R.S.

Indeed, one series with well over a dozen titles under its belt is EA's Need For Speed, two of which -- NFS: Shift and Shift 2: Unleashed -- were developed by London-based Slightly Mad Studios in 2009 and 2011, respectively. Both focused on simulation/arcade racing rather than the arcade racing of previous titles in the series. And both were developed for both console and PC.

At Slightly Mad, creative director Andy Tudor recalls how his team got started -- first as mod makers for other people's racing games and then, in 2005, joining SimBin Studios, the Swedish developer of racing sims best known for GTR -- FIA GT Racing Game and GT Legends. In 2009, the core team moved on to form Blimey! Games and then Slightly Mad.

"At that point, EA chose us to do Need For Speed: Shift because the franchise had been kind of in a decline for a few years," says Tudor. "It was sort of like the Tomb Raider series, which had once been really innovative, really cool, and then, through the different iterations, it basically lost its sheen and had become slightly tarnished. What Need For Speed needed was a new set of eyes, someone to spiff it up a bit."

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Titi Naburu
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First of all, a million thanks for covering this aprticular game genre I desperately love. But I'm confused, some of the comments contradict what I know about racing games.

Large developers/publishers that want to earn profits for selling racing games will turn to the lowest common denominator: easy to play games with real cars ("players seem to want to race in cars that they recognize and possibly dream about driving"). So there you have Gran Turismo, Forza, Dirt and the true Need for Speed (Shift isn't truly NfS, no matter what they say). GT and Forza look like simulators, but are far from hardcore games like GTR, Live for Speed, rFactor, iRacing and netKar.

Speaking of them, small companies can aim to a narrower audience by developing hardcore games, like true simulators.

Online racing is cool because you race real people, which tend to be better drivers, but also allow you to chat. But I'm not convinced of this social gaming think. I know that it's the future (meaning that nearly everyone is going in that direction). But in the long term, racers want to race, not socialize. Some racing game should tackle properly the car and track modding community, but that's part of racing, unlike doing +1 of someone else's car vinyls.

Also, I don't believe better graphics will help much to increase interest in racing games. Better hardware should allow longer tracks with current graphic detail level. But the opposite has been happening: tracks get more beautiful each year, whereas tracks get shorter and shorter each year. Back in 1999, NFS3 had 3'30 minute circuits and Colin McRae had 4'30 stages. Now you get half as much in Dirt 3, because major developers care more about graphics than racing. Only the Nürburgring Nordschleife is saving us from track shortening, but that track was available in Grand Prix Legends 14 year ago.

I'd rather stick to my oldschool keyboard than to steer around a Wii U controller with unknown weight during my 3-hour racing session. There's no replacement for steering wheels, but these remain very expensive.

Amir Sharar
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Not to derail the topic of discussion, but I think would be fair to call GT and Forza simulators. Both games were recently patched and they both are up there with the best PC sims (which also evolve, look at iRacing 2.0). Secondly and most importantly, they do a great job of supporting wheels, in some regards better than in some of the PC sims.

Titi Naburu
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What I mean is that any fairly proficient gamer can drive well in Gran Turismo and Forza, even if they aren't racing specialists. I've been playing racing games for more than half of my life, but I couldn't drive GTR or Richard Burns, two ultra hardcore simulators only for the select few.

Luis Guimaraes
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It would also be fair to mention Trackmania Nations, in the category of non-simulator hardcore racing games.

Amir Sharar
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Maybe I'm just foolishly looking at the genre with a positive perspective because I've seen a lot of growth in the past year (multiple million selling racers released, brand new hardware released from numerous companies), but I think there are many opportunities for further growth. Though I cant' blame anyone if they take my optimism with a grain of salt. Software development of this scale is extremely tough.

Different pay models:

-We can see that Polyphony Digital's GT: Prologue recouped the costs of development, despite only featuring a fraction of the content of GT5. A large part of this has to do with the brand itself, yes, but it turned iterative development into something revenue generating. I really wish Activision looked at Eutechnyx's NASCAR as a long term project, and maybe part of that could have been developing a smaller title for PSN/XBLA that could have been a basis for a career-based season version that sold at retail. I feel like if publishers understood the nature of the development of these games more, they could plan out a profitable roadmap.

-Realizing how much content is enough, and releasing affordable DLC on top of it. Shift 2 had an incredible amount of tracks, much more than any other console racer in recent years. They really could have gotten away with fewer tracks, and then release the rest as affordable DLC. Of course, there are precedents set. With Forza 4 coming out with over 450 cars, Forza 5 can't reduce that number and go with DLC cars, unless they are very, very affordable. At the same time, people will not be up in arms if a game comes with out only 100 cars. These decisions aren't easy, but if value is made a priority users will like it.

-Surveying users in-game: Perhaps we don't see this due to legal reasons, I'm not sure, but it makes sense to me for a genre that is content driven (tracks and cars), surveying users about what cars and tracks they would like to see as DLC, and then to provide it, makes a lot of sense.

-Get creative with licenses to generate interest from other audiences: We saw an interesting promotion with Mortal Kombat, as it features Kratos in the game. Dead or Alive has Spartans. What if Shift 2 had the Batmobile from Batman Begins? What if DiRT 3 had the Love Bug? The point is that there are many opportunities to tie in various other aspects of entertainment.

-Free to play model. iRacing is sticking with their subscription based model, but we have seen many MMOs increase revenue from moving from a sub-model to a F2P-model. As there isn't any out right now, it can be an opportunity. Secondly, it allows for iterative development, which makes sense for genres like this. One could tweak tracks, physics, wheel support, etc. while having users getting exposed to the game. A simple example: Allow users to progress through a racing game to make money (via time trials, vs. AI, online, etc.) and to buy more cars. Or, they could fast forward some of that by spending real money to buy cars. Parts and upgrades can cost credits, or with real money one could purchase vendor discounts so they can be acquired with less playtime.

-Making racers more social: Cars are a part of people's lives. Allowing people to easily share pictures of their cars or videos of their races with their friends is not only good for grassroots advertising, but for helping assist the competitive nature of racing. Allowing others to view their races in real time is another feature that can help in both of the above mentioned aspects. Sim racer fans do some of this already (along with pics of their rigs :)) but making it easier never hurts.

-Seeing the wheel as a motion controller: Motion controls were all about making gaming more accessible to a wider audience. People knew how to golf in real life, and thus knew how to in Wii Sports. Ditto baseball, tennis and boxing, and you saw people spend $250 for that one game. We have seen many non-gamers play racing games in arcades because the concept of turning a wheel is natural to them. Wireless wheels like the SimRaceWay and Microsoft Speed Wheel are steps in the right direction, and can be gateway peripherals. There were many that saw Rock Band and Guitar Hero as packages well worth $200, and publishers should be confident in doing the same for racers and look at similar relationships between software and hardware makers as we saw with music games. As so many can attest, using a wheel is much more fun. Many of my friends play with my wheels and think that the cost is beyond their means, when the reality is that it isn't. Some new wheels combine the stand and wheels to be extremely portable (Thrustmaster Ferrari 430 Cockpit wheel), addressing another issue, space and setup.

I think Slightly Mad is taking the right approach because they understand their audience more than their previous publisher. Secondly, they are working something that is iterative in its development. Lastly it looks like it will give the user a bit of flexibility in how much they want to invest into the game. A light player (which there could be very many of) will only invest a little time and money, and heavy users will invest of lot of both (willingly and happily). It also accumulates user feedback during the entire process. Come to think of it, CARS does a few of the things I mentioned above. So it looks like they are looking at various opportunities and are making a good go of it.

Joel Nystrom
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Puns. They sure are funny!

Titi Naburu
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Amir, major racing game developers already to surveys. I've answered to at least two for NfS a few years ago. Plus, developers read forums a lot to service the fans.

"What if Shift 2 had the Batmobile from Batman Begins? What if DiRT 3 had the Love Bug?"

The point of those two games is that they are about professional racing. If you win on them, it means you are the best pro in the world. Putting a Batmobile spoils the charm. Arcade games are better suited for that kind of extras (dinosaur at NFS2, El Niño in NFS3, flower car in Beetle Adventure Racing). A simulator should have special racing cars as bonus, like the Ford RS200 in Dirt.

Amir Sharar
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I agree that racing developers already do surveys, but not though their games. They do it on their websites, through forums, and through email. What they seem to be catering to are all the die-hards that stayed with the game (which is fine) but are missing out on the opinion of those who may play the game casually or those who don't bother going onto forums for each title. I've put hundreds of hours in some racers, and I haven't visited their website for months on end, for example.

Jeremie Sinic
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As a long-time console gamer who recently bought a gaming PC, I would warmly welcome any iteration of Project Gotham or Forza on PC, if only for shorter loading screens (how I would like that!).

There just one point I really didn't get agree with: "Devoting your undivided attention when playing on a console seems to be much more of a struggle than playing on a PC". Where does that come from?

This just doesn't make sense to me. I play PC and console games sitting in the exact same couch, and I can confidently say my attention whether playing PC or console games is the same.

Even before that, in the SEGA Mega Drive (Genesis) days, I have been focusing on the games I was playing as much as I would be while playing Doom or Warcraft 2.

thay thay
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Slightly Mad Studios has announced a new multiplatform sim Test Drive Ferrari. The console market is too large to ignore. I wish it was more like NFS:Most Wanted than a sim though.