Two weeks ago on stage at Apple's iPhone 5 launch event in San Francisco, EA Studios executive producer Rob Murray stood up on stage and demonstrated something remarkable - and it wasn't anything to do with Apple's shiny new smartphone.

Whilst he talked up the new Real Racing 3 for iOS, a colleague raced against Murray's best time set the day before, in hot pursuit of his ghost car. So far, so standard - people have been sharing time-attack scores and "ghost" cars for well over a decade. But then, in front of an audience of thousands in the theatre and online, his colleague shunted into his car and knocked him out of the way. Say what?

With one little bump, EA has pushed the concept of the ghost car - a staple of racing games - to its logical conclusion: to make games fun to play against your friends, anywhere and anytime, not just that mysterious three initial high score.

It's a ghost car!

The ghost car is a long established concept in gaming: that ethereal vehicle cutting a perfect, seemingly unattainable line in front of you, a recording of either your or someone else's greatest time played back to egg you on.

That irritating, translucent kart up ahead of you has just one goal, even if it's heading for the finish line in record time: immersion. "The appeal lies in seeing a visual representation of your past efforts," says Nintendo Life editor-in-chief Damien McFerran.

"Beating a ghost car gives you a tangible feeling of success which you don't get from merely checking your lap times after you've completed a race."

Racing a ghost Mario on Mario Kart 64

Surprisingly though, the ghost car isn't a well-documented concept. Gaming archive Giant Bomb lists just 37 games as having the feature, the earliest being the 1991 don't-call-it-podracing futuristic racer F-Zero for the Super Nintendo.

The first mention we can find of a "ghost" racer in any video game manual though is from Uniracers, first released on the SNES in December 1994 - and that wasn't so much a ghost car as a ghost unicycle, a demon one wheeler that even the developers at DMA Design struggled to beat. (We've scoured the manuals of every SNES and Genesis racing games we can think of, but let us know if you find any earlier mentions).

Early days

The origin of the ghost racer stretches back to the previous decade however, with one of the first 3D racing arcade games - Atari's 1988 Hard Drivin'. The game, one of the first to boast a proper clutch pedal in the booth, was also the first to let you not just see other's race times, but the actual recorded route they took on screen to try and match them.

The game was soon ported to home consoles, and the phantom car started popping up in other games as well, including the first Super Mario Kart. The mode would go on to appear in every version of the smash hit silly racing series since.

It's not hard to see why. With arcade cabinets and early consoles, multiplayer options were limited - there certainly weren't any Red Bull Gridsters face-offs. A ghost best time to race against was the next best thing.

"Back in the early days of racers, online modes were the stuff of a madman's dreams. Unless you had someone close at hand twenty-four hours a day, your multiplayer options were limited. Racing against ghost cars gave you the impression of human competition," says McFerran.

"No matter how much developers improve artificial intelligence in games, there's still nothing like battling a real person, even if it's yourself."

The creators of Hard Drivin' soon saw the potential in what they had created - and in 1993 filed two patent applications for it, granted in late 1996 (US patents 5,269,687 and 5,354,202, if you're wondering). Here's one of the diagrams showing just how it works - it seems so obvious now, but no-one had ever thought of it before Atari:

Getting online

The concept soon branched out from ghost cars to encompass everything from those pesky ghost unicycles to snowboarders (1080 Snowboarding) and even phantom freerunners (Mirror's Edge). The next generation of consoles arrived, packing more bits, more 3D - and crucially, internet connections, letting your ghost car drive right into your friends' home.

Sliding through the streets of MSR against a record time

Metropolis Street Racer, first released for the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, let you save your best times onto a memory stick to cart around, and post them online at the Dreamcast's online hub, Dreamarena. Users could then download them and race against the world's best and watch how they drove fast.

This set up later became a staple in Mario Kart for the Nintendo Wii and DS - but you were still pitted against strangers, unless of course you wanted to fumble around with Nintendo's notoriously complicated Friend Codes.

Around this time too, Midway Games, which owned Atari Games' rights and patents, started to licence its ghost car invention out to other developers. As Gamaustra reports, you can find name checks for those patents in the fine print of everything from Ridge Racer 6 to a 2006 remake of Sega's classic OutRun.

Going social

Fast forward to the iPhone era, and while ghost cars started out in arcades and raced on to the internet, their real home, it appears, is destined to be on mobile.

EA revolutionises the concept of the gaming ghost car

While smartphones can easily be lashed together over a network so friends can race each other, that play-now, play-anywhere focus they encourage means a whole new type of multiplayer has taken off - one right up the ghost car's pit lane.

"It's called asynchronous multiplayer; instead of racing at the same time as someone else, you can send them your race result and they can attempt to better it the next day," says McFerran.

"The beauty of this system is that you can race against people on the other side of the world, even if they're fast asleep at the time."

These sorts of games are inherently social - you can usually log in to Facebook to challenge your friends - and that's where Real Racing 3 comes in. With it, you "can jostle for race position and [you] can actually affect my final time," Murray said on stage. "This is something we have never seen done before."

It might not sound like much at first, but no previous game has let you literally barge a ghost racer out of the way. "It's taking the concept of ghost cars to a whole new level," says McFerran.

And since even before mobile phones had screens, the ultimate goal of the ghost car has always been to take gaming to a new level. From that 1996 patent, filed by Hard Drivin' team members Rick Moncrief, Max Behensky and Stephanie Mott:

"The user's interest must be captured and maintained by the simulator, thus requiring that processing be accomplished in real-time. The competing space and time goals thus make the task of injecting realism into the games more difficult."

In non-legalese: make racing more real by facing off against others, and make it more fun. With Real Racing 3 on the iPhone 5, it looks like EA might have pulled that off.

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