If you're a fan of the racing genre then chances are you're already intimately familiar with every curve and chicane in Gran Turismo and Forza, two franchises which have sold in the millions on PlayStation and Xbox, and offered players the chance to experience the thrill of hurling an expensive sports car around some of the world's most illustrious circuits.
However, while these titles benefit from massive marketing budgets that come hand-in-hand with major publisher support, there are other lesser-known examples of the genre which are equally worthy of your attention – in fact, freed from the constraints of console development and supported by a dedicated community of modders, you could argue that these less-exposed racers are offering a more faithful representation of high-performance motorsport.
That's certainly the case with Assetto Corsa, a PC racing sim by Italian outfit Kunos Simulazioni. It may not have the level of hype which surrounds its rivals, but it launched recently to rave reviews following years of intense development which not only utilised the expertise within the studio, but also incorporated feedback from players, testers and professional race drivers.
However, this success simply marks the latest step in a long journey which began a decade ago. " The company started in 2005 as a one man show thanks to Stefano Casillo, with the main objective to deliver to market an advanced version of his freeware project netKar," says Marco Massarutto, executive manager at Kunos Simulazioni. An online racing sim with a strong focus on realism, netKar would evolve into something even more complicated, and this would form the basis of Kunos Simulazioni's first game: netKar PRO.
"NetKar PRO has been made mainly by Stefano, who was supported by a team of three members, including myself. We met on a sim racing website that I founded in early 2000s, and when Stefano decided to get more involved in the sim racing business he asked my help to manage and coordinate the dev team. NetKar PRO was released in mid 2006, and we kept it updated for more than six years. Throughout the years Kunos Simulazioni has been involved in several professional projects, improving its know-how and developing software simulations for professional, gaming and promotional purposes."
The team at Kunos Simulazioni has swelled to 18 people now, and in 2009 the company relocated its office in order to better understand the development of racing games. "We moved to Vallelunga racing circuit, where our studio is still located, in order to get closer with the motorsport business," Massarutto explains.
"We’ve dramatically improved our knowledge and have also created a network of professional drivers, race engineers and teams that cooperate with us and use our software at different levels. Also, about 60 percent of the cars already included in Assetto Corsa – and many more of the new ones currently in development – have been brought right here for racing, testing or promotional events, giving us the chance to learn much more about them, driving many of them on track and reproducing each one at the best."
The end result is a game which offers an incredible sense of realism, replicating the sport of motor racing in a way which effortlessly surpasses what titles like Gran Turismo and Forza have achieved. This is sim racing on an entirely new level, but Massarutto admits it has taken a lot of effort to get here; in fact, Assetto Corsa rose from the ashes of a venture that Kunos Simulazioni could easily have abandoned. "In late 2008 we had the chance to produce a game based on the Italian GT Championship, but the project was cancelled due to licensing issues," he tells Red Bull.
"But we didn't delete it from our minds. In 2011, after we produced Ferrari Virtual Academy, we decided to bring all our experience, resources and know-how to our most ambitious project." The unique name is intended to give the game some genuine Italian flair – something rival games have also tried, but arguably with less authenticity. "We decided to call it Assetto Corsa – that can be translated as 'race trim', or 'race setup'," explains Massarutto. "Myself and Stefano wanted to give to the title of the game some Italian character, like we have already seen with Gran Turismo and Forza."
Back in 2011, the intention was to build the game using Unity, an off-the-shelf development platform – but this was ultimately abandoned in favour of a bespoke game engine in-house. "We considered Unity and we did some R&D," says Massarutto. "But when you're using a third-party engine you can't have total control, and in the end, mainly due to some critical limitations – management of graphics assets, performance, shadow issues and more – we decided to create our own engine. And this has been one of the keys to the game's success, because having licensed our technology to some automotive and racing companies, we brought home a bigger budget to make Assetto Corsa much better in terms of content, quality and features."
In the past few years Assetto Corsa has expanded almost beyond measure, and Massarutto claims that it is a very different beast now than it was at conception. "It has evolved so much that today it is completely different; much bigger and better than we aimed for back in 2011," he says. "In the original concept, we were aiming for about 15 cars and five tracks, with the idea being that we would expand it if the sales provided a reasonable budget. Instead, just after the launch of version 1.0, Assetto Corsa already includes 63 cars in 76 versions and 13 tracks with 18 different layouts; we are working on Zandvoort, Barcelona and Brands Hatch, as well as Silverstone and Monza historical versions, and with more than 40 new vehicles already in development, we'll be offering over 100 unique car models. Assetto Corsa is also much better than we envisaged back in 2011 in terms of graphics, features and potential, thanks to the awesome support from the modding community which is producing stunning cars and tracks."
Realism is what underpins almost every aspect of Assetto Corsa. The team isn't happy to simply to create an approximation of what it feels like to drive a snarling, powerful sports car – they want it to be so authentic it feels like being in the driver's seat. While you might assume that this element of the game would be the most difficult to perfect, Massarutto insists that the studio's background means that such a degree of realism came naturally. "It might sound strange, but from a certain point of view this has been the easier part," he says.
"Since we founded Kunos Simulazioni, our aim has always been to achieve maximum realism. Stefano has been able to think and conceive a physics model that was 'just natural', and he continued to improve it through the years. Then we located our studio on a racing track and we got a large amount of data, feedback and personal driving experience – and when Aristotelis Vasilakos joined the team – bringing with him his great knowledge of dynamic modelling, mechanics and car behaviours – we closed the circle."
Such is Assetto Corsa's incredible level of realism that professional racing drivers have used it to perfect their real-world skills. "Some of them are using Assetto Corsa right now to prepare for the Nürburgring endurance race, finding our laser-scanned Nordschleife the best ever created," states Massarutto with obvious pride. "Some drivers – who come to Vallelunga for race weekends or testing – we know very well now and usually pay us a visit to drive the virtual counterparts of their cars, or even the cars currently in development, giving us tips and suggestions about how to improve the game."
Prior to its final release, Assetto Corsa was made available on Steam Early Access, and this provided even more useful data for the team. "Producing very complex software that must run on thousands of different hardware configurations is really challenging," explains Massarutto. "Thanks to the Early Access program we have been able to release contents and features through a progressive path, and this has allowed us to make the core game much more stable and consistent, as well as keeping the quality high. Also, we got a lot of good feedback from the community and this has allowed us to improve a lot of features before we released version 1.0. Assetto Corsa is considered to be one of the most successful examples of what a good Early Access program can achieve, and we might decide to use it again in future."
Because Assetto Corsa is PC-based, it’s also possible for players to mod the game to better suit their wants and needs. While other developers might discourage such practice, Kunos Simulazioni sees this as another step in the game's natural development, and has even used the modding community to search for talent.
"The welcome that the modding community has given Assetto Corsa has exceeded even our wildest expectations," Massarutto says. "Many modders showed great skill and some of them have even joined our team, giving us the chance to create more content and maintain – or even improve – the overall quality. We’ve also seen some incredible apps created by external developers, and we might consider involving some of them in future to improve and expand Assetto Corsa even more."
Modders are even able to create their own cars – which means they could potentially add in vehicles which haven't been officially licensed to appear in the game – or any other game, for that matter. Massarutto admits this has caused some headaches.
"It depends on the internal policy of the single licensor," he says. "Some of them are more active than others in preventing the release of unauthorised content, especially if it involves Formula One or any other main series, and from this point of view we have seen more 'cease and desist' actions in the last two years than before."
Even so, Massarutto says that the team wants modders to continue what they're doing – even if it clashes with work that is already officially taking place. "From our point of view, even when modders decide to reproduce cars and tracks that are already in development as officially licensed contents for Assetto Corsa, we don't take any particular measure, unless we recognise that someone is deliberately trying to damage our work," he states. "We let people choose the content they like more. The day when gamers will prefer a mod to official content made by Kunos, we'll know that we are doing something wrong."
"When we conceived it way back in 2011, our aim was to create something that people would have seen as a 'Gran Turismo on PC', but featuring the kind of depth that only a driving simulation on PC can achieve. I believe we have done just that; in Assetto, every single car is unique. Like in real life, each car gives back a different feeling and generates unique emotions. I believe that the feeling you get in Assetto Corsa, mixed with laser-scanned tracks, makes it appear as real as possible."
It would seem that the critics agree. The game's launch was accompanied by glowing reviews, and this critical acclaim has confirmed to the team at Kunos Simulazioni that its particular brand of racing action has found its target audience. "Despite the fact that nothing is perfect and everything can be improved, reviewers and the general public have been able to appreciate all the work, passion and effort we put into this production," Massarutto says. "I couldn't have asked more, honestly."
Despite this, the team is still looking for ways to improve the experience and make it even more appealing to a wider group of players, and has picked up on one of the most common criticisms: that the online and single-player modes of the game feel curiously separate. "Some people say that the career mode is not properly connected with the rest of the game, and they would like to have more special events – actually, they always want more of everything, and that is a very good sign for a developer!" laughs Massarutto. "These are some of the aspects we want to improve this year."
With the game now out of the garage and on the track, the next phase (alongside polishing the main game itself, of course) is gradually releasing DLC packs, the first of which – the Dream Pack – is already available. "Currently we are working on the Bonus Pack, and that will be available as a free download for all users; we would like to release within a couple of months," Massarutto reveals. "We are still waiting for some approvals from our licensors, so I can't go deeply in details yet, but I'm sure that Zandvoort and the five cars included will make our followers very happy. We are also working on the Dream Pack 2, and that will include cars from Audi, Lamborghini and more – with some surprises – and will also feature the Circuit of Catalunya, which is currently in development. There is some other important news that will be disclosed soon; I can only say that we want to surprise our players even more."
Looking further into the future, Massarutto confirms that his team also has plans to include Virtual Reality in the game. "Assetto Corsa is already compatible with the Oculus Developer Kit 2, and we might improve this support after Oculus VR release the final retail version," he explains, before adding enigmatically: "We might have some other news in the future about extended support to Virtual Reality."
Regarding bringing Assetto Corsa to consoles – a question which must surely be on the lips of every Xbox One or PlayStation 4 owner reading this right now – Massarutto is a little more tight-lipped. "Who knows?" is the only answer he's prepared to give.
Thankfully, he's a little more forthcoming when talking about what the future holds for Kunos Simulazioni. "We have expanded our team to 18 people, in order to improve our productivity and share and extend our knowledge," he states. "It's hard to think outside of Assetto Corsa right now, because each one of us has been massively involved in this project – some for more than four years. Of course, we'll continue to be focused on the racing genre, but at the moment we see Assetto Corsa like a child; the release, like a birth, is just the beginning and we want to see it grow up before we let it go and start to think about something new."
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