How a tiny team is taking on the giants of driving games with a next-gen racer of its own.
Project CARS creator Slightly Mad Studios couldn't be more aptly named. This independent developer is taking on the might of Gran Turismo, Forza and The Crew with a game that boasts a brand-new and untested funding model and is being developed via constant feedback from over 35,000 different users at any one time.
The crazy thing about it all is that it actually seems to be working - Slightly Mad is effectively ripping up the rulebook of games development and creating one of the most promising racing simulations of the next-generation at the same time.
A company filled with racing enthusiasts, Slightly Mad's manifesto for Project CARS is one borne out of a desire to cover all the bases, as the studio's creative director Andy Tudor tells Red Bull exclusively.
"We’re constantly striving to replicate what we see in real life - either on TV or from the grandstand or from behind the wheel - inside a video game," he explains. "But when it comes to cars, we all have our loves and hates, so rather than focus on one particular type of racing, we decided to cast the net wide and ensure there was something in there for everyone; many car styles to choose from, many motorsports represented, locations from all around the world and making sure the game is accessible to veteran racers like ourselves, car fans in general and newcomers."
Slightly Mad is a team with a proven track record in this genre, and has previously worked on the Need For Speed and Test Drive series. While many teams would have been content to keep a relationship with a big publisher like Electronic Arts going, Tudor reveals that going solo was vital to the studio. "Need For Speed and Test Drive are some of the biggest franchises in racing, but Project CARS was an opportunity to create our own IP and do it in a pioneering way. Breaking free from publisher control was crucial to allow this to happen, since we wanted to be able to communicate directly with the players."
Of course, when Tudor says 'players' he could actually mean a lot of things. Project CARS isn't your typical game where you only get to sample the results of development when the title is completed and officially launched. Instead, it's being developed with constant feedback from all of the people who have contributed via Slightly Mad's 'World of Mass Development' system - a community-driven funding model which could revolutionise the way in which titles are produced. Around 35,000 individuals have contributed so far, and all of them have had a special role to play in the making of Project CARS.
"The Slightly Mad team is around 80 people," Tudor says. "However, all our WMD community members are considered to be staff contributing to the game via feedback, collecting reference material, being involved in key decisions and being ambassadors that spread the word about the game.”
This innovative system of development is like a hands-on version of Kickstarter, where people who have pledged financial support can continue to be involved with the production of the title even after they have laid out their cash. It's an almost entirely untested method, but Tudor thinks it could change the face of gaming forever.
"We’re the first AAA console game to be funded and created this way," he says. "The biggest benefit is not sitting in the dark for two years hoping what you’re working on is good - we can simply release that idea to the community and they can give us instant feedback. So across the entire game there’s a constant barometer as to whether what we’re working on is good or not. As we make these small or large course changes, there comes a confidence that we’re sailing in the right direction."
As any developer will tell you, not all feedback is welcome, but Tudor insists that the process has been nothing but positive. "Early on, we were absolutely overwhelmed with the amount of chatter, but we soon got on top of it and over time have promoted some of the more prominent members to ‘Community Ambassador’ status in addition to taking on a number of forum moderators," he says.
"It’s absolutely fantastic having actual gamers playing each build - they report bugs immediately, spot issues we might have overlooked, critique new additions, and moan about things that remain unfixed for months. Continual bug fixing and improvement means we get to a high polish level faster than during a traditional development model."
Crowdfunding via sites like Kickstarter is becoming more and more important to game development, but it isn't without its perils and pitfalls - of which Tudor was aware when Project CARS was started.
"What if no-one turns up? What if managing so many expectations becomes overwhelming? What if we can never make a decision on anything? What if people want their money back? Well we’ve certainly had ups and downs, but here we are heading into the final stretch with a game that is visually stunning, handles fantastic, has compelling features and takes advantages of the very latest cutting edge technologies. So we hope that if all continues to go well, other companies and the industry on a whole may see the advantages of community-driven development."
Of course, player feedback can only take you so far. To achieve the level of realism the Slightly Mad team desired, professional help has also been brought in. Ben Collins - better known as "The Stig" from the hit Top Gear television series - has been joined by Nic Hamilton (professional racer and brother of Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton) and British Formula Renault 3.5 driver Oli Webb, all of whom have provided invaluable feedback which will make the game feel even closer to the real thing, Tudor says.
"Ben, Nic, and Oli know what real race cars feel like," explains Tudor. "They live and breath racing and have a terminology and way of expressing their passion for being behind the wheel that is unparalleled. So when they see our vision for Project CARS, their insight into either specific cars, handling in general, setting a car up, the process behind their preparation for a race weekend, or a deep understanding of a track gives us that extra 10% of authenticity and detail that allows Project CARS to be as close to reality as possible."
Given that Slightly Mad can no longer rely on the considerable bargaining power of a multi-million dollar publisher like Electronic Arts, you'd assume that convincing car manufacturers to allow their vehicles to be portrayed in the game would be somewhat tricky. However, Tudor reveals that the opposite is in fact true.
"We’ve been making racing games for 10 years now so we know a lot of people," he says with a smile. "But the game speaks for itself - when we show manufacturers how accurate our cars are, the craftsmanship that goes into each one and present the broad spectrum of vehicles on offer across multiple motorsports types, they instantly get it and want to get involved. We just added Renault, for example."
It's almost inevitable that Project CARS is going to be compared to Sony's Gran Turismo and Microsoft's Forza, given that all three showcase a massive selection of rides and strive to offer an authentic driving experience, but what makes Slightly Mad's game stand out from its famous rivals?
"Project CARS offers a much more sandbox, freeform experience than either, I think," replies Tudor. He has a point: all cars and tracks are unlocked from day one for a start, no need to unlock them first or pay extra for them.
“We all love cars but we all have very different tastes and very different preferences for what types of games we’ve played previously - so rather than having a single goal to aim for in the game, this time we’re letting you jump in and pick your own - or all three if you’re looking for an exclusive achievement - so if you want to a traditional zero-to-hero career then start in karts and work your way towards LeMans. If you want to jump straight into some open wheel action and try to defend your title each year then you can do that,” he says.
“Throughout the game you’ll see this focus on freedom and personalisation, plus innovations and features the competition don’t have - like pit stops, dynamic time of day, stunning weather, support for Oculus Rift and 4K gaming - and a range of additional third party and official support apps."
However, as complete as Project CARS will undoubtedly be when it eventually launches in November next year, there are elements which will be missing - at least initially. "There are things we want to include but aren’t able to, but we never say never as ultimately Project CARS is a platform upon which we’ll be building in the future. Things that don't fit now may simply be postponed until a later date" admits Tudor.
One of those things is an off-road Rally mode, which is off the table at the time of writing but could well be reconsidered once the game is finished. "Rally has a number of cars, locations, gameplay mechanics and technical features that all need to be in perfect sync in order to do this unique motorsport justice," reveals Tudor. "So for now we’re concentrating on ‘tarmac-based’ racing and hope to get to provide Rally through further content. Of course though, due to our unique community collaboration, we’ll re-assess it nearer the time."
Project CARS will harness the power of next-generation consoles to provide stunning visuals and peerless realism, but that means there will be some PS3 and Xbox 360 owners that remain bitterly disappointed by the news that their consoles won't be getting the game, despite them being included in the platform lineup early in development. Tudor insists that dropping the two ageing systems was a sensible move. "By our release date the number of gamers that would have moved to PS4 and Xbox One would be fairly substantial and the technical prowess of both next-gen systems allows the game to be showcased without compromises and with greater ease of development. They both have interesting sharing and online features we believe will benefit the game."
However, one system that has managed to remain in the picture is the Nintendo Wii U, a console which in terms of raw power is closer to the PS3 and Xbox 360 than the PS4 and Xbox One. Tudor believes that despite the disparity in polygon-pushing power, Nintendo's platform will offer something unique that can't be experienced elsewhere. "The Wii U is more than capable of providing the core Project CARS experience. Sure, some super-high-level graphical effects may not be possible but in comparison it also offers a unique interaction experience via the GamePad controller, with the second screen potentially becoming your track map overview, rear-view mirror, telemetry, or simply mimicking a real race car steering wheel whilst you use the gyroscope to drive.”
“Plus there are great possibilities to extend our existing WMD community into the Mii Community with discussion and sharing of content and ideas. There’s no realistic racing game on the Wii U currently yet, and we hear the fans crying out for one. Project CARS provides a Forza or Gran Turismo-like experience for those gamers and it’ll be something to really show off what the system is capable of. From our internal playing, it’s looking extremely promising."
Tudor explains Project CARS is in a good position to cater for future technological developments, too. "Our MADNESS engine that runs Project CARS was built from the ground up to take advantage of new tech, cores, GPUs and so on - it has a modular structure that makes it fairly easy to bolt new bits on. So when things like Oculus Rift, 4K visuals or SteamOS come along, we’re technically in a good place to support them already, plus the team are intrigued simply to play with these new toys.”
Project CARS still has almost a year of development ahead of it, but in that time we could see other titles created and funded in the same way - and that could well be the title's most enduring legacy.
"There are some great game concepts out there by big name companies that struggle to get off the ground due to the sheer scale of the costs involved to get a game made nowadays," says Tudor. "It would be heartwarming to look back and think that Project CARS proved that huge successful, high-quality games can be funded by, and powered by the actual gamers themselves and its release was the start of a shift in the gaming industry towards this new way of thinking. It’s good for the industry, good for creativity, and great for gamers." Amen to that.