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Red Bull Air Race: The Game turned heads last summer when it was announced at Gamescom in Germany: Not only is the ultimate motorsport in the sky coming to PC, but Slightly Mad Studios, the team behind Project CARS – one of last year’s biggest driving game hits – was at the helm.
Development has continued apace throughout the winter, and this month an important milestone has been achieved: the launch of a closed beta, with open beta to follow soon. Naturally, in order to find out more, we make like a bee – or a plane – for the studio’s central London HQ, close to the river Thames. All goes to plan. We arrive on time and are shown up to the offices. There’s just one slight hitch: almost nobody’s here. Aside from a few quality assurance testers who’ve arrived early on a cool, sunny morning in mid-April, it’s just Slightly Mad Studios senior producer Jarek Kleiber and a long row of empty desks.
Not that that’s a problem, Kleiber says. Slightly Mad Studios’ distributed development team of more than 130 developers, artists, designers, engineers and programmers might be scattered across the globe, but the team are hard at work, and right now.
“It works in a way that means we can hire specialists around the world without getting them to relocate,” Kleiber says. “For instance, our CTO [Chief Technology Officer] is based up in Yorkshire. Our vehicle lead lives in Germany, we have artists in Poland, the Czech Republic, Argentina and Brazil. We had one guy working off the beach in the Philippines – he couldn't work one day last year because a typhoon was coming!”
Instead, the hub of activity for the studio is its internal forum, where everyone posts their progress on the game. “We show our work in the forums – we have a bit of a hive mind. It’s good because you have this buy-in from the entire company. It took me about a year and a half to get my mind round working from home though,” Kleiber admits.
Slightly Mad Studios have proven the system works already, of course. Crowdfunded driving sim Project CARS for PS4, Xbox One, and PC proved such a hit that that the team have already announced Project CARS 2 is on the way.
Then, of course, there’s Red Bull Air Race: The Game, which Slightly Mad Studios is working on along with Red Bull, and publisher Wing Racers, and due for release later this summer. Like the Red Bull Media House-developed mobile game that came before it, it’s all about recreating the fastest motorsports series in the world – but this time on PC, and with graphics and gameplay from the same team that brought you the jaw dropping realism of Project CARS.
“It captures all the excitement of the air race,” Kleiber says. “It’s got all the tracks and courses that are going to be flown in 2016, as well as fantasy tracks based on famous global locations. We’ve worked hard to create a realistic flight model base that’s designed to be highly accessible to PC gamers and hardcore gamers alike. Best of all, it’s free to play, and as it’s not a boxed product, we’ll be regularly launching new features and content.”
Kleiber reveals that, although authenticity is crucial, this approach requires flying a fine racing line when it comes to realism. For the millions of petrolheads out there, verisimilitude is everything in a driving sim. But Air Race is still a comparatively new sport, and that means a virtual recreation needs to be accessible.
Kleiber says Slightly Mad Studios have come up with a solution. “We’re trying to make it as authentic as possible, but we don’t want to make it too punitive, which means, keeping as close to the rules and penalties as possible, but removing any that might instantly dismiss you from a race, or detract from the desire to race.”
And the controls? “We’re catering for gamepad, keyboard, and flight stick. We’ve got three different control methods we’re trying to finesse, it’s still a work in progress. When you load up the game for the first time, players will be given a short training session that also determines ability, and recommends a level for you.
“We’ve got a Casual mode, so you can adjust how the plane turns, but you don’t stay too far off the track. Amateur mode has got a little bit more control, but if you stray off, you can still get brought back on the racing line. And then there’s Pro, and that gives you complete freedom, everything’s in your own control, the throttle, the rudder – but you’re more likely to stall.”
Keeping that racing line certainly proves to be a challenge when we try our hand at a few of the courses in an unfinished build of the game. It’s there, right in front of us, but our novice handling skills mean we bank a bit too much and miss some of the gates. Don’t judge us too harshly though: we were too busy gawping at the glorious scenery created by Slightly Mad Studios’ Madness engine. The race locations look just like their IRL counterparts, no small feat, even for a team used to recreating race tracks – some of the courses don’t exist for most of the year – and there are even some fictional courses included which just wouldn’t be possible, such as one weaving through the Grand Canyon, and another soaring over Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia.
“We do have reference trips and people take pictures,” says Kleiber. “Environment artists, the guys who are making the tracks, will go off and take hundreds of photos, everything from what the tarmac looks like to what the grass looks like to what the stands look like, so it’s as accurate as possible. The same happens with the planes as well, we try to get as much data from the companies as we can.”
Slightly Mad Studios have also brought a consultant pilot on board who works closely with the physics lead to review how the models handle. And of course the Air Race pilots themselves have had their input. Kleiber recalls a recent visit to Spielberg, where Pete McLeod and Hannes Arch took the game for a spin, and even found a few novel racing lines the developers had not considered.
“We went over and they were playing it whilst we were there. They loved it, they thought it was really realistic, they were blown away by the Oculus Rift support,” Kleiber reveals, adding that the game will support virtual reality, putting you in the cockpit. “Pete said they could even possibly use it to practice the course when they’re not going to be there.”
There’s one important area where the game takes its leave from the authenticity of the real world series: side-by-side multiplayer. Impossibly dangerous IRL in a game, is an issue if f the framerate suffers (it doesn’t). As such, you’ll be able to take on up to 11 others in a frantic race to the finish line.
“So we’re still working on it, but we match against people in the same class against you,” Kleiber says. “There’s a friends list. It’s a lot of fun; at first we didn't think we were going to be able to render out all the planes, but we’re always trying to push as much as possible. It’s intriguing because you see people have preferred lines. It becomes a very close race, but also there’s the subtlety of the penalties, because, while you might actually finish the race fastest, you might have clipped a pylon, or pulled up too early to try and get into a vertical turn manoeuvre.”
Red Bull Air Race: The Game is expected to launch in full in August, but the keen will be able to take it for a (tail) spin before then thanks to the beta testing periods, first closed, and then open for anyone to try.
Kleiber says that though there’s a roadmap, Slightly Mad Studios will be monitoring players’ reactions, and what modes work best. “There will be more modes rolled out. That’s the beauty of games as a service; you can see the metrics of what players are doing, and what’s needed.”
The dev’ team may not be with us in person in the office – just a few goldfish, steering wheels, and Oculus Rift dev kits for company – but with Slightly Mad Studios’ expertise and commitment, it’s hard not to get excited about the potential of the game, not just at launch, but long after. Players will also be able to participate in regularly updated contests, and more besides, but Kleiber can’t talk about that just yet.
“There will be weekly events, monthly events, you’ll gain more money, you'll get better licences and get better planes. Then there's the multiplayer online against each other. And there’s more we’re planning.”
We can’t wait.
To get more infomation on the 2016 Red Bull Air Race visit redbullairrace.com and follow @Redbullairrace for the latest air racing updates. Want to play the game right now? We've got 5,000 beta codes to give away right here, so just enter your details below.