Assetto Corsa and the race to console
Kunos Simulazioni’s founder discusses bringing their racing sim to PS4, Xbox One and even VR.
There are certain advantages to having your games studio's office located directly above a racetrack, especially if you happen to be working on a racing sim. There are lots of distractions, too, as we found out when we visited the team behind Assetto Corsa at the Vallelunga racetrack on the outskirts of Rome, in anticipation of the game's launch on PS4 and Xbox One.
It'd be tempting to mark the console versions' recent delay (from early June to August 26 in Europe and August 30 in North America) down to these sorts of distractions. After all, the developers seem quite happy to jump in the Mercedes' and McLarens out on the track and go for test drives, their tyre squeals quite literally interrupting our interviews with the studio's founders.
But as Kunos co-founder and executive manager Marco Massarutto points out, it might just be to the team's advantage. Yes, the studio's small size – just 30 staff – means bringing their hit PC sim to a mass audience on console takes time. But their location, and above all, dedication, means it'll be worth the wait.
"We love all the cars and we drive all the cars – we push them as hard as possible, over the limits, and see how they react so we get a better idea. A year and a half ago we'd just presented the PC version of Assetto Corsa," he says. "Today we're near to the end of a very long journey, a very challenging journey. We love our work, we love what we do. There are many racing games to play. Ours is one to drive."
To find out more about the challenges the team faced going from the free frontier of PC development to the constraints – and huge potential – of console development, we caught up with Massarutto's co-founder and studio chief Stefano Casillo. Read on for his thoughts on Assetto Corsa's release, what's next, and even what medium's next for the team.
What's the story behind Kunos Simulazioni? The story behind the studio is that in around 2001 I started to work on a racing simulation that was released for free over the internet, called netKar. In 2004, though the game was very successful with the community, we reached a limit where we couldn't make it in our spare time any more. So together with Marco Massarutto, I said we should do this for real. So we started, literally just four of us.
We moved to the race track in 2009, so that was after we released our first commercial game on the PC [Trofeo Abarth 500], and since then the company have become bigger and bigger. Right now we're about 30, so compared to our competitors we're still tiny.
Assetto Corsa's your first experience developing a game for console. Has that been a tricky transition to make? It's our first experience on console. The first point to make is that this generation of console's actually closer to a PC than last-generation, especially on PlayStation. The PS3 used to be a completely different animal that required dedicated everything. Right now the situation's actually much closer to a PC than you might expect. With Xbox One, as far as development environment goes, it's even closer, because you're using DirectX 11 and all the things you're used to with a PC.
The real challenge is the performance. Consoles don't have the brute power of a PC, but you can really optimise the game for the hardware compared to the PC, where you can't really optimise that much because you don't know what machine you're running on. So a game like Assetto Corsa needs to run on an i7 and a Duo Core CPU on PC. You can't do an optimisation on the i7 because then people on Duo Core will see degradation. You end up not doing as much optimisation as you could on a PC. Consoles open up the possibility to really dig in and use all of it.
Did you need to bring in new developers used to the new platforms? We brought one guy in that used to work for Rockstar Games, who had some experience in console. Of course it was a learning experience for all of us in the team, we had to learn the platform. It's not an alien platform compared to the PC for this generation, but it was interesting and challenging.
There are other differences between console and PC though, like user interface and the need to get approval from Microsoft and Sony... That's probably an even bigger challenge compared to the pure performance side, especially for us as an independent company. We're just used to doing things the way we want them, and if we don't think something is important then we don't think it's important, end of story. You can't do that on a console. Those things are tricky for companies who do it for the first time. You have a feeling that you have a game ready to ship and then you realise you're further off than you think. At the end that's a good thing because it guarantees user experience.
Hence the delay to August? Not this time around. It's more that we don't want to get in the way of things like the football [Euro 2016]. We want people to go on holiday and come back and say, "OK, let's buy Assetto Corsa."
What differences will players see between PC and console versions? The difference is that in the PC version you get more frames per second, more cars when you're racing against others, and also the AI. On the PC the limit is your CPU, on the console we're at 16 players. One particularity of Assetto Corsa is that we're using the same physics for the artificial intelligence cars as for you.
And not every racing game does this? No. You can spot some behaviour [in some games]. You can spot some corners that are weird, or the acceleration's straight. But the AI means it's very taxing on the CPU, and of course our physics engine's doing lots of calculations, millions of triangles for the physical part of the track. Imagine running that on the frequency of the physics engine and you need huge power – if you have other cars you're doubling all those calculations too, even if you're just talking about collisions.
This year's a busy one for racing sims. Do you see any particular titles as competitors? If you talk about the very big ones, for me it’s almost unbelievable to even think that they are competition, it's so unfair if you look at the forces on the ground [they have more staff]. In that sense I think there's much less competition than people might think. It's a whole genre of video games, so the important thing's to push the genre more.
We all want the same thing; more people enjoying games that are as close as possible to driving a real car. I don't think any of us see another game as something that's going to kill you, it's always something that's going to bring in more potential buyers.
You talk about the game being for pros too. Is this a game where you see the tech can be used in the industry too? At the beginning, it was the way the project was founded, the professionals were able to buy into the project before the public could. They're just interested in small parts of what you're doing, so you don't have to come up with a totally polished product. Right now most of our activity is game-related, but it's part of our business of what we do anyway.
What are plans post-launch. Will we see lots of small updates or a big leap down the line? We don't really talk about that. Being a small company gives you an advantage: you can have very short deadlines, so we don't need to think too much in the future.
I think based on our history of the way we support the product on PC, players can expect to see the product proceeding with updates, and not just with DLC and more content – the game will get more polished, more features and so on. We're still developing on the PC, so all those things will come to the console. They'll lag a bit behind the PC, but our objective is to keep it as parallel as possible. At the moment we've no plans to stop the PC development, the console will just be a natural result of that.
What new gaming tech interests you right now? I think virtual reality. Racing games are an application that really works well for that. It gives you a lot of advantages compared to a monitor, the fact that you can really judge how much a corner is turning, if it's going uphill, if it has camber – things like that become really obvious with VR.
We have support on PC with the Oculus Rift, but we stopped at the .6 version. But for the next update to the game we're bringing in support for the 1.3, and we're bringing the full user interface into the Oculus as well. Before, it was more like a demo, you could drive but you had no idea otherwise.
Do you plan to support other headsets incoming. Say, PlayStation VR? With the PlayStation, of course our first priority's to get the game out so as many people as possible can enjoy it. When it comes to the PS version of VR, the big problem is performance there, but, you know, they may be coming out with thatnew upgraded model.
Is an upgraded PS4 of interest to you as a studio? We're a small studio, so time's always our bottleneck. There's only so much we can physically do. We need to shoot at the bigger target first and hit that. I don't think we're going to be opening the market there, leading or something. We'll wait.
Tell us about the sort of detail that goes into recreating every new car. For new cars we usually get the original CAD files of the car from the manufacturer. For older cars it becomes trickier because sometimes they don't even have blueprints anymore, so you need to work with pictures. We have a huge form full of data that we request from the manufacturers that we sign licences with. Of course the amount of data we actually receive varies a lot.
The big advantage is being here [at a racetrack]. Let's say for example a car doesn't have all the numbers we want and that car shows up here, we just come down. It happens.
One example's the Pagani Huayra. That car has a very, very clever system where it's got four small wings in the front and on the back of the car that move, so as you're driving the car these wings are moving. When we got the original data from Pagani we started to work on the car and we were like, "This car isn't braking, it's not cornering correctly, there's something about this car we're not convinced about." So we went back to Pagani and said, "Look, there's something missing here." They said it was the wings and if we wanted to go to that level, they'd give us the algorithms to see how the wings work. Then we finally got it, like, 'Now we see how these things work'.
Has the studio's relationship with car manufacturers changed over the course of the game’s development? Absolutely, yes. In the beginning, as you can imagine, it was very difficult. The more you acquire licences, the more the other brands want to be in Assetto Corsa.
Was there a turning point? Well, Ferrari. Ferrari changed everything. It was late 2012 when we announced the Ferrari partnership. We'd been a Ferrari partner for software for years, we also did another game for Ferrari called Ferrari Virtual Academy.
But it took a few more years after that for them to trust you to do that? Exactly. You need to find the right moment, you know. We need something from them and they need something from us.
As a game made in Italy, Ferrari must have been a relief. That was amazing, because we were the only simulator that had Ferrari licences. And once you have that brand it becomes easier to talk to people like Lamborghini. Originally we went to Lamborghini before Ferrari and it was, "No, sorry guys." But then you go back to them after a year and they're like, "Ah, OK, I know Assetto Corsa, I know what it is". We even got to the situation where there are actually brands and tracks who are contacting us and asking us to put them in the game.