Lifestyle

Video Game Evolution

Virtual realism is changing what it means to drive and race

The track announcer’s words, delivered with a slightly Auto-Tune twang long before anyone will actually hear of Auto-Tune, hang in the air.

“Prepare to Qualify!”

Tensions are high at Fuji Speedway, where I’ve crashed countless times at more than 200 mph. Each impact — at any speed, in fact — sees my Formula 1 car vaporize in a fireball. I concentrate to dodge brutally slow-moving competitors (no blue-flag-waving marshals here), negligently unprotected trackside advertising boards, and strange pools of standing water. The latter is apparently one of the Japanese Grand Prix’s inherent hazards, though there is never a raincloud above. No matter; I have a healthy stack-of-quarters budget to repair the car and get back out there. My career record is filled with successes — and more than a few DNFs, usually the result of the local video arcade’s closure. Or, if racing from home, a dog in need of attention. Or a mother who thinks an hour staring at my 13-inch black-and-white television, at a car made from 2D scaling sprites, is quite enough.

Thirty years later I’m a much better driver, though not at this moment: My 2015 McLaren F1 car exits flat out from Blanchimont at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps circuit and snaps sideways at more than 180 mph. As it spins toward the outside wall, I instinctively lock the brakes, pull my hands from the wheel, and brace for a huge impact.

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In the early and mid-1980s, we thought Pole Position on Atari’s 2600 system was as close as we would ever get to racing in a Grand Prix.

Illusion-busting laughter seeps in from the right, though I can’t see its source until my electromechanically actuated seat stops pitching and yawing, my steering wheel stops shaking, and I lift the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset from my eyes, an incredulous smirk on my face. I can’t believe how, with the Oculus on my head and this simulator seat gripping me, I see and almost feel the McLaren’s cockpit exactly as real drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button do: The switch- and light-covered steering wheel is in front of me, exactly where it should be in terms of height and distance. Additionally bizarre: I look down at my body and see it “wearing” an official Sparco-made McLaren F1 Nomex suit. I can only mutter, “Whaaaat the … this is … crazy.”

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No matter the words, they don’t do justice to describe the Oculus Rift experience. Try it as soon as you get the chance.

Chris Considine, owner of CXC Simulations in Los Angeles, keeps chuckling. “Hey,” he says, cuing up online-racing service iRacing’s menu. “Have you ever raced a prototype at Le Mans?” I’ve only completed a handful of miles at La Sarthe using other games. Moments later, I barge wheel to wheel into the Porsche Curves, trying to beat other human drivers via an internet connection while still marveling at a 360-degree field of view and stunning sense of depth perception. I also check my mirrors constantly in an effort not to impede others who are on flying laps and know the circuit’s layout better than I do, which I prudently assume is all of them. Real rules apply here; demolition-derby antics will earn you a poor reputation amongst competitors and, worse, thwart your advancement up iRacing’s licensing ladder. A virtual-career killer, in other words.

CXC’s Motion Pro II simulators range from $49,000 to well in excess of $200,000. Clients include pro racers, automakers, corporations, pay-per-use entertainment companies, and dedicated enthusiasts.

Millions of racers have come a long way from arcades, Atari, and Pole Position, or whatever their racing title of choice was in the 1980s and first half of the ’90s. They’ve already experienced and taken advantage of advancements in hardware, software, and computing power that in the previous 15 years, give or take, catapulted virtual driving from a fun, primarily solitary juvenile pursuit to an experience no longer banished to bedrooms, basements, and dorms. It keeps improving, too, and legitimately benefits real-world drivers, engineers, and teams, from weekend track-day devotees all the way to the top of the professional ranks.

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Home console-based games like F1 2016 and Forza 6 (below) have reached new levels of accuracy.

In Considine’s case, he received an IndyCar-based computer game in the late ’80s, just as he began real-life karting. And during the next decade-plus, as he progressed into open-wheel cars and eventually a job at Bob Bondurant’s high-performance driving school, racing games were on their own personal-growth path. As still-revered software like developer Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix series and the ’60s-centric Grand Prix Legends arrived on home computers and delivered some of the first believable race-car physics models, Considine and others like him saw an opportunity to elevate the experience.

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After fabricating his own prototype gaming “chassis” with a seat, steering wheel, and pedals, others requested he do so for them. Cue forward a bit, and CXC Simulations was up and running in 2006; today it employs 15 people in a 13,000-square-foot shop. Its overwhelmingly customizable Motion Pro II simulators range in price from $49,000 to well in excess of $200,000. Clients range from pro racers to automakers—CXC is the official simulator of the Ford GT program — to corporations, pay-per-use entertainment companies, dedicated enthusiasts, you name it.

CXC and other professional-level, motion-capable simulators like the money-no-object rigs used by teams in F1 and other series are out of reach for most. But there is a wealth of solid virtual driving and racing experiences available to the masses, with more impressive options than ever before. In addition to much-lauded home computer-exclusive software like iRacing (brainchild of another renowned developer, David Kaemmer), the rFactor family, and well-respected offerings from SimBin, to name just a few, the home-gaming console driving-enthusiast crowd has a mouth-watering amount of content (and soon-to-arrive content) to choose from.

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Triple screens and high-end hardware have you believe you’re driving the real deal—sans fear, of course.

In recent months, strong titles like Turn 10 Studios’ Forza Motorsport 6, Codemasters’ F1 2016 — the best console F1 game of all time, in our view — and Kunos Simulazioni’s Assetto Corsa (previously Microsoft for Windows only) have arrived for either PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or both. Add those to a solid lineup of pre-existing titles and future releases like Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo Sport and Project Cars 2 from Slightly Mad Studios (note: this list is not remotely exhaustive), and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who enjoys driving being unable to find an entry point that does not engage them. But virtual driving is no longer only about having mindless fun when a few killable hours present themselves.

“Simply put, it’s circuit knowledge before I show up at any new circuit,” says Porsche factory racer Patrick Long. “It takes that anxiety down threefold. It’s incredible. You see some of the new-generation race-car drivers up to speed in two-and-a-half laps on a track they’ve never seen in real life.

“You are forced through the same procedures and protocols and mental stresses and pressures as in real life. That became much more of a factor with the online link in races. It adds the buildup: the testing, the qualifying, the racing. If you crash, you’re out, and it’s not like you just push the reset button a thousand times like we did back in the Nintendo and Sega Genesis and arcade days. That part of it really resonates with me.”

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Bye-bye, handheld controllers. Serious setups such as CXC’s go to lengths like using hydraulic pedals to recreate reality.

The same things Long and his fellow pros benefit from are likewise valuable to weekend warriors and amateur competitors, especially as car and track models become increasingly realistic. Sub-millimeter-accurate LIDAR laser scanning, photo mapping, and CAD drawings now enable game — or simulation, if you prefer — designers to replicate track surfaces in astounding detail. In addition to mastering basic layouts and which way corners go, drivers learn about elevation changes, cambers, and compressions. But whether you use a console game or a high-end simulator program, their creators face similar challenges.

“The computational power of today’s console and, of course, gaming PCs is really remarkable, but it’s not just power. That’s kind of the easy story,” says Dan Greenawalt, creative director of the Forza franchise. “The real question is the research. The research to build the simulation is incredibly time consuming, and it requires strategic partnerships. It also requires a lot of investment to actually do the simulation.

“Even when you look at something that might be considered an ‘arcade’ game, or a simplistic physics model, honestly they’re running roughly the same physics model as a PC high-end simulator. The difference is the variables that went in and how much research was actually put in and what kind of partnerships they did and how the game was tuned.”

The most important variable?

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“The tire model is by far the most difficult thing to get right,” he says, a point other developers agree with. “[For example], heat affects tire pressure, [and you’re] using slip angle, yaw, track temperature, all these different variables. … We had to buy pallets and pallets of tires. We ended up getting data that was beyond what the academics have. We knew more about some of these tires we studied than the tire manufacturers knew. That’s not something a standard games team can do.”

This would be impressive were it the tip of the spear, but professional teams and manufacturers employ an even deeper level of sophistication. In those cases, race-car data analysis is often more valuable than driver training. Honda Performance Development’s hexapod-style IndyCar simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, runs, as do others, on exceedingly complex rFactor Pro software. But HPD creates its own vehicle model — from engine to suspension to tires to gearbox to aerodynamics — then puts it all through extensive testing. With rules limiting the amount of on-track testing IndyCar teams may conduct, HPD gets much the same telemetry from its virtual car as when running on a real circuit.

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HPD’s professional IndyCar simulator keeps telemetry-crunching engineers busy away from the real racetrack.

“Some things are practically impossible to measure on a race car on the track,” says Steve Eriksen, HPD vice president and chief operating officer. “Because the simulator is a mathematical model, you can go in and inquire about what’s happening in a way that would be very difficult to actually measure on the track. The interaction between a real driver and this mathematical model allows you insights you couldn’t otherwise get.”

The cost for such a simulator runs deep into the six-figure range, in some cases into the millions, but for most enthusiasts who just want to create a realistic experience at home, there are dedicated, affordable seats with platforms on which to mount a variety of steering wheels, pedals, and shifters.

We’ve had loads of good times on the PS4 with Logitech’s relatively entry-level G29 package. And more expensive options provide things such as load-cell-based, pressure-sensitive pedals or even hydraulic setups like those CXC employs for top-notch pedal feel. Reasonably affordable wheels like the G29 feature force-feedback effects and use gears to drive them, while pricier belt-driven devices from companies such as Thrustmaster and Fanatec, and high-end direct-drive steering systems, such as SimXperience’s AccuForce line, boost your feeling of connection and can better your performance. And as VR improves and becomes a more commonplace component of home-entertainment systems — and as its price inevitably decreases — the virtual racing world prepares to take another immersive leap forward.

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Logitech G29 for Playstation, $400

Expect the eSports world as well to become an ever-larger component. Virtual motor racing is suited perfectly for professional contests; the inaugural season of the Forza Racing Championship, for example, concluded in September 2016 and included 60,000 participants — four times what Turn 10 expected. The ultimate winner took home a new 2017 Ford Focus RS and $5,000. Meanwhile, all 20 full-time FIA Formula E Championship drivers recently took part in a race in Las Vegas — alongside 10 fans — for a share of $1 million, billed as the largest prize in eSports racing history. After personally experiencing Considine and company’s latest simulator in action, it won’t surprise us if the champion picks up the phone and purchases a CXC rig or something similar immediately.

Just think of it as one hell of a stack of quarters.

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