With Slightly Mad Studios closed by Electronic Arts, fans have been somewhat disappointed and wanted to know if they will receive more racing simulation games like Project Cars. However, the newly-founded Straight4 Studio, full of former Slightly Mad devs, is coming to the rescue, shares studio CEO Ian Bell in an interview with SegmentNext.
I’ve been making games since my early teens and after Slightly Mad Studios was sold to Codemasters (and then to EA), I somehow got it into my head that what I needed was some down time. Well, that idea lasted about a week before it got old, and I started thinking about producing a new sim racing title.
Slightly Mad Studios was responsible for the Project CARS series, the last game of which came out in 2020. With the studio gone, there won’t be any more, but with Bell’s ideas for a new racing game, he immediately started putting out feelers for anyone who might be interested.
With that in mind, I got hold of colleagues and friends and we all quickly realized we were all in the same position—itching to get back into the saddle. So we began talking and then planning and soon enough we had an investment deck and a design bible for a new sim. Providence then played its hand when EA shut down Slightly Mad Studios (surprise, surprise) and I was able to get a lot of the old crew back together again. We’re currently around 60-strong at Straight4, and actively hiring across all departments.
However, with just one new studio, there wasn’t enough to go around in regards to being able to make their new racing sim. With so many Slightly Mad Studios and Project CARS veterans, it only took a bit of time before Straight4 attracted a partner to help them financially in the form of PLAION.
It’s my understanding that PLAION came into the project based on our game design and the talent at our studio. So to that extent, the answer is no—their excitement and willingness to partner with us is based on the project we presented to them and they have no interest in imposing their ideas on us in terms of game direction. Our creative freedom is critical and PLAION has been enthused right from the start. They trust our pedigree in making AAA, best-selling games (from GTR to Project CARS), and we trust in their ability to get our game to market. It’s an ideal partnership and we’re delighted with how things have turned out. After what happened with our last game, I can tell you in all honesty, this has been a breath of fresh air for all of us.
Of course, many racing sims, especially ones going for a huge degree of realism, need good graphics engines. With Gran Turismo and Forza already pushing the graphical envelope, Straight4 needs a good graphics and physics engine.
Graphically, we settled early on Unreal Engine 5. It was a no-brainer. But when it comes to sim racing, of course, what matters most is the physics engine. Our previous games, such as the Project CARS franchise, were all powered by the MADNESS Engine, which we developed in-house over the course of a decade. For our new sim, we’re building an entirely new generation of physics engine, one that is both modular and AI-driven.
Physics can also be very important in racing games due to the wide variety of track conditions that can result from things like weather, including rain, wind, and more. Straight4 aims to go beyond what the MADNESS Engine was capable of, as Bell believes that the tech has fallen behind.
Looking at the sim racing landscape, physics engines are mostly using dated architecture (with some engines from our main competitors dating back over 25 years) and we see an opportunity here for sure. Technology is moving quickly, particularly around AI and machine learning, and it’s going to have huge consequences for our industry. Our new physics platform, to quote AJ Weber, our Director of Physics and Simulation, will “allow much more accurate validation, less systemic complexity, elevated quality, and new AI-driven flexibility”. So yeah, what he said!
Of course, since there are so many racing sims around already, Straight4 is going to have to really work to make their upcoming game unique. Since it’s comprised of many veterans of the genre, Bell is aware that the genre has already been vastly expanded in terms of uniqueness.
This is a great question because it goes into the root of sim racing as a genre of its own. We’ve seen a considerable explosion in the genre over the last few years as racers begin to drift away from arcade games and into more serious simulators. You can see that evolution in some of the big franchises that are now “bigging up” their simulator credentials. In our estimation, gamers who play racing games want more realism from their racing games because they’re tired of the old recipe of grind and repeat and fake physics. All of that means they’re moving further into simulation, with arcade games now serving as “gateway drugs”.
Of course, any developer can think that their games are state of the art. However, as a studio full of racing game veterans, Straight4 is well aware that oftentimes these “state of the art” games are nowhere near as new as they want to think that they are, according to Bell.
We’re always somewhat amused to find arcade franchises talking about their new-fangled simulation features that sim racing titles have been featuring for over a decade. A track “grooving in”, for example, came with GTR … back in 2004! As a studio, we’ve revolutionized many aspects of the genre—24-hour cycles, weather (we even had snow in Project CARS 2), changing grip on tracks, wind and heat and how that effects aero-cars for example—and you can bet we’re going to bring in groundbreaking features for our new sim.
It seems like Straight4’s main strategy for their upcoming racing simulator, however, will be to make use of AI in order to make things more distinct and alter how the player will react to the simulator itself, a practice that has been used in other non-racing games before, like Left 4 Dead.
I’ve already talked about what we’re doing in terms of AI, for example, both AI commentators and AI “engineers” that will, I believe, transform the way the sim racer interacts with our sim. We’re a long way down this road already, and we’re delighted with what we’re seeing.
However, despite all of this confidence with the new racing sim, Bell is yet to give any real indication of how far along the game is into development other than a vague hint. However, he’s excited for the community to get a taste of the sim at some point in the future.
Our cars are racing on our tracks. That’s the most I can say. Though I should add that we’re very keen to get our community engaged and playing this sim in early access as soon as possible. The community has always been a core part of our studio. I’ve given the team a date for when I’d like our community to get a taste of the new sim, and I’m confident we’ll hit that milestone. It’s not as far away as some have suggested either.
Straight4 also does not want the game to be a mix of arcade and simulation just like Forza Horizon, however. While it’s a motorsport title, and there isn’t much variety that can be done, the devs still want to make their game noticeably unique.
For sure, it won’t be anything like Forza Horizon since our sim will be a motorsport-specific title. But on console, yes, we are very much competitors for both those other titles. Where we shine is in our devotion to simulation and bringing the evocative world of motorsport to life. All of this is created by a team that understands every aspect of motorsport because we’re not just developers—we’re racers, and passionate fans of the sport. The sounds, the power, the visceral explosion of emotion, and the pure love of the greatest racing cars racing on gorgeously rendered and fully scanned tracks from around the world is what we geek out on.
The point, Bell continues, is not to compete in terms of sales numbers or the number of cars that are present in the game, but to instead focus on the racing.
We aren’t interested in competing with other titles in terms of back-of-the-box numbers. Our community, we think, isn’t that impressed by 500 or 1,000 cars. What they want is thoroughly simulated versions of fully licensed cars derived from manufacturer-provided CADs and test-driven by real-world professionals. So, while we’re competitors, we’re not selling the same product—aside, obviously, from sharing the racing genre space. Our fans are racing fans first and foremost.
Of course, racing is a competition first and foremost, so Bell also made it clear that fans will be able to play the game together through multiplayer, in order to create the best possible racing simulator experience that they can have.
It’s like you were at our development meetings! Of course we are planning multiplayer. But not just multiplayer. Our target is to match and beat what we consider the best multiplayer metaverse in sim racing—and to offer that level of service for free to our players.
Of course, what people can like about racing games can all vary, even among its developers. Bell himself gave an explanation on what some of the most important parts of a racing game are, in his opinion, and how they can help players to enjoy the game more.
So what makes for a great sim racing title? It’s an “easy” recipe when you lay it out on paper, actually: great physics, real-world, licensed cars, scanned tracks, and gobs of atmosphere. That’s the basics of it. After that, our community will make the sim shine. We’re there simply to provide them with the platform.
Of course, the “easy” recipe is not the way to make the best game, which Bell also brings up.
Finding those missing seconds is where the great sim racing titles come to play—in that “on the limit” boundary. To get that right takes years of experience working alongside real-world drivers because 99 percent of the world aren’t insane enough to push a car to that boundary in real life. It’s why these pros get the big bucks—to play on that edge where a mistake can be deadly. You get that element right, and you have a good sim racer. Now add all the sounds, the sights, the visuals, and the emotion and passion of motorsport, and you start scratching at what it takes to make a great sim racing title.
Hopefully we’ll learn more about Straight4’s racing simulator more at some point in the future, but until then, all we can do is speculate and hope that the developers of Project CARS can roar back onto the track in a big way.