Opportunities for developers of racing games seem to have taken a detour. The console track has narrowed to just a few high-profile vehicles, like Sony's Gran Turismo, Microsoft's Forza Motorsport, Electronic Arts' Need For Speed and Codemasters' Dirt. Indeed, many studios with racing experience have shuttered as demand for other titles has disappeared.
Meanwhile, independent racing specialists -- mostly European, like Eutechnyx, Slightly Mad Studios, Nadeo, and ShortRound Games -- say the PC track is wide open and they can only speculate why the confusing traffic pattern exists.
For instance, Andy Hubbard, creative director at ShortRound Games, believes a number of factors have hurt the console racing sector, including the fact that gamers have less money to spend than they did previously, and so they're less likely to invest their limited cash on a new IP when they can buy something more familiar.
"In addition, players seem to want to race in cars that they recognize and possibly dream about driving," he says, "which is one reason why the Forza, GT, and Need For Speed franchises do so well. It's not hard to see why if you're a car fan; which would you rather drive -- a completely fictional vehicle that you've never seen before or the latest Ferrari that you've seen on Top Gear?"
ShortRound's four founders -- Hubbard, Stu Pharoah, Kim Burrows and Steve Uphill -- had all worked on such racers as the Moto GP series, the Burnout franchise, Pure, and Split/Second at Black Rock Studio before Disney Interactive closed it down in June. ShortRound opened its doors just days afterward.
"There were some great plans for a sequel to Split/Second but, because it's so hard to make a decent profit on any game nowadays -- let alone one in a genre that's in decline -- it was decided not to proceed with another game. From what I understand, Black Rock's closure was largely due to the racing game genre and, in particular, the arcade aspect of it, being in decline," recalls Hubbard.
He also suspects that, with money and budgets being so tight, publishers are less willing to properly invest in everything that a new IP needs to get successfully off the ground and to grow a fanbase.
"If you look at all the successful racing franchises that are out there now, they've all been around for a very long time and have had many iterations to get them to this stage," he says.
Slightly Mad Studios' Project C.A.R.S.
Indeed, one series with well over a dozen titles under its belt is EA's Need For Speed, two of which -- NFS: Shift and Shift 2: Unleashed -- were developed by London-based Slightly Mad Studios in 2009 and 2011, respectively. Both focused on simulation/arcade racing rather than the arcade racing of previous titles in the series. And both were developed for both console and PC.
At Slightly Mad, creative director Andy Tudor recalls how his team got started -- first as mod makers for other people's racing games and then, in 2005, joining SimBin Studios, the Swedish developer of racing sims best known for GTR -- FIA GT Racing Game and GT Legends. In 2009, the core team moved on to form Blimey! Games and then Slightly Mad.
"At that point, EA chose us to do Need For Speed: Shift because the franchise had been kind of in a decline for a few years," says Tudor. "It was sort of like the Tomb Raider series, which had once been really innovative, really cool, and then, through the different iterations, it basically lost its sheen and had become slightly tarnished. What Need For Speed needed was a new set of eyes, someone to spiff it up a bit."
In order to release a Need For Speed title every single year, EA's strategy has been to rotate studios so that the teams don't burn themselves out, says Tudor, enabling longer development times and therefore higher quality levels.
For instance, NFS: Nitro was developed by EA Montreal in 2009, followed by EA Black Box's NFS: World in 2010, and then Criterion Games and DICE's NFS: Hot Pursuit in 2010. Most recently, in 2011, Slightly Mad did Shift 2 and EA Black Box developed NFS: The Run.
Is Slightly Mad still in the rotation? Tudor says he can't comment; nothing has yet been announced.
Meanwhile, Slightly Mad has its eyes on doing other sorts of racing games, mostly on the PC, probably in the popular free-to-play arena, Tudor reveals.
That's because any new console racers would compete head-to-head with Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, which are already on their fourth or fifth iterations, Tudor says. "Trying to win that war would be very difficult, requiring lots of money, lots of time, lots of licenses, and a big team to do it well."
Tudor is determined to make certain his studio doesn't suffer the same fate as other racing developers recently, including Bizarre Creations -- best known for the Project Gotham Racing series and, more recently, Blur in 2010. Activision closed the studio in January, 2011.
"Blur was a great game, there's no denying it," he says, "and when we heard that Bizarre had been closed, well, we were all in shock," he says.
And so, Slightly Mad hopes to take on PC competitors like sims rFactor, iRacing, and netKar Pro. This is a much easier task, says Tudor, "given the fact that we have products currently in development -- one of them being Project C.A.R.S. -- that we believe can win that war."
"Most games are created in secrecy and then take two years to build; then you release them and hope you've made the right decisions and the game will be well-received," he explains.
"With Project C.A.R.S., we're peeling back the curtain and letting the community see us making the game as we go along. Right now you can download a version of the game that's only two months old with 18 more to go. But you can play it, get on our forums, and give us your feedback. Because games are becoming more social anyway these days, we decided to just go whole hog and let the community participate in creating the game from day one."
Nadeo Publishing's TrackMania 2 Canyon
The social element is prominent, too, in TrackMania 2 Canyon, launched in September by Paris-based Nadeo Publishing as a sequel to 2006's TrackMania Nations and the original 2003 TrackMania. Players can race on various tracks that can be built and customized using a track editor.
"We think of TrackMania as a social network with over 10 million players," says Anne Blondel-Jouin, Nadeo's managing director. "It is the community that makes this arcade racing game a worldwide phenomenon."
In keeping with its design as a social network, TrackMania 2 Canyon, which supports up to 256 simultaneous players in a game, offers what Blondel-Jouin calls "essential communication options," like Facebook notifications that tell gamers about their friends' activities within the game.
Nadeo created the racer specifically to be downloadable from the PC because the platform "not only offers players the creative freedom [to build their own tracks] but it also enables LAN and network play very easily," says Blondel-Jouin. "Players can host their own dedicated servers, while we at Nadeo can host newcomers' servers in order to make sure that everyone has the best possible online racing experience. In terms of online play, there's no room for systems that are not robust enough to handle massive online gameplay."
In addition, she believes racing lends itself more to the PC platform than to consoles: "The racing experience as a very demanding and challenging one that requires skill. Devoting your undivided attention when playing on a console seems to be much more of a struggle than playing on a PC," she explains.
While Eutechnyx has developed several PC racing titles in the past, the Gateshead, UK-based indie is primarily known for creating console racers, having produced its first with Total Drivin for the PlayStation 1 in 1996 followed by over a dozen others. Most recently, in May, it launched Activision's NASCAR The Game: 2011 for PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii.
Nevertheless, Eutechnyx is coming to the close of a beta trial of its Auto Club Revolution, an online, free-to-play PC racer designed around communities of car fans. It's to provide a social platform for owning, customizing, and enjoying cars online and allow racing fans to interact with each other and their favorite brands. A downloadable app permits gamers to manage their game, garage, and network of friends on the Web.
"We see free-to-play offering huge opportunities for developers who want to get much closer to the players, especially if they want to publish themselves," says Darren Jobling, Eutechnyx COO.
While Jobling doesn't see the PC as becoming a better home for racing game developers, he does believe that many developers have turned to that platform because "they were unable to compete with the quality of the titles on console, especially in the graphics department."
Also, he says, "most of the developers on PC currently are PC simulation specialists who don't have a background in console games," which means the field is open for those who do. For these teams, he says, "PC has become the only outlet."
But for those console racing game developers who are turning to PC, there are obvious benefits.
"Games are going the same way that music went with iTunes," says Jobling. "The PC format gives mass-market access -- much more so than console -- and allows developers to take their just rewards for their efforts. The consumer benefits as developers can sell their games directly and don't have the huge overheads of a console publishing operation."
PC also gains developers access to the whole world, he adds, "places like Russia, Brazil, Turkey, China, and Korea -- places where consoles haven't made as much impact. These countries are crying out for high-quality games that they haven't previously been able to get access to."
Regarding what the near-future will see in video racing, Slightly Mad's Tudor expects the new technology of the next-generation consoles will open opportunities for developers who have new ideas for unique gameplay and mechanics.
"You can already see that the Wii U could potentially use the controller as a steering wheel which is the natural input device for a racing game. Or you can use the Wii U to enable a rearview mirror or a navigation system," he says. "And the next-generation Xbox will have more polygons, more memory, more power. That -- plus Kinect -- will open up plenty of new possibilities. There will be lots of cool ideas and, if a developer has a few of those, they'll be able to puncture through the competition and succeed."
As for the PC, Tudor expects more social Facebook-like experiences. "There's definitely room for cool racing games in a more casual environment. And there's obviously still room to dominate the PC space with a quality racing title that unites all the different communities out there -- and that's exactly what we're hoping to do with our Project C.A.R.S."