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Q&A: SimBin's Roos, Sartori on RACE-ing To Consoles

One of the more intriguing stories in PC game development, SimBin's GTR simulation racing series, is now pushing to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and the company's Henrik Roos and Diego Sartori have been talking about its history, straddling the sim/
Since its formation in 2003, Swedish based racing game developer SimBin Studios has produced five titles, and has garnered a reputation as one of the leaders in the serious racing simulation genre. SimBin established itself as a corporate group in 2006, setting up addition divisions dealing with publishing and distribution, as well as retaining its development arm. The company’s most recent game, RACE07, was launched earlier this month, both via traditional retail channels and via the Steam digital distribution service. As with previous games in the SimBin portfolio, RACE07 has received generally positive reviews, with a current average on review aggregation site MetaCritic of 83%. The next few years will see the early stages of the company’s push into the console market, beginning with the Xbox 360, and moving onto the PlayStation 3 further down the line. We spoke to SimBin CEO Henrik Roos and creative director Diego Sartori recently, and asked about the racing simulation market, the move into console gaming, and the motivation behind the establishment of the company as a corporate group. Gamasutra: How has SimBin evolved as a company since its formation, and how have the goals of the company changed? Henrik Roos: The goals of the company have changed quite a bit, starting as a PC developer only with expansion into the console area as well. Due to the success of SimBin’s current game releases, the interest in SimBin from the video game industry and the real racing world and its partner’s means that we have had to rethink our positioning of the company earlier than expected. Today the SimBin Group consists of three companies. SimBin Studios AB handling publishing since we are independent and self financed, SimBin Development Team AB, our developer company and SimBin Distribution AB handling cross promotions and OEM sales towards SimBin partners. GS: What kind of "positive yearly results", as per the statement on your website, is the company posting? HR: SimBin has generated positive results every full year since birth. With all new projects coming our way we have grown relatively fast from 4 to nearly 50 employees in 3 years and for this reason profits made has been invested in the company for new productions, recruitment and equipment. GS: What were the reasons behind the formation of the corporate group, and what effect has that had on the way you do business? HR: With the corporate group we have been able to stay independent and maintain full control of our assets and IP’s. The effect of SimBin’s approach is that we can combine large and small businesses at the same time, still remaining flexible and appealing for our partners and interest groups wanting us to do games for them. GS: What are the "strategic reasons" behind founding different development teams within the company? HR: SimBin Development Team AB features a series of smaller production teams located in our three game studios, in addition to the Swedish based developers we also use a distributed production model where off site consultants work on our productions. One of the more unique strengths of the three game studios in Sweden is that we work together with the game educational system in Sweden where our Falun studio actually is located in a game developer school. So not only do we get access to the best game developers in and around Sweden but we also get to influence some of the new talent appearing on the scene and on occasion even find interesting talents to employ for a production. Working with a distributed force of consultants allows us to employ developers that we would not be able to employ had we forced them to move to Sweden. SimBin will always be working with a distributed team in addition to the on site developers simply because it allows us to access high quality developers all over the world with an interest in racing games. GS: How difficult is it for a company in SimBin's position to keep working with self funded IP? HR: Being completely independent it can be a challenge to finance our own IP’s but we are convinced that this is the best way for SimBin for now and it does allow us full control of the future for our IP’s as well as a value that increase over time. The pressure on top management is at times immense and it can seem like a battle we are destined to loose, yet, we are still here and we are still making a mark on the industry and the racing game genre, something we intend to continue doing. Essentially self funding our IP’s means that every production is to some extent crucial for SimBin’s wellbeing. This however is not all negative; it does entice passion and commitment from the Development team and we think that it is shown in our games. GS: What is the importance of keeping your IP self funded? HR: First and foremost, total control over the IP’s future is ours and ours alone as well as the value if it turns into a success story, secondly we have full control of how we want to use our assets. As mentioned earlier we can do large or small productions, tailor made to meet a potential partners requirement. This in turn means that even productions of for example 3000 units for a partner is doable and profitable for and with SimBin. We do all our own marketing and PR work for a production, meaning that we will market the game as we find it best, and do at times target non-gaming audiences such as the automotive industry or the real racing scene in order to attract business in those industries also. GS: What is the new technology that the company is working with? Diego Sartori: Lizard is our own proprietary game engine designed for multi platform use, in addition to our own game engine we are also working on new ways of doing AI so that we with use of the AI can create even better simulations and game modes in future productions. Unfortunately I can not elaborate in detail on what we are working on, but what I can say is that we believe we have found the missing link in racing games and with the initiatives being worked on at the moment we aim to be the first to add this missing link to a racing game in the future, regardless of platform. GS: How large is the market for serious simulations like RACE07? DS: Interesting choice of words used for this question, in actual fact the proper wording should have been about how small the market is if you refer to the PC market specifically. This was one of the main reasons for SimBin to make the strategic move towards console games and specifically Xbox 360 in addition to PC. We do pure racing games and therefore we land outside the car games genre occupied by certain high profile console titles and the global market for pure racing games on PC is quite small. This presents an interesting challenge that brings me to the last part of the same question where you label RACE07 as a serious simulation. In the industry where most of SimBin management comes from our games are not viewed upon as a simulator but as a racing game, this because the automotive and motor sport racing industry knows quite well what a proper vehicle simulator is and a proper vehicle simulator does not run on a household computer or a high end gaming computer for that matter, they run on super computers. RACE07 is a racing game in the simulation genre and in order to broaden the market for our type of games we have tried to make the game perform as a racing simulator when you want it to and as a racing game when that is your preference. With this approach we hope to attract casual racers that over time gets bitten by the bug and turns into simracers. GS: What kind of competition do you face in this market? Is there room for many companies within the market? HR: I think there is room for many companies in this genre as there is in some of the other small genres. In terms of competition our internal position on competition is that without competition there would be no advancement. We need advancement and therefore also need the competition. GS: How accessible is the game to less serious racing fans? DS: We have gone to great lengths in order to make the game as pick up and play as possible with a game for the PC platform, this both with regards to game play design and content selection for the game. The span of cars and classes should insure a car to fit the new, the seasoned and the pro racing game players. The game can be enjoyed with a keyboard, joy pad or joy stick and for the full Monty experience with a wheel. It can run on most PC’s ranging from a laptop to a high end gaming PC and we do think that the game can be configured to suit any type of racing game player. We also let the player dictate how hard or easy a challenge the game should be. GS: Are gamers still calling for more attention to detail in games of this nature? How far do you see it going in this direction? DS: Yes, to some extent they are but I think that it is more the industry calling for attention to detail. I unfortunately rarely agree in the details the industry decide to cast their attention at. Hopefully the not so distant future allows SimBin to show exactly where we think attention to detail should be added GS: How do you design computer AI? Are you working with third party middleware? DS: For RACE07 we used the AI tools that comes with the ISI engine we are licensing and since GT Legends we have worked hard on improving the AI code in the ISI engine so that it would match our needs in a better way. Now we have found new ways of controlling the AI and it is with great anticipation we look forward to sharing this with our fans in coming projects. GS: Is there an assumption that a majority of the game's consumers will be playing with an advanced set-up? How do you design the game based around that? DS: Well, actually for RACE07 we changed our approach completely when it came to marketing and promoting the game. We have already proven that we can do racing games to be played with a wheel and pedal set. For past productions we always showcased the games with a wheel and pedal set using a high end PC but for RACE07 we have done all presentations with a joy pad on a gaming laptop for the specific reason that we wanted to show that the game plays just as well and just as involving with a joy pad as it does with a wheel and pedal set. We have heard comments like, ‘I would love to have that game, but I can not afford a wheel also’, and this scenario we want to avoid as much as we possibly can. Now of course RACE07 must also be good to play with a joy pad so we came up with a new set of parameters for the joy pad configuration and it has given us the sense of control one would expect to have in a SimBin racing game even when its played with a joy pad. GS: What kind of marketability does the WTCC license have? HR: Being one of only three FIA World championships along with F1 and WRC it holds a very high status on an international level. If we than take the increase in visitors on the race events as well as viewers globally in to consideration its recognition is constantly increasing. The fact that Eurosport owns all the commercial rights for WTCC makes it an ideal scenario for SimBin since the marketing and partner package Eurosport brings to the table for SimBin and RACE 07 is very impressive. GS: What advantages are there in holding exclusive licenses for the WTCC and the FIA GT? DS: One obvious advantage is that we do not have to compete with another company doing their WTCC game. Another but equally important advantage is that an exclusive license allows us to have long term planning for the RACE IP, we already now know how the two next games in the RACE series are going to be and what new game modes or game features we will introduce with them. We are also working very tight with the car manufacturers and partners tied to WTCC. This is the base for cost efficient cross promotions as well as business that the larger publishers most likely not would find or have the time and understanding to explore GS: What kinds of costs are involved in securing the licenses as exclusives, and how justifiable is the cost? HR: These are things we unfortunately not can reveal since it is part of our internal business strategy just as development cost. GS: What challenges exist in obtaining licenses for tracks? HR: The WTCC license includes the rights to all tracks visited by WTCC, so in that way it’s quite easy. GS: Are there other licenses that you are looking obtaining? HR: There are always licenses of interest but nothing we want to communicate at this time! GS: How important is Steam distribution to SimBin? DS: Steam is primarily an important tool for us as a game developer since we can use it for several things in the development process including the release of patches. It is also great to use for marketing of our games as well as filling in the gaps in our global distribution network. Steam allows us to do things with our games that we could not do on any other platform at this time. Steam is also preparing to raise the bar when it comes to community building tools and these new tools in combination with what to come from SimBin could turn out to be a marriage made in heaven. GS: How do you plan to go about your move into the console market? DS: With exactly the same approach as when we entered the PC market. We have a firm belief in our way of doing racing games and we will do them the same way for the consoles but certain elements of console gaming requires us to rethink a little but the game must and will appear as a SimBin game when it comes to physics, sound and graphics. We must to the extent possible stay true to the original concept of a SimBin racing game and anyone with prior experience in GTR, GT Legends, GTR2, RACE or RACE07 should feel right at home in a SimBin racing game on a console. GS: What do you think you're going to have to do differently to succeed in this market? Is there a need to "dumb down" the games for console users? DS: Where we must do things a little differently is in the games interface and menu system, we don’t think there is a need to dumb down anything related to the driving experience. Preparing RACE07 for joy pad playing taught us some important lessons about how to best support our level of physics and we have full confidence in this system working on any platform. GS: What other projects are in the future for the company? HR: Our main focus at this time is to complete and launch our production for Xbox 360 since it symbolizes an important move for SimBin from being a “PC developer only” in the gaming industry being capable of handling multi platforms. The console market also gives us a new challenge with the opportunity to reach a larger audience for racing games and the future will tell how we performed, so fingers crossed and knees together, as we say here in Sweden!

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