In the genre dominated by Forza and Gran Turismo, Project Cars distinguishes itself by being progressive. It's multi-platform, all the game's content is unlocked from the start, and it's both crowdfunded and developed in conjunction with the community. Interested players can buy into the project and attend meetings, play weekly builds, and give feedback directly to developers in Slightly Mad Studios' no-nonsense forum. The team are as obsessed with involving the community in the development process as they are with capturing every minute detail in the vehicles. Now, Slightly Mad Studios are hoping that with its growing fan base, and by continuing the groundwork laid in the first game, Project Cars 2 will be an even stronger competitor to the long-standing rival simulators they admire. To help improve on the original, the game's co-directors Andy Tudor and Stephen Viljoen told GameSpot they took on board every ounce of criticism.
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"We've got a great big database of all the reviews and stuff that came in [for Project Cars] along with who did the review, the links, and the number out of ten," Tudor explained. "But the most important column is the 'notes' column which says things like, 'They thought the gamepad handling was too hard' or 'They wished they were more cars' and that is a great to-do list right there."
Viljoen continues: "More often than not, what they say is what we knew. We know we didn't have all the cars everybody wanted. We knew the gamepad control wasn't all it needed to be, but we needed to release the game at some point. So yeah, it's certainly a confirmation of what we felt, but there's always something that somebody picks up on that we missed out on and we go, 'Good point. We need to fix that.'"
The most ambitious new addition in Project Cars 2 is a geographically-accurate and dynamic solar and weather system. In the demo we played, this meant that a few laps around the Fuji Speedway in Japan were different each time. Clouds gathered, rain poured down on the track, and pools of water would form in different locations, before gradually evaporating as the sun came out again. This was visually impressive to witness, but the introduction of this technology isn't purely aesthetic. "All of the racers and manufacturers we talk to tell us that the key thing in racing is what the environment does," Viljoen explained. "It is the unpredictability of the environment that feeds into what makes you win a race or lose it, what happens when you get your strategy wrong or when you get it right, how you approach a race weekend that spans a long period of time. There's so much affected by what the weather is going to do, what time of the year it is, and all these things."
For the hardcore audience, the unpredictability of these effects have much deeper implications than simply needing to adjust your braking distance on a wet track, and that's why the team wanted to leave static conditions behind. Vilijoen spoke about the effects the the weather would have on the temperature of the track, and the tire adjustments necessary for those who obsessed over those intricacies. "If you go to a spot in the middle of summer in Project Cars 2, the sun moves at the correct archway for that time of year," he explains. "Most of the track will be covered in sunlight, and [because] it's a warmer time of year you have higher ambient temperature, [and] the track surface itself is being affected by the sunlight calculations, so you have a temperature for that track and it changes during the course of a race."
"Now if you go there again in winter, the sun is at a lower angle, more parts of the track are going to be in shade and others are going to be in sunlight, so now you have this part of the track warmer than that part of the track because it's accurately calculated with the sun there. This is how it is in real life, obviously, and that makes a big difference in how real-world race drivers approach a race weekend. And because this is at the heart of Project Cars--we simulate the experience of being a race driver--it's a critical aspect of it. You don't just get on there and it's always the same, where you can get the lap times every time. That's not authentic." Vilijoen affirms.
The developers and I joked that with all the painstaking work going into replicating true-to-life dynamic environments, most people wouldn't even be able to appreciate the subtleties unless they implemented a low performance racing mode with cars that couldn't break the speed limit so easily. "Funny you should say something like that," Tudor remarks. "We can't talk about it just yet."
The other big, albeit less visibly dramatic change in Project Cars 2 is in how the game simulates tires. Not only how they're affected by the aforementioned weather conditions, but also the physics of how they come into contact with track surfaces. It's something the developer is determined to improve because of both feedback from the original Project Cars, and the sequel's inclusion of loose-surface racing with ice and dirt tracks.
Regarding the original simulations, Viljoen admitted: "There were areas that we knew needed improvement, and one of them was when you push the car beyond the limit. When you go over the edge, the way the slip curve of the tyre works made it a bit difficult for people to catch the car when it goes sideways. In Project Cars 2 we've added additional types of grip simulations, where we accurately simulate how it affects the handling of the car when the tire is moving across the track surface when it's not rolling. [Also] how the tarmac is ripping the tire itself, which effects, in a big way, that aspect of driving. So we got a full simulation of that implemented, and part of the fallout of that is that our cars are now far more controllable when they go over the limit: we have a far more progressive slip curve which determines how handleable you still are on the car when it is sideways."
One thing that isn't changing, despite some criticisms, is the team's approach in having every car and track available to players from the beginning. It's staunchly different to other titles in the racing genre, where earning currency for vehicle and track unlocks are typical to create a sense of progression. "We're not going to gate cars and tracks because that's the fun thing you actually play with," Tudor said. Vilijoen added: "If you want to step straight into Tier One, you can go for it. There are still things you can unlock, but that's bonus stuff, they're not core to the game. We're not saying, 'You're not allowed to play this.' We understand that there are some game designs where that fits, but largely that's a bit of a bygone era."
But there's an ulterior motive, too: Slightly Mad Studios wants Project Cars 2 to be an entry point into the world of motorsport, for any kind of player, but especially those who aren't as fanatical about it as their core audience. The model is a way to mimic the flexible careers of racecar drivers, and they hope it will organically teach people the language of the sport. "We want to encourage a way of thinking that's like a driver, as opposed to 'Oh, I can't wait to level up and unlock the next car.'" Tudor said. "It's about that way of thinking, the terminology, and what you go to the watercooler with the next day and talk about with your friend. You get a contract with a team, and then you've got a season of races, and you kinda work through there and you're thinking in your head, 'Oh I wish I could race for this team' or 'I'm going to sidestep my career and go from GT racing to Touring instead.' We want you to come out with that kind of vocabulary as opposed to, 'Oh, I unlocked something' or 'I did a huge drift the other day and got 500 points.'"
The other thing that Slightly Mad Studios isn't changing is its openness with the community and encouraging feedback on its forums, which is as important as feedback from real-world racecar drivers, it seems. The studio receives more requests than is practical, of course, and though Tudor and Vilijoen did lament a vocal minority of naysayers who get frustrated when they don't get their way, by-and-large the developer is hoping people appreciate its transparency and optimism, but understand the need for intervention.
"We honestly go into every single title full-bore," Viljoen said. "We constantly get to the end of a project and go, 'Okay guys, we overshot a little bit here. Let's pull this back.' But as the old saying goes, we'd rather aim for the moon and eat an eagle than aim for an eagle and eat a rock". Tudor laughed, "I've never heard that ever before."
"We aim high, and we accomplish most of it. It's important for us right from the outset that whatever we agree is going to be included in the game adds depth and not noise. Because it is so easy to just lose yourself in the details."
With all their technological improvements, I asked the directors what they hoped most to achieve in developing the sequel. Tudor reaffirmed: "More than anything I hope people can trust that the game that you eventually pick up has been made by people who listen to you, who are all as passionate as you are. I don't think we would make the game any other way."
Project Cars 2 is slated for a late 2017 release on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.