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Posted: Aug 2, 2023 @ 06:03 am GMT-0600
Updated: Aug 17, 2023 @ 04:38 am GMT-0600
Sorting Tags: Article Interview, Article Software, Articles, devnews Straight4Games, GTR Revival,
This post has been read 1,403 times.

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I’ve been lucky enough to interview some really interesting people since bringing the RSC Web site back online mid way through 2019, but never before has the subject allowed things to come quite so ‘full circle’ as interviewing Ian Bell. Having hosted his mod groups forum for a while in the early 2000s, interviewed and completed RSC community Q&A’s with Ian multiple times in the run up to the release of GTR, and more, I’ve known him for a very long time and have seen his career wind it’s way from SBDT to Slightly Mad Studios, and seen everything in-between.

Straight4 put up a version of this interview here as a part of their monthly newsletter distribution.

Text has been edited for readability. The audio version (above) is also on Apple, Google and other podcast sources under Race Sim Central. Music by Matthew Wright.

So Ian, thank you for doing this. I guess I first knew of you around the time that RSC began hosting your mod groups forum for you but obviously you were around a long time before that as well. I think back now, you’ve been involved in some titles I know I’d be very proud of and I think that you’ve come out the other end with a little bit of money. But I know at one point you lived in a tiny bedsit in London… What’s the background of those early years?

When I started back in the nineties my idea was to get a like minded group of people together so we could make a mod and be able to drive something that we would enjoy driving and there were actually a few formula one games out at that point. There was one by Ubisoft, I believe it was F1RST, there was Grand Prix 2 by Geoff Crammond and yeah, there may have been a third one. There were things like Johnny Herbert’s Monaco Grand Prix and games like this, and it seemed that the F1 license wasn’t exclusive at that point obviously.

We came to the conclusion that GT racing might be an interesting modification to what was out there. So we took the wonderful work that ISI had done and we made a total conversion model of it and the expectations back then with me doing my third PhD in human computer interaction was that it fitted the zeitgeist of my life at that point and I felt it would be appropriate. So I set up a forum with the notion being to attract like minded people who would be interested in doing something similar. I managed to find some like minded people, many of which are still with me, some of which have retired (Yes, I’m getting old), and, yeah, it worked out for us.

We did a mod back then and we followed it up with another mod and that became mod of the century I think by sheer luck that it was at the end of the nineties and the fact that we did something very, very decent. The physics were done by Doug Arnao, who still works with us in Straight4, and the graphics were done by a group of people who are still with us. We’re all still working together. I didn’t think it would become as big as it became.

My idea back then was that I would become a lecturer in psychology earning 60-70,000 a year if I was lucky, but that was fine and, you know, being a professor at such an age, I was late twenties, was something special. I was giving lectures two or three times a week, it felt pretty good and I think the students enjoyed it. Maybe they didn’t learn that much from it, but they enjoyed it because we had fun and fun has been my modus operandi the whole way through. Enjoy yourself. Make sure you enjoy what you’re doing. And as I did more of the mod work I realized I’m enjoying this stuff much more than I’m enjoying writing thesis. So, yeah, that’s where it grew.

Well, I’m glad you stuck around because obviously you’ve made a big difference in sim racing like, I think, we all kind of hope to. Now, your first title leading directly on from the mods was GTR but you’ve released some massive titles over the years and I’m wondering which one of them you perhaps the most proud of or would want to be remembered for?

Well, GTR was seminal, so we can’t forget that but I believe Project Cars because with GTR the funding came from elsewhere, with Need for Speed the funding came from Electronic Arts… I think (what) I’m most proud of is the Project Cars series because back then we had no funds, we had no publisher, we didn’t really have cash in the bank and I came up with the notion of WMD and this is what paid for the game. We got our own cash, we got complete freedom. There was no publisher intervention and we weren’t curtailed in what we could do. We went hell for leather and decided to do whatever we thought might be the best thing in terms of a racing simulation.

I’m not saying that Project Cars or Project Cars 2 were perfect in any way, because I do think we bit off more than we could chew, but I’m most proud of that because that came from zero. I created the funding model and created the concept for the game, created the name, came up with the whole thing. My personal pride is fairly high for that one.

Yeah, that’s quite special. The raw driving feel, the audio too is something that I remember from GTR, having first heard it in-person on behalf of RSC at the big red promo trailer you had at the Spa 24 Hours (in 2004). Do you specifically focus on that area in game design?

Yeah, I harped on about that constantly, and that (raw feel) applies to every single aspect of the game. The audio was created by the now professor Stephen Baysted, a great friend and my first employee actually who came down to meet me when I was doing my PhD. We had a beer together in our local pub and I said to him “I’m going to make a racing simulation” – this is pre GTR – and I could see that he was slightly doubtful but I was aware of his expertise and his ability and he did come on board. So he was my first employee and professor Baysted is still with us, still working on the music and the audio in the game. He’s now director of that, and he does a great job.

To answer your question specifically, in terms of visceral experience, it’s extremely difficult to transpose things like G forces. This is the huge area you can get into with the movable simulators that you sit in and they give you a hint of G force moving this way and that, but it is absolutely completely divorced from reality. It’s an indication as opposed to a semblance of reality. We worked on things like head physics (to give feedback) where the neck had a certain degree of feedback spring rate, we’re still working on that to get it perfect but you can overdo it because it induces nausea if you get too much movement. We have to dial that back to the point where we’re giving those indications of braking as your head moves forward, accelerating your head comes back a little bit, but if you’re in a cockpit with a proper seat with with head restraints and you may be using the HANS device, there’s not that much movement.

So you need (to find) those subtle feedback mechanisms and this is something that we’ve always tried to encapsulate within the game and something that I keep banging on about. It’s extremely crucial that you even have coiled wires moving, protective mesh on the on the windows moving, you would have all of those things indicating G forces and our next work is going to – well, I don’t want to give away too much – but we’re planning to do things where it’s completely linked to the G forces and you see the degree of movement based on the Gs that are being input. I’m a psychologist, all of those things have a psychological impact, even if it’s subconscious it, you feel it, you believe it, you understand it, and you feel immersed in it. That’s where I want to go. I want to do it properly without that level of nausea that can be induced with too much movement.

That’s great. So, how do I bring this up? I want to ask you about Project Cars 3 as it’s something that I was genuinely curious about. I need to hear where it all went wrong?

For Project Cars 3 it’s the one game that I didn’t actually directly input the minutia (of it). Every game leading up to that I was directly involved and would race constantly, drive the car constantly, feedback constantly. For Project Cars 3, I didn’t do that, I stepped back and as we were being taken over by Codemasters I was advised to become more of a CEO and stop being involved in the the micro details. I’m not sure that was overall a positive.

Additionally, we didn’t want to call it Project Cars 3. I sat around the table with 20 other people at Codemasters and openly stated that we wanted to call it Project Cars Sideways, giving the indication that we’re going off in a different direction to have more sort of semi open-world areas. The idea was that we’d go with the sort of Forza Horizons direction (rather than) Forza Motorsports. I was overruled, I was told that the investors were insisting that we call it Project Cars 3 because that’s what would sell. That was completely against my remit, completely against my advice, and something that I didn’t agree with.

So that’s not a game I would put my stamp on. I’m not proud of it and it’s not something that I influenced to a great degree… And that’s not a get out, I did my best to try to at least change the name. I did my best to try to position it such that it would be more of a Forza Horizons (title). We sometimes have to (make changes) due to the influence of the investors who are paying insane amount of money to make these things happen.

That’s really interesting and actually a little bit sad. I think with a different name perhaps people wouldn’t have been quite so upset that it wasn’t the product that they were expecting, that it wasn’t a true evolution of the Project Cars franchise.

Yep.

So for my next obvious question, the new title goes back to your roots in terms of simulation?

Absolutely. Absolutely. 100%.

I had a chat with the boss at PLAION, Dr Klemens Kundratitz, as we are as close to friends as you can be in the industry. He’s a great guy and I’m very happy to be working with him directly as he has given me my freedom and I do what I want to do now. So what we’re doing is going back to GTR 2 and to Project Cars 2, but this time more focused because with Project Cars 2 we had so much variation – an insane amount of variation and with insane variation comes an insane amount of balancing required – that we weren’t able to balance everything to the level of perfection. (While) there were about four or five cars that absolutely nailed it, it was impossible with the amount of varied terrain, varied weather, varied humidity, varied everything. Then it’s almost impossible to make sure the balance is perfect for the artificial intelligence.

That issue is not going to happen because with GTRevival, we are now focusing again – still with a massive amount of content – but that content will be focused on what we’re absolutely best at, and we expect to come out with all guns blazing and do something extremely special (to) raise the bar for the industry.

Excellent.

It’s interesting to me, looking at the roster of people you have working for you, that there are recognizable names to me from as far back as Grand Prix Legends, Grand Prix 3 modding, obviously GTR… You have some people that have worked for you for 20+ years now. You’ve held that core group together and I guess I’d be interested to know, how did you recognize the capabilities of an untested game designer in Austin Ogonoski?

On staff retention, look, it’s very simple, don’t bullshit people, don’t lie to them, tell them the truth, tell them it upfront, be straight, be honest, they will see over time. Most people who join a new company they give you a certain introductory period where they’ll analyze you, they’ll analyze your behavior, they’ll see if you’re being straight with them and they’ll appreciate the fact that you’re being straight with them.

As far as Austin Ogonoski, our game designer… Well, you know for five or six years he was whinging about all of the the shortcomings of games and my perspective was “look, put your mouth where my money is” and that’s effectively what he has done. In my opinion, he has turned out to be a wonderful producer (of content). He’s extremely prolific. The detail with which he writes up his game designs is from a perspective of hardcore sim racer and he has the expectation that we can deliver. He’s been doing a fantastic job. If anything, we have to curtail him to an extent because he reaches for the stars. He’s pushing for the absolute limit in every area.

Normally in this industry we try to pick our battles, we’ll go for one major USPs (key features) and three micro USPs, but with Austin he’s not just the dreamer, he’s someone who actually does race, he races on oval and he knows his stuff, and his feedback has been fantastic.

How are the the older guys and obviously more experienced guys that have been in the industry for longer working with an obviously younger guy who was perhaps like six or so when you first started? Not that we’re old or anything.

Well, he has that energy of youth and what he’s coming with and is something that we should aim for, which is sim racing perfection. But that’s not possible, no one can do it single game, not even over multiple games. The fact that he’s driving it and pushing it and asking for these design elements, I think is absolutely crucial because it drives the team forward as well and they’re aiming to reach that very high quality bar and yeah, I mean, it’s to be expected. You get someone with that youth, that energy, and I think we have a wonderful mix of the old timers.

When I say old timers, I don’t want to give the impression that in some way that they’re actually jaded, these people are still massively motivated. When I spoke to them all about coming on board Straight4 there was a palpable excitement. They came because they wanted to and it’s not that I’m paying the highest salaries in the world. We have a good environment. People can work from home, they’re free, they’re flexible, they’re not being overly pressed. If they’re projecting a certain amount of time to deliver something and they skip out (on) something, they’re not being humiliated.

We have a good mix, but if we stayed with the core team they wouldn’t be big enough in terms of pure capacity to be able to deliver on the quality bar that’s required these days because the quality has increased so much. It’s these little details that are coming through these days. You can’t get away with it. You need to work your ass off and make sure that that everything is detailed and absolutely precise. That means additional work and you need a mixture of really good solid people who are aware of what they’re doing, and who have the experience in the background. Mix (that) with people who are young, maybe slightly more energetic, who are coming in with fresh ideas and these things are both important.

I think it would be interesting to know if you think current generation consoles are getting to the point where they can really begin to support those sort of ‘pie in the sky’ game design ideas that maybe just a few years ago weren’t really possible?

Well there are 5 million arcade games that are all handle almost identically. And when you have that you know you get an embarrassment of riches or people become jaded because they’re feeling the same handling from one car to the next. They’ll be using Chaos from Unreal. You’re gonna have roughly the same feeling that, you know, there’s no detailed model on that.

What what we’re running with, written from scratch from the ground up for our next game, is an advancement on what we had with Project Cars 2. We’re taking that (new engine), we’re developing it, we’re making it more efficient as well, so it runs faster. But the machines are getting more powerful as well, so that helps us and yeah, from my perspective, I think that we’re going to come through with something that feels properly next gen. We’re not using Terence Groening’s suspension modeling from ISI, we’re doing that ourselves. It’s pretty advanced and we have a fantastic team working on that stuff, and they’re doing a great job.

It’s funny you should mention Terence, I have a really nice written interview with him on my website from when he first joined iRacing (leaving ISI after 20 years). But anyway, you know, I’ll also say it like I see it (on my Web site) but, I’m curious if the kind of the ‘no filter’ approach that you seem to have has ever really got you into serious trouble?

Possibly. But if telling the truth gets me into trouble, then I’ll accept the trouble.

Well, I mean, I ran a forum for a long time and I know how difficult it can be to get tone from text. In real life I’ve learned you’re a bit of a jokester and that’s kind of hard to get across. Has it always worked out being that kind of joker?

Yeah… Look, if people see me in person and if they see me online and they see my face, they’ll understand that I’m smiling through most of this. For me, it’s a jolly. It’s about enjoying myself and having fun and at the end of the day, regardless of how hard core we get on anything, if we’re not having fun I have no interest in doing it… I don’t need to do this work… I love doing this work… I don’t need the money… I have enough of it.

For me it’s completely fun and I’m very luckily and I’m blessed. Very luckily for quite a while now. If people saw my face while I was typing, because you can’t put that into typing, they would see that I’m having fun. I’m having a smile. I’m not necessarily serious.

But (at the same time) the vast majority of what I say, I absolutely mean at the time of typing it because the thing is the, the internet doesn’t really work on temporality very well. People will read something you’ve written seven years ago, which at that time was absolutely spot on, and with the benefit of hindsight (you see) that didn’t happen. Well, yeah, that’s life. We don’t get everything we dream of.

I had read that you had some money after the Codemasters and EA acquisitions and I guess what some might wonder is what made you start a new studio and basically do it all over again?

Well, I love what I do. I absolutely believe that we can raise the bar, with the right people, who are a mixture of the guys who were there and fresh new blood very carefully vetted by us. I believe we can raise the bar. I particularly just enjoy racing great simulations and I think we have some work to do… We never reached the multiplayer quality that iRacing produced and I don’t think we reached the graphical acuity and quality that Gran Turismo produced. What I want to do is be the best in every area. That’s my aim, and that’s an unfulfilled dream, so it’s something that I’m driving for.

So literally just working towards being the best, that’s the actual motivation here?

That is the main motivation… To keep pushing in that direction. You can never win every single battle, but hey, you know, what’s the point if you’re not trying?

So, the upcoming project. Will there be any community involvement during development? Testing, early access, something like that?

Absolutely. Yes. We’re gonna have a WMD in a slightly modified form and we’re going to be embracing the community. We’re gonna put it right there in front of them. They can have a look at it, they can have a play at it. They’ll be signing NDAs, of course, but the core people that join us will see what we’ve got and we will listen carefully to their feedback. We will modify things as appropriate.

We are working from first principles here. We’re taking into account which things that we have now that we didn’t have before. (While before) we did have data from Pirelli, we’re getting data from multiple other manufacturers of tires so the tire model is getting better and better. We’re getting much more feedback in terms of suspension, the physical ramifications of it and and how they affect the car. Having those first principal data sets is extremely important and, from that perspective, that’s where we are, building things now. I think everyone will enjoy it.

And are you able to give any kind of time frame there (on ‘modified WMD’)?

I’d like it to be a nice Christmas present to bring people on board, but I want people to be invested… Psychologically invested. There may be an early access payment, not that we need the cash… But I want to ensure that people are actually motivated and they’re in for the right reasons.

So in my mind that’s kind of similar to Project Cars 2 or I guess what we would now call early access where with a group of people (are in) who will give good solid feedback.

Yes, exactly. And I think Project Cars 2 was all the better for it.

Thanks so much to Ian for his time, S4 for allowing this and also allowing me to try out an interview with posted audio for the first time. I hope providing my own transcript adds something, too.

Expect a mixture of live interviews on the podcast eventually, recorded interviews (like this one), and more written ones in the future!

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Missed this until now. Ian actually seems like a pleasant person here....... I did believe everything he did was tied into scams but as I look I see people say they made money on his WMD thing so it can't be. GTR 2 was great. CARS wasn't awful. Maybe he's ok?

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LOL this is genuinely the best comment. Yep, maybe he's a person and stuff.

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