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What is a racing simulation?

Tim Wheatley - Sep 16, 2020   
Tim Wheatley - Sep 16, 2020

You all know the answer to this one, right? Having considered myself a “sim racer” since at least 1992 I thought I did as well, but I have found that once I started to try to clarify it for myself I actually considered way more titles to be fully-fledged racing simulations than I ever have before. The catalyst came when another aging sim racer such as myself said “a bad sim is still a sim” – as this made me realize it has actually not got as much to do with the physics as I thought. A racing simulation with bad physics doesn’t magically become an arcade title, it pretty much has to have been designed that way.

Since I brought RSC back online last year I’ve had to decide a few times whether to feature software or not. Viper Racing (1998) is a good example of a title I previously chose not to feature because, frankly, I don’t think it contained racing versions of any Dodge Viper, and there were no real racing tracks. While it’s a title that I had a ton of fun with, it didn’t fit the criteria I had in my head. CART Precision Racing (1997) was another that I had thrown onto the arcade pile because the tracks weren’t particularly accurate and the A.I. were awful. Now I wonder why would bad A.I. make a racing title – especially one with a major real-world racing series license – not a sim, when software with no A.I. (such as iRacing until recently) wouldn’t be marked down for that?

I plodded along with this vague idea of what a racing simulation was to me, ignoring titles that weren’t ‘realistic’ enough (having usually not tried or tested them) and just covering the software I thought I should, but the release of Project Cars 3 left me with a serious question… What is a racing simulation? I decided to define what this really means, for me…

The first thing to understand is that a racing simulator is a specific child category under the simulation category. Simulations can include everything from flight sims to ‘life’ sims such as The Sims™ (yes, really), and it was important first of all to specify what “racing” is. This is what I came up with:

It simulates racing in an environment similar to how a sanctioned legal racing event happens in real life, even if using generic content – or – it simulates a licensed real-world racing series.

I needed to break that down. I can’t put a title like Wreckfest – which does include some good examples of real-life racing in generic form – in the context of a real-world sport where safety is paramount. It may well simulate racing but I needed a way to clarify what type of product we were dealing with, so I went back to the word “sanctioned” and added this:

It does not include glorification of dangerous driving that would be unacceptable in real world racing.

I then circled back to consider what I actually want a car simulation to offer in its basic form, and even if the physics don’t feel spot-on I felt that it should at least try to simulate the vehicles involved. It should have the ability to use fuel, wear tires, and properly drive its wheels. Basically, this is the defining characteristic of a car simulator:

It attempts to simulate the basics of the vehicle(s) involved including fuel usage and wheels that are correctly driven (front/rear/four wheel drive).

Refining this again, I added:

It allows setup adjustments present in the real world, and those setup adjustments alter the handling of the vehicle in a way that is expected in the real world.

However, it didn’t escape me that there was a period of time where simulating fuel usage, tire wear, or completely accurate setup adjustments may have been difficult due to hardware limitations or even last minute budget constraints. Should Indy 500 (1989) not be considered a simulation just because it’s more simplistic than a modern title? Should any old title be marked down due to age? Of course not! Also, what if the developer intended to do these things and just didn’t do a very good job? Surely this is a poor simulation rather than an arcade game? I covered this by adding:

The developer intended to create a simulation and did not remove setup adjustment, fuel usage, tire wear or drive as a design decision rather than because of limited time or that it was technically advanced for the time.

This took the recently released Project Cars 3 out of the running as a racing simulation because it does not simulate the basics of vehicle simulation (there are no pit stops and no fuel is used), simple as that. This clearly wasn’t a hardware limitation as it was removed since Project Cars 2… This was a design decision.

Now that I’ve said that my question is; Why that’s a bad thing? Surely being a fun racing game is preferable to being a terrible simulation? Why can’t we embrace and be proud to have created an experience anymore? There are developers out there who will easily check every box that classifies their title as a racing simulation, but it will be an AWFUL experience to drive it with much less realistic handling than Project Cars 3. Handling won’t make Project Cars 3 a simulation by my definition though just as much as a poor simulation won’t become arcade.

So I went into this thinking that defining would mean I REDUCED the number of titles I would be covering, but it’s quite the opposite in reality. I previously only listed Codemasters titles from F1 2016 onward but now will list them all and just consider F1 2015 poor and F1 2017 to F1 2020 ‘average’. It was this that made me consider a grading system (Best through Poor) once a title passes the above requirements for coverage as a simulation.

Remember: Making a stellar racing experience should not be looked down upon, regardless of genre. It just doesn’t mean I have to cover it or include it in the index.

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