If you think of top-down racers, Codemasters’ classic Micro Machines immediately springs to mind. Fun, accessible and absurdly addictive, it represents everything that made top-down racers so appealing before the advent of cutting edge 3D racers flooded the genre in the 32-bit era.
Despite a recent resurgence in an attempt to capitalise on nostalgia, there’s been little in the way of revolutionary top-down racers lately. Playstos Entertainment, a small independent Italian developer based in Milan, hope to change this and reviatlise the archaic genre with Real World Racing, a new innovative top-down racing game for PC that utilises actual aerial satellite imagery for its tracks set in real world urban locations. Think of it as Google Maps meets racing games.
We spoke with Game Designer Giorgio Ciapponi and Lead Programmer Ivan Del Duca from Playstos to find out more about this intriguing indie project.
Real World Racing represents Playstos’ first foray with racing games. Despite this, the genre isn’t exactly uncharted territory for the team’s two programmers, who are industry veterans that have worked on successful triple-A titles such as Screamer Rally and EA’s Superbike series.
It’s this experience with racing simulations that led to the unique design direction of Real World Racing. Whereas most top-down racers pride themselves as accessible arcade games with lightweight handling, vibrant visuals and a plethora of power-ups, Real World Racing aims to differentiate itself with a focus on realism – something that Playstos strongly feels is needed in the genre.
“No one brought top-down racers to a new level like with almost all of the old school game genres. The few modern top-down racers around have nice and flashy graphics, but nobody made a change in paradigm: every single one of them uses ultra-fake physics and there’s little or no depth in the driving aspect of the game. They are arcade games rather than racing games,” said Ivan. “We wanted to change this not only by creating a game that is very unique in its presentation but above all for its gameplay.”
Indeed, Real World Racing is something of a bold and risky experiment, which Playstos seem all too aware of: “Whether this kind of experiment will be liked by the players or not is still a mystery; we hope so, but we are aware that we are playing with fire,” Ivan admits.
“Photorealistic” is a term applied perhaps a bit too liberally when it comes to describing the dazzling graphics of a racing game, but it’s an apt adjective for Real World Racing. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Google Maps had been transformed into a racing game.
Ivan describes the initial inspiration behind Real World Racing’s use of satellite imagery: “I was working on an iOS puzzle game (Crazy Traffic: Crashed) that used some satellite imagery as its graphics. The result was pretty nice and while developing it I thought several times that it would have been cool to make a racing game based on these graphics and set in real cities that players could easily recognise. I then talked to Luca Da Rios (Founder of Playstos’ and dear friend) and he liked the idea very much: that’s how it all began.”
Real World Racing features over 50 tracks, some of which are set in cities rarely seen in racing games including Copenhagen, Berlin and Milan. “Choosing the locations for the tracks was actually simpler than you would expect, but not for the reasons you would imagine,” Ivan explains. “We sifted through a lot of aerial imagery offered by a variety of licensors from cities around the world that we thought would be popular choices. Finding material of high enough quality proved more difficult than expected. Eventually we found ourselves picking our locations based on what looked good enough and discarded the rest.”
Ivan goes on to describe the process of incorporating these images into Real World Racing: “At the base of the technology is our in-house developed engine that allows us to dynamically load the currently visible portions of the large, high quality textures of the city. The aerial imagery is cleaned up of traffic, people, and imperfections with Photoshop wherever the tracks will run. Items that should occlude cars passing on the roads and shadows are also separated at this stage. Then, with our proprietary technology and editor, we add a realistic 3D effect to buildings, trees and other elevated structures starting from the 2D bitmaps without adding actual 3D models, which would look unrealistic and out of place. As you can see in the game, just the right amount of perspective is achieved to allow the environment to move realistically, even if based only on 2D data. Finally, a few 3D modelled objects are added to better define the tracks, such as barriers, tires and cones along the tracks, lights, additional decorations, etc.”
Modelling the maps was no easy task, however. Unsurprisingly, developing such an ambitious graphics engine was rife with technical challenges to the extent that Ivan joked the team could write a book on the subject. “We spoke with dozens of aerial photograph providers, but unfortunately most of them were unable to provide us with what we needed. 9 times out of 10 the quality was not acceptable to be used in the game,” he explains. “In the end we were forced to use a lot of real-time post processing to enhance the game look, otherwise everything would have looked bland and unattractive. We think we have done a good job in most of the maps but with better quality source material we could have achieved better results and it would have saved us from a lot of additional work, too.”
Adapting the aerial photos into playable, practical race tracks also proved difficult: “We thought that racing on real streets would have been fun. Well, we were wrong. In fact, the streets on a typical city haven’t been made for high speed racing: corner radii are tiny, it’s difficult if not impossible to overtake other cars, there’s physically no space to drift etc. Since we couldn’t change the city’s layout (it’s Real World Racing after all) we spent a lot of time tweaking the game physics and adding driving aids trying to balance the fun factor with the realism. We are satisfied with the result, but looking back we must admit that our initial approach was greatly naive.”
To complement the presentation, Real World Racing adopts a realistic handling model in stark contrast to traditional arcade-esque top-down racers. “We can certainly say that RWR is the most realistic top-down racer ever made,” Ivan affirms.
“Simulated vehicle dynamics include transmission, suspensions, geometry and aerodynamics, tire dynamics, engine and brakes simulation etc. Everything has been made according to the top-down view limitations thus, compared to great 3d simulations like iRacing or Project Cars, the game is honestly very arcade-ish.”
Of course, having a restrictive aerial viewpoint meant that Playstos had to sustain a careful balance between challenging realism and fun factor. “In its first incarnation RWR was much more simulative than in its current state but it was also highly unplayable. Playing with an in-car or follow camera was fun (yes, we can do that even with messy graphics) but as soon as we put the camera in its right place (ie. above) it was a disaster. Not fun at all. So we made a step back and while we have kept most of the simulation we have added lots of driving aids (mostly traction control, context based steering reduction/enhancement and stability enhancers). We think that the game is a good compromise between simulation and arcade and we sincerely hope that our players will feel the same!”
For new players, Real World Racing offers a decidedly different driving experience that can be initially daunting. Giorgio offers his own personal advice on getting started with Real World Racing and becoming attuned to the physics: “I tried to design the game to give much freedom and choice to new players. I recommend quickly going though the ‘Driving Licence’ at the beginning of the career mode to get a feel of the controls, and then try what picks your interest among the ready-to-play arcade tracks, the online challenges or continuing through the single player career. While proceeding through the career will net you the most cars, tracks and special liveries, almost everything can be equally unlocked playing online challenges with friends.”
“Don’t underestimate the more simulative driving of RWR even though it is not typical for a top-down racer: you’ll find that slowing down and planning your trajectory carefully will make a difference. Drifting will net you some quick bonus cash to purchase new cars from the dealership, but bear in mind that there are no bonuses to speed for drifting successfully, so my advice is to stick to a clean driving style until you get the upper hand in the race.”
60 cars are available to unlock in Real World Racing, spanning a variety of classes. While they are assigned with fictitious names, the vehicle designs are rather unashamedly based on real life manufacturers, from nippy hatchbacks such as the Fiat 500 and Seat Leon and muscle cars such as the Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger, to supercars such as the Ferrari 599 and Lamborghini Gallardo “We originally planned to include licensed cars in RWR, but given the (expected) costs and lack of reception by the licensors for an independent title from a small studio, and the need for cars as close to actual models as possible, we committed to creating models just different enough to avoid the need for a license, and still clearly referencing the original models to the trained eye, which we are sure our target demographic possesses,” said Giorgio.
“The selection reflects our own tastes in cars, trying to encompass a wide variety of models and budgets, from city cars to aggressively sportive cars. Still, we tried to stay true to the game’s title and included only cars that you are more or less likely to see on the road.”
“Car classes in the game are a gameplay device to mark the player’s progression though the game, while allowing for challenges and multiplayer sessions targeting low or middle-end cars. You will find that in any given class no two cars drive alike which was our main goal, and while not every car is an even match to the others, we believe racing games are all about variety and self-indulging challenges: bragging rights for beating your best friend at an online match driving a pick-up against his roadster is definitely something we want you to be able to achieve.”
Real World Racing was originally slated for release last year, but the unprecedented challenging nature of the development imposed on the small team led to numerous delays. “Originally the game was planned to be a small/medium sized project and it should have taken about 1 year and half to make. In the end the project has grown bigger and bigger and the development time overran by 1 year,” Ivan explains.
“As most game developers will tell you, you can never finish a game by its launch date: you can only launch your game when it’s finished. No matter how conservative or optimistic your schedule looks, if you are to finish by pre-set date, something has to be cut or left unpolished,” Giorgio added.
“More importantly, that awesome idea for your game you think up two months from release will always just remain in your mind if you cannot afford to delay the release date. It’s important to get a hold of your development schedule and not let things go completely off the track, but there is no point in being that strict in a small studio if your game is going to be better for it.”
This delay gave the team several benefits, however: “In our case the delay translated in a better online system with collectible challenge cards, more visual refinement and thoroughly playtested tracks: it’s hard for a small team to perfect more than 50 tracks where every little addition can make a difference.”
Given Playstos’ experience on iOS and the fact that top-down racers are particularly popular on the thriving smartphone market right now, it was surprising to see that Real World Racing will only be released on PC. “We certainly gave some thought to home console and handhelds, as we have plenty of experience on those platforms. As of now we are releasing only on Windows PC because of the small size of our team and we really need to get a feel of how Real World Racing will be received by the public since it is all a great gamble for us – we strayed quite far from where other games are treading,” said Giorgio.
Despite the genre’s popularity on the mobile platform, Giorgio believes RWR wouldn’t be an ideal fit: “Mobile platforms (tablets, smartphones) might look like a no-brainer, but RWR is developed with a narrower, ‘core’ audience in mind. Both in terms of controls and public, the mobile market would require us to change our game at its very foundation to meet success.”
As with many contemporary racing games, Playstos are planning extensive post-release support for Real World Racing in the form of additional DLC. “We are launching RWR with the players in our mind: we will listen and continue shaping the game and its contents from day one of release,” said Giorgio. “We are already working on new maps and cars which will be available both as free patches and fully-fledged themed expansion packs.” Special sports and vintage cars are said to be in the pipeline.
As for Playstos’ ambitions for the future, we may see more racing games from the developer: “Real World Racing is something new to the scene. As such if it is well received, there are all sorts of things we want to do with this new formula of top-down racing. So, yes, provided there is interest, we will stick with our players,” said Giorgio.