Slightly Mad Studios are known for being on the cutting edge- they’ve always tried to ride the crest of the technology wave, and the best part is, they do so while delivering some really neat games in the process, too. Last year, they launched Project CARS, an ambitious platform for racing game lovers, that turned out to be worth the very long wait that led up to it. And this year, they promise to go beyond even Project CARS– with several new games in development, and multiple exciting technologies on the horizon, Slightly Mad Studios find themselves at a most exciting intersection right now.
We decided to sit down with Slightly Mad Studios’ Andy Tudor, and discuss these exciting new developments with him. We talked about a lot of stuff- from VR, and how game design works in VR, to iterative consoles, the Nintendo NX, and of course, the games that Slightly Mad Studios currently have in the pipeline. Sit tight, and enjoy the interview.
"We’re all big fans of technology, at our studio. So no matter what it is, when new hardware or technology comes along, or a new gadget comes along, we’re always playing with it, and we’ll support it."
I wanted to start to start with Project CARS, which was already a pretty realistic game, it got praised a lot for its realism. And I wanted to know, what prompted you to want to immerse the players further in the world of driving with VR? Did you always have a VR version of Project CARS planned, or did you come up with the idea after the game launched?
So, we’re all big fans of technology, at our studio. So no matter what it is, when new hardware or technology comes along, or a new gadget comes along, we’re always playing with it, and we’ll support it. That’s why in Project CARS, we support so many wheels, and gear shifters, and things like that. And that’s why, instead of making just one second screen app, we gave that power to the community, so they could make their own, and we’ve got over a dozen now.
So when VR was announced, when the first rumblings of Oculus Rift started happening on the web, we immediately wanted to try it out. And then from trying the very first development kit, with, I mean, I personally tried out Team Fortress 2, I just could see that this was going to be perfect for racing games. And the racing genre has always been more accepting of additional hardware or peripherals, more than any other genre- we’ve always had seats and wheels. And now with the VR visor, we have a helmet. So even from the very early days, with us trying it out for ourselves, we knew that it was going to be a perfect match for racing.
I do agree with you- the racing genre has sort of always been a pioneer for new technology, going all the way back to the SNES, with F-Zero and its Mode-7 tech, and then Ridge Racer on the PlayStation. So yeah, I think VR is well suited for racing games.
If I’m not wrong, Project CARS had some early demos for Oculus, I think before the game actually released, for one of the devkits.
Yeah, that’s right, yeah, so… the way we developed Project CARS in public view, basically kind of in front of everybody, it meant that when people were out there getting their first devkits, you could actually play a very early version of Project CARS on them in VR. And we’ve been working with Oculus ever since then. So we were working with Oculus back in 2013, I guess, when they were first announced, and we have been working with them ever since. And now they’re finally launched, so Project CARS available on the Oculus helps us all.
So how would you say is the difference between the game’s Oculus version, and the initial experiments you made with VR? How has the game changed from those early builds to the final VR release?
In the very early days, we used to get sick- I mean, it’s pretty easy to say that, we all played, we had things in the game already, from our work on Need for Speed Shift, that was making you feel queasy, because we were already trying to emulate G-forces that were going around the car, head movement was attached to the driver’s head in the game, and those two things were found to be quite conflicting, that they would make the people a bit nauseous. So we immediately stripped those things out for the VR version.
Gradually over time, the hardware has gotten better, the screens being used have gotten better, and they didn’t have full motion tracking in the first devkits, which they do now. So yeah, it’s been a gradual growth over the last few years. And then, in the most recent versions, we’ve added in specific menus and options into the game for the Oculus version to allow you to make things even more comfortable for your eyes as well. So being able to change your seat position, from the in game menu, and you can change the scale of the world from there as well. As well as settings for your eye distance, and other such things as well.
So yeah, it’s been a gradual refinement process, and we’ve been using our community as kind of guinea pigs, who’ve been giving us feedback on what the optimal experience is for virtual reality.
I actually wanted to ask you about the menu and the HUD and the UI, which you brought up. What would you say are the challenges of designing a UI in VR, and how would you say you managed to create one that was intuitive?
There’s lots to be kind of learned here, and there are a number of other studios who are going through the same process basically, of how long a session should be when you’re playing VR, and – I mean Project CARS is rated as ‘intense’ for its gameplay, because you’re in the game, and you’re racing around at high speeds, and looking left and right, and being in command of a steering and trying to wheel a car, and things like that, it’s not a leisurely experience – so from an interface and presentation point of view, things need to be pretty simple, in order to make it a pleasurable experience when you’re not out on the track going a million miles an hour. So we made the menus all quite simple and basic for you, it’s just a screen sort of hovering in midair in front of you, and you can access the options from there, and it all has to be quite intuitive. So we’ve kept things quite simple for Project CARS on Oculus by using a floating screen in front of the player’s head. But yeah, other games are coming up with wildly different solutions, depending on the level of intensity in their games.
"Things in your peripheral vision are negligible when you play in virtual reality."
Yeah, plus this is early days. I think people are going to be trying different things, and experiment with new ideas.
So what changes were made to the game released last year to make it work for VR? Were there any changes made? Apart from the menu, from a gameplay perspective.
Well, the version that’s on the Oculus Store is essentially the core game that was launched last year, but with all the on demand content that we’ve added since. So from a gameplay perspective, you’ll get all the cars and tracks and improvements we’ve made, all that kind of stuff. And then when the Game of the Year edition launches on May 6, the Oculus version will automatically get upgraded to that. So from a pure content point of view, there is tons in there that wasn’t in the game released last year. From a technical point of view, we’ve had to make adjustments. So you know, the game has always run at an amazing framerate, it’s run at 12K resolution, things like that. But the solution to getting it to run at those kinds of, that level of quality and fidelity, is usually to increase your GPU, your clock speed, get a better CPU, things like that.
But with Oculus Rift, there’s a slightly different way of going about it, there’s a very regimented minimum spec for Oculus. And therefore we had to make some technical adjustments behind the scenes to make sure the game runs at a perfect silky smooth 90 frames per second framerate. The way to do that is actually quite easy, because when you’re playing in VR, everything is actually about the close up object, it’s about tangible things in front of the face. It’s about the steering wheel, and the cockpit, and the rear view mirror right there. And your brain doesn’t notice as much things that are far off in the distance, because you’re very much aware of your immediate surroundings, instead of things that are miles away. So we’ve adjusted our level of detail for things in far off objects, so we can get away with a lot more on Oculus for far off objects and edge objects as well. Because your brain won’t concentrate as much on those things.
So it’s a lot like real vision, where you won’t focus on peripheral objects as much as you will focus on things right in front of you.
Exactly, things in your peripheral vision are negligible when you play in virtual reality.
I wanted to ask you, because I think this may have something to do with the nausea thing you brought up earlier, but are you supporting the Oculus Touch controllers? From what I understand, people say that intense VR games with the pack in Xbox One controller can cause a disconnect that leads to nausea.
Potentially. Over the time period, and certainly for the launch of Project CARS on Oculus, we’ve absolutely solved the nausea issue. Because racing is so good for VR, it suits it so well – I mean, you know what it feels like to sit in a car, you know what it feels like to have hands in front of you on the wheel, and you know the horizon line won’t go crazy, it’s not like a space dogfighting game, where up is down, and left is right, and things like that – and you’re always going in one direction (hopefully), which is forward. And you always naturally turn your head in the direction you’re going to be going in anyway, because that’s what we do in real life when we drive. So from a motion sickness point of view, it’s completely solved, and it’s actually a really pleasurable experience. We certainly had people who’ve come from just having played other games, and they have come with an expectation of ‘this looks really intense, like it will make me throw up,’ and then they actually find it really comfortable because of those key things.
So when it comes to the Oculus Touch controllers, we are certainly looking at them, definitely. But, I mean, it would be lovely to put your hands out in front of you and grip a steering wheel in real life, and have your hands in the game do the same- but there’s some work that needs to be done in terms of the actual steering wheel peripherals before that can happen. If you take the steering wheel peripheral away, and you just have your arms hanging out in midair, it’s not such a good experience because your hands can be any width apart from each other. What happens when you want to change gears? How would you do that? There are a lot of caveats like that that need to be overcome to work on that. So we are looking at it, but equally we are also looking at other solutions for actual physical peripherals, too.
Yeah, it’s a completely new paradigm, so some things need to be considered that you wouldn’t have to in a traditional game. Which brings me to my next question- how would you compare making a game for a VR platform versus developing for traditional game systems? What kinds of different resources are needed? How do you have to approach development from a different mindset?
I think it’s, I mean, we’ve already started work on Project CARS 2, so I think having played the game in virtual reality, it’s fair to say that we won’t be going back from VR- every game that we work on in the future potentially may support VR in some form. So that means definitely as we begin work on Project CARS 2, we’re already thinking of what is the VR experience going to be like for this particular game? So that can go through absolutely everything, so at the moment, we’re concentrating on the gameplay being a VR experience, and now we’re starting to think of what is the outside of the gameplay experience – like browsing your career menu – going to look like? How do you do Photo Mode in VR? How do you do replay cameras in VR? How do you browse your garage in VR? Things like that. So it’s certainly a different mindset, and if it works for VR, it’s likely to work for non VR experiences as well, and be a fantastic experience there.
So there are definitely a lot of questions, lots of meetings that happen regarding how we’re going to take it to the next level. So yes, these are exciting times currently.
And would you say that Project CARS in VR is close to actual driving? Basically, not true driving, naturally, but as close to true driving as you would ever get with a video game?
Yeah, absolutely. We have seats in the studio which move, so they are hydraulic. And if you sit somebody in that, and the seat is moving in relation to the physics of the car you’re driving, you strap a wheel and pedals in front of you, so you’re doing what you’d be doing if you’re actually driving- and now we’re wearing a VR headset? We can’t get you any more immersed. We’ve got surround sound speakers on the seats as well. Like the only thing left is to blow a fan in your face so you can feel the wind in your hair, right? We’re as close as we can get.
And when it comes to the guys who are playing our games on the pro level, at our eSports events, they already have the seats and wheels, and I think many of them may now take the plunge and purchase the VR headset, because, as you said, it is the last piece of the puzzle in getting you as close as you possibly can to having the authentic driving experience. And it’s something we just couldn’t do previously- with a 2D screen, the closest we can get to something like this is triple screen monitors, or potentially having eye tracking, like on Kinect. But the headset is the true way of doing something like this.
So essentially in the future, VR could be really good for driving or flight simulators.
Oh yeah, absolutely, I can see many applications- like your driving tests, learning to spot hazards on the road, and learning how to look out of your rear view mirror, or rear mirror, and learning how to properly park, like parallel parking- so it would be perfectly suited for a training tool for learning how to drive.
"We’re investigating PlayStation VR right now."
I wanted to ask about the PlayStation VR version. I know that the game is coming to that- how different is it going to be from the Oculus version, though?
So, we’re investigating PlayStation VR right now, but we can’t talk about it, I’m sorry. (laughs)
Well, pertaining to VR in general- Oculus is now finally available, and it has gotten really good reviews, and we have the Vive and the PSVR. I guess I want to ask you, how long will it be before VR becomes integral to gaming entertainment, basically becoming a new pillar- PC, consoles, mobile, VR?
We’re still in the kind of wild west at the moment, you know? It’s done extremely well, it’s not in everyone’s hands yet, it’s not even in everyone’s price point yet. But once you get your hands on it, you know, everyone agrees that it’s absolutely phenomenal. So considering that the jump in graphical fidelity wasn’t maybe as big this generation as it was last generation, or like going from 2D to 3D,or 3D to HD, virtual reality truly is that big graphical and gameplay leap that I think gaming audiences have been looking forward to.
So you know, with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive and PlayStation VR all coming out this year, and all being available by Christmas, it’s certainly an interesting time, and we are all hopeful that VR does take off this particular time, definitely, because there are certainly some amazing experiences that can only be had in VR. Experiences in VR are truly revolutionary, beyond just sitting on a couch, and playing on a 2D plane.
So yeah, we’re all hopeful it takes off, and we’re gonna be supporting it ourselves for the near future.
So in your opinion, the current crop of consoles and high end gaming PCs are powerful enough to deliver the kind of VR experience that is needed for the medium to take off?
Yeah, I mean- I mean, we’re in games development, so obviously our computers are pretty beefy, and things like that. But the minimum spec for VR on Oculus is attainable, definitely. It’s not necessarily the most powerful Nvidia GPU, it’s a card that has been around for a while and is affordable now. Most players have hopefully gotten rid of their old CRT monitors by now, and they have decent CPUs… so, yeah, although many people may need to upgrade one or two things on their machines, overall, certainly, we’re mostly ready for VR- we just need the headsets and the controllers. I think it’s one of those cases of a killer app coming out for one of these devices, and just like Half Life 2 or maybe Crysis used to be in the old days, people will naturally upgrade their computers to go VR ready. I mean, some will not, but they’ll be outliers.
So yeah, I think, everyone should be having a machine that is capable of VR, definitely- I think if you are a true gamer, that this is the kind of next generation experience that you’ve kind of been waiting for.
I also wanted to ask you- so VR requires high framerates, my understanding is that is necessary to counter the feeling of nausea. I think 90fps were mentioned by you for Oculus, and Sony mandates 60fps for PlayStation VR- my question is, will this sort of change the general mentality for games development? It’s been really focused on resolution, but do you think the increased emphasis on framerate placed by VR could bleed over into non VR AAA games as well?
I think it’s definitely going to bring the issue of framerate up more when developing your game, absolutely. If you want your game to ever be a VR game, it needs to be running at that silky smooth framerate. Most driving games are either 30fps or 60fps- we prefer to go for 60 frames, because it’s a smoother experience, but other racing games just stick to 30. And if they want to be VR capable now, then they will need to be 60fps, or greater. So VR is going to bring the question of framerate back to the forefront for many developers, definitely. And on the other hand, VR also increases resolution, now you’ve got effectively two monitors, two screens that you are rendering to, so I think there will be many studios out there that will have to readdress their own internal technology to try to reach these goals, if they ever want to have a game that is a VR experience also.
"I think, everyone should be having a machine that is capable of VR, definitely- I think if you are a true gamer, that this is the kind of next generation experience that you’ve kind of been waiting for."
I wanted to shift focus to what you guys have in the pipeline coming up next. You’ve mentioned Project CARS 2 a couple of times- how far into its development are you?
So we announced the crowdfunding a while back, when Project CARS 1 had actually launched. And while a team has been working on the on demand content for the first game, we are now shifting focus to Project CARS 2, once the upcoming Game of the Year Edition launches. Our WMD community have already been kind of experiencing the early builds, concentrating on what we are doing differently this time around- things like off road racing, or loose surface racing. So yes, we are full steam ahead now, and we’ll have more information on Project CARS 2 to share later in the year.
When Project CARS was announced, it was as a long term platform for racing game fans. How are you ensuring community continuity between the first game and the second?
We launched Project CARS back in May 2015, our on demand program and brand new content, has all been happening over the last year. Today is our Project CARS eSports draft day, so we’re talking about the upcoming 2016 season. So that should take us through to 2016.We’ve got more events that will be happening as well, and then as I said, we will be moving the discussion over to Project CARS 2, so the franchise as a whole is definitely going to be this ongoing organic thing, growing each day. And I think the evidence of that is, if you roll back to interviews with me in the past as well, I said we’re in this for the long haul, we’re going to be around for a very long time, we’ve got a big vision for the game… and that’s certainly coming to fruition now. The community feedback to the game and the critical acclaim that it got can ensure that the franchise can certainly live on and grow and get better over time, and that will certainly be happening.
So I hate to bring up the question of resolution, especially when we just discussed the importance of framerate- but I think I should ask you this anyway. The first Project CARS ran at 1080p on the PS4, but 900p on the Xbox One. Do you think that with the second game, you can up the resolution on Xbox? Especially with the availability of the DirectX 12 API, and new SDKs, and so on?
Yeah, certainly, it’s something we actively are looking at, definitely. And it’s interesting to hear the news from Sony and Microsoft about upgradeable consoles, essentially. So, whether that is the PlayStation 4K or Xbox 1.5 or whatever you want to call it, that’s certainly interesting from a development point of view, what we can take advantage of, when those consoles or add-ons or whatever they may be, come around. You know, higher frame rates, or getting a game to run at 4K on a console, as opposed to just a PC, or getting full parity on a console, so it’s running at 1080p on both, PlayStation and Xbox… so yeah, it’s something that we will always be looking at, and it’s always our goal to get parity across every platform that we release on, absolutely. It’s just that sometimes there are, you know, restrictions, or things that we need to overcome in order to reach that, so yeah. It’s definitely something we’ll be looking at for Project CARS 2.
I also wanted to talk to you about Red Bull Racing. I just received the PR for it, and I think it said that the game will be free to play, but it will explicitly distance itself from financial models that try to push monetization over gameplay balance and fun. So my question is- how? How do you plan to monetize the game, without it being intrusive to the gameplay experience?
Well, so that is brand new, fresh news, it literally just came out (laughs)
At the moment, it’s too early for us to talk about that stuff in particular, but I will say, if you look at our other games, if you look at how we approached microtransactions on Shift 2, or in our mobile games, no one has ever complained about our microtransactions that we had there. Like we have always been extremely fair with how each game is monetized. So the point of that press release is that you can trust us on this- we won’t gate content behind a paywall, like you may experience in other games. We’ve always done a good job with this stuff, and that seems to have gone down well the community, so you can trust us on this. So when Red Bull Racing comes out, it’s going to be a pleasurable experience for everybody, and everyone will have an equal chance, without having to put money into the game.
"The PlayStation 4K or Xbox 1.5 or whatever you want to call it, that’s certainly interesting from a development point of view."
So when do you think we’ll hear more about Red Bull and Project CARS 2? E3?
I’m not going to give you a date! You know, bear in mind, there are some big conventions and conferences coming up, so keep an eye out for us during some of those.
Definitely worth a shot, though, asking you that!
Alright, I think you answered this already, but you are looking at VR support for all your games going forward, right?
Right, we’re looking at- VR is such a great experience that it would be silly of us to not consider it for all of our future titles, absolutely.
I wanted to sort of shift to the PlayStation 4K, since you did just bring it up just now. I wanted to know, what are your thoughts on it? Is it a wise idea from a consumer perspective to essentially fragment the market like that?
I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest. The full information is not released yet, so I think it would be wrong of us to comment on rumors at the moment.
Okay, from a theoretical development perspective, I believe you said that upgraded consoles would be a good idea, because they would give you more power to work with?
It depends on how it’s done. I didn’t say that it’s a good idea, necessarily, but that we will always look at- if there is more power available, then we will be there to look at how to use it, yeah. But, there are good ways and bad ways of doing that. Would it be a good thing to bring out a brand new console which is more powerful and that annoyed the 10 million people who bought the original one? That wouldn’t be a good thing. Equally, would it be good to bring out an add on that, you know, attaches itself to your existing PlayStation, and if you have an add on, you can use it, and if you don’t have the add on, then we can’t use it- okay, well maybe, that’s a bit like mobile development, in that we have to cater to the people who have the iPhone 6s, but also to people still on an iPhone 5. So there are pros and cons. But like I said, we don’t know the full details, so it is kind of too early for us to speculate on what our stance would be. But if there is more power available, however it may be, we will certainly look into using it somehow.
I also wanted to ask you about the Nintendo NX- from what I understand, there was a Wii U version of Project CARS, I think it was the first one announced, and then it was cancelled because the Wii U couldn’t run the game properly. And you said you would wait on the NX for a Nintendo version. I guess my question is, do you know much about the NX, something you could share? What are your thoughts on it?
Trying to get that exclusive here! It’s not gonna happen! (laughs)
We are aware of the NX, absolutely, but there’s nothing we can share currently.
"We are aware of the NX, absolutely."
(laughs) Not even your opinion, your takeaway?
(laughs) Like I said before- worth a shot!
I want to thank you for your time, and for answering all of our questions.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us or our readers before we end?
No, I think you covered it all! Like the VR aspect, that’s very exciting, and internally, we’re shifting focus to Project CARS 2 now, but also there’s another team working on Red Bull. So yeah, everything is going well- we’ve had a really good year! We’re looking forward to continuing that into the next few years!
Okay, well I want to wish you the best of luck for all your projects coming up!