The MacFormat Real Racing 3 interview

The much-anticipated Real Racing 3 is out tomorrow, having been initially previewed at Apple’s iPhone 5 launch event, and then delayed into the new year. This latest racing sim from developer Firemonkeys is one of the most graphically impressive games created for iOS devices so far, and features recreations of real cars and tracks to play with. More controversially, it’s moved to being a free-to-play game, unlike its predecessors, which has led to concerns that the game’s design and progression would suffer.

What this means in practice is that the game features delays. Upgrades to your car, or buying a new car, take time to appear, while repairing damage to your car from races also involves a wait (although you can keep racing in a different car). Of course, it’s possible to skip these waits by spending gold coins, which can be bought with In-App Purchases.

We caught up with Michael De Graaf, Associate Producer at Firemonkeys, to find out about the technology behind Real Racing 3, why the developer went with a freemium model, and whether the game could be even more beautiful in the future.

MacFormat: You’ve been making Real Racing 3 for a while – how long have you actually been developing it?

Michael De Graaf: It’s built on Real Racing 1 and 2’s codebase, so we started with Real Racing 2 and branched it off. We started working on that while we were still working on Real Racing 2. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we started on it, but more than a year now.

MF: So was it just technical work on the engine that you were hiving off, at first?

MDG: We definitely made steps to improve the engine, but also the game itself is quite differently structured, and we took a look at how the game handles. For pretty much every part of the game, we’ve reached in and tinkered to make it just that little bit more real.

MF: When did you make the decision to go freemium?

MDG: It was something that we were keen to do pretty much from the outset of the project. We had a lot of people playing Real Racing 2, which was fantastic, but we could see the reach we got and the number of people who would play if we took the game free. One of the driving things for us a studio is just to get as many people as possible playing our games, so it seemed like a bit of a no-brainer to go free and remove that blocker for people. But also, as we developed time-shifted multiplayer, it became apparent that something that was going to be at the core of the game was competing with your friends. And if you have to say to your friend, ‘Well, you need to spend five dollars to play the game with me’, then people are much less likely to do it. So to be able to say ‘Hey, the game’s free, just download it now and you can play against me’ is much more compelling, and will drive a lot more people to actually get out there and playing against their friends.

MF: Did you have any worries over going freemium about getting backlash from fans of the series? I don’t know if you saw that there have been pretty heavy comments, as you expect on any decision that you make, but even The Guardian has put an article up online about the response.

MDG: I’ve seen a lot of comments about it, and we’re well aware of the sort of coverage that free-to-play games get, but when it comes down to it, we feel like we’re doing something different in the free-to-play model. We are offering an enormous experience; you can play the entire game without spending any money; we’re not blocking anything – there’s nothing that you actually have to pay to access. There’s been a lot of reactionary comments saying ‘It’s free, that’s terrible’, but when people actually download and play the game, I think there’ll be a lot more positive comments about how we’ve gone about it.

MF: Did you ever consider locking cars off, saying it’s 69p for this car? Or how did you come up with the eventual free-to-play model?

MDG: We threw a lot of ideas around about different ways of approaching it, but something that we established pretty early on was that we didn’t want to block people from content, because if one person can’t play with something that their friend has, then it’s actually a disincentive to keep on playing. So it’s important to us that it doesn’t matter what you play, you’re able to get the same stuff and play against anyone, and don’t feel like you have to spend money to be able to participate.

MF: Is there going to be an amount of money I can pay, £6 or $10 or so, that would get rid of all the delays in repairing and things like that permanently, or is it a case that it will always be small transactions at a time?

MDG: In the game as it stands, we don’t have a feature where you can remove all the time delays in repairs. To some degree, we want those to be a part of the game, because of the fact that we want you think while you’re racing ‘If I drive cleanly, I won’t damage my car as much, I’ll be able to take it onto the next race without repairing’. We want it to actually challenge how people are playing the game. When it comes down to it, if you’re racing in the real world, you pay attention to the damage your car is taking, you don’t want to write your car off, and it changes what the feel of the race is like, because the cars aren’t just trying to bash each other off the track, they’re also trying to just get through the race and survive until the end.

MF: You’re saying it adds to the overall verisimilitude?

MDG: Exactly.

MF: So that’s part of taking a different approach to designing the game. Did the idea that you’re changing how people are interacting with and progressing in the game change any of the other parts of development?

MDG: Not really. It definitely hasn’t changed how we’ve gone about producing content, or the amount of content we offer in the game. As a studio, I think we feel that there shouldn’t be any reason that a free game has less content than a premium game.

MF: What about the structure of the challenges – what you introduce and when. Does it make any difference there?

MDG: We’ve taken a very non-traditional approach to the structure of the game. Everything is available from the start. What events you can race in is determined purely on the cars you own, which is something that we haven’t really seen done in this sort of racing game before. And I think that whether you’re free or paid, you can take exactly the same approach. So I don’t think that side of things really impacted on it.

MF: How do you think the game compares technically to what else is out there at the moment? Even your own Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which I know is based on a different engine.

MDG: Most Wanted and Real Racing 3 are very different games – the style of the games is very different, and not just from the point of view of the racing, but the visual style is very different as well, so it’s a bit of a tough thing to compare them. As far as trying to bring that real look into the game, Real Racing 3 is the standard that we’re setting. And as far as what’s available on mobile currently, we’re convinced that we have the best-looking racing game out there. The gap between where we’re at and consoles is getting smaller and smaller as the devices get more powerful. Obviously, there’s going to be the next generation of consoles coming out soon enough and I’m sure we’ll see advances then, but there aren’t many things that we aren’t able to do compared to what consoles are able to do now, which is quite exciting for us.

MF: Going beyond graphics, where the gap is closing with what’s available now, as you say, what about the other technical aspects of making a racing game? What about the physics, the traction, the suspension – how do you think Real Racing compares there to something like Forza?

MDG: Again, we’re closing the gap there. There are differences, obviously. You can do more on console – they have more powerful CPUs and so forth, so they can do more maths and use their GPUs to offload maths as well. But something we’re very interested in doing is working out how to bring that closer and closer as the devices get more powerful, and I’m sure we’re not too far off the day when we can have that same sort of depth that games like Forza and Gran Turismo have.

MF: Do you have a model that you’re not capable of implementing yet? If there was a future Apple processor that was a lot more powerful, is it the case that you could turn on a bunch of new physics stuff that at the moment you’re holding back?

MDG: There’s definitely things that we know we can do better, which we’re not currently able to do based on hardware. It’s the same on console, there’s things that they’re not able to do with the physics just yet. There are some interesting PC-only games where they really do push the realism of the physics just that step further, because when you’ve got a PC you can actually build for the absolute bleeding edge. So there’s room to move in racing games in general with getting that little bit closer to the real world.

MF: When we spoke earlier today, you said that you built Real Racing 3 for ‘next generation’ of devices, but you were doing that during the last generation. So, have you been building a graphics and racing engine that are both future-proofed? Are you sitting on more power than what you’re currently able to actually use?

MDG: Yes, there’s stuff that, if a new device comes out, we’re going to be able to do something a little bit more special.

MF: With graphics in particular, where are you at now with what your game engine is capable of? Are we looking at the upper end of what it can do on the iPad 4 processors, for example, or are you looking at PowerVR Rogue [the next-gen version of the GPU used in Apple’s chips] as something that will add a lot to what you can do?

MDG: When new devices come out, what we’ll always do is take a look and see what’s there. Usually along the way we’ve taken something which is more involved, which is doing more, and then had to simplify it down to match what the device is capable of. So usually there’s a set of things that we’re reasonably confident that, with some slight adjustments, we can get something looking a little bit better – push out the draw distance or something like that. There’s definitely things that currently we would be able to say ‘This device is this powerful, we can change these parameters and get it just that little bit better’. But also, whenever a new device comes out, we do try to come up with new ways to take advantage of what it can do, whether it’s writing new shaders or using higher-polygon models or whatever.

MF: There’s that story about Epic Games asking Microsoft to put 512MB of RAM in the Xbox 360, instead of 256MB, because otherwise Gears of War just wasn’t going to be the showpiece that it was. Is there a similar bottleneck in the way the technology’s going at the moment, that if you could just beg, say, Apple or Nvidia to change in their chips, you would? Is it more RAM for textures, more CPU power, anything like that?

MDG: Mobile devices have enormous amounts of very fast memory. That’s a huge advantage that we have over consoles. We’ve got devices now with 1GB, 2GB of memory, so the size of memory just keeps increasing of the manufacturers’ own accord. I suppose the tricky thing, and this is something that is just very hard to balance, is that on the GPU side you’ve got limitations on the number of calculations you can do, because of the energy requirement and the heat dissipation for that. I think that the more we can get out of the GPU side, the better we’ll be able to do as far as pushing polygons and so forth, it’s just very hard to push that because they’re up against heat dissipation and power requirements. It’s definitely improving every year, and I don’t think we need ask them to make those changes, because they’re well aware of what’s out there and are dedicated to pushing that technology as far as it can go.

MF: What sort of level of research goes into Real Racing 3? The mapping of tracks, the cars and how they perform – how far do you go?

MDG: We work very closely with each of the manufacturers and track licenses to make sure that the tracks and cars are as accurate as possible. So we have an approvals process where we take them through what we’re building, and we make adjustments based on their feedback, and they work very closely with us to provide us with all the reference materials we need to be as accurate as possible. It’s a really good relationship we have with all those guys, because I guess they’re as passionate as we are about actually making their cars or their tracks as accurate and as beautiful as they can be. It’s actually a lot of fun working with that licensing side, just because they are so passionate, and the level of detail that they know their cars and tracks to is just phenomenal.