TA Exclusive: Talking Project CARS 2 With Slightly Mad Studios

By Andrew Ogley, 8 months ago
It's been a hectic period for the team at Slightly Mad Studios. Gamescom has just been successfully wrapped up with the team picking up the award for Best Simulation for its upcoming racing title, Project CARS 2. With the release date rapidly approaching, it's always a busy time for the development team. The new title is already looking stunning as the latest trailer shows.

Despite all of this chaos, we persuaded COO Rod Chang and Game Director Stephen Viljoen to spend some time with us to answer some questions about the new title. Hopefully, reading through their answers, you should get a sense of how their passion for the subject matter is only equalled by their ambition for the title. Grab a cup of your favourite brew and read on.

When starting with Project CARS 2, what was the aim of the team? What did they want to achieve with the new title?
As with all franchises, the start of development on the sequel happened before the game was released — pretty standard for franchise-based games. But once the game was released, we determined what made it so successful, what made it resonate with our fans, and how to improve on weaknesses.
The original release didn't go too smoothly. It was a polarising title with critics applauding the ambition but also highlighting those early issues/bugs. What did you learn most from the development and reception of Project Cars?
I’m not too sure it was that polarizing: we’ve been making racing games for 20 years, so we’re used to the “this game is better than that” type of feedback, as I’m sure all racing game developers are. I also think critics didn’t just applaud our ambition, they applauded what remains one of the most solid franchise debuts in the racing genre in a very long time. That’s not to say there weren’t things that disappointed; key were some bugs that came from a few last minute decisions which, in retrospect, would have been better left for another day. Our enthusiasm and desire to please came back and bit us a little bit, that’s also fair to say. The gamepad experience, for instance, was a tough pill to swallow. That wasn’t up to out-of-the-box standards that fans expect.

What did we learn? To ensure the Day One release is as bug-free as we can make it, and that the gamepad and peripheral experience is bulletproof out-of-the-box solid. From all the press and hands-on we’ve had, I think it’s pretty clear that’s exactly where we are with Project CARS 2 now.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

For some players, the original Project Cars was adjudged too realistic — and difficult — for casuals but not realistic enough for hardcore racers, so what has been done to improve the title for these audiences?
On release, I think it’s fair to say we got it wrong in terms of out-of-the-box feel. We made some incorrect assumptions about what our fans wanted and we made some poor decisions on how to offer the in-depth setup options in-game, and that led to a host of problems where some saw fault in the underlying handling of the cars, when the actual problem was with the way the cars were controlled by, for example, gamepads out-of-the-box. For Project CARS 2, right from day one of development, our CEO Ian Bell sent the development team a simple (and there was no misunderstanding the gist of it!) missive; get the gamepad experience right, out-of-the-box, or else! And for sure, we’ve got that right this time. We’ve addressed this by making the options simple to understand while retaining their depth for those who want it, scalable in a way that is obvious, and which will give our fans the ability to tinker, if they want, in a far more intuitive way.

To get back to your realism versus too simple question, which is always a fascinating one, we released a film this summer, part of our “Built by Drivers” series, which featured McLaren’s legendary test-driver Chris Goodwin. If you watched it, you’ll recall how Chris himself took every single McLaren in-game and tested them over an extensive period to give his nod of approval to the handling and feel of “his” cars in-game. Similarly, we have 7 world-renowned drivers testing our cars in-game, all of whom are active members of the development team. That kind of development assures accuracy and realism. You know, driving cars isn’t that hard. There is a small but vocal element that always suggests that sims should be really hard to be accurate but, if it was, granny wouldn’t be driving to the shop in her 20-year-old V8!

Having said that, there is a legitimate criticism that can and has been levelled at Project CARS, and that was the handling over the limit. There, all developers are really in the land of the black arts, in a land that granny, and almost every daily driver, will never fully explore. Actual racing drivers also try to avoid going over the limit, so there’s not a lot of actual data on this from tyre manufacturers, and so on. For the first game, though, our over the limit model wasn’t “right”; the ability to catch the car and get it into a nice powerslide was somehow too “edgy”, and the controls didn’t help matters much given they worked best only after some tinkering and lacked the intuitive touch our fans expected. It could be made slideable with setup work, but out-of-the-box it was disappointing.

There are a few ways we could have tackled this. One was to do a shortcut; fudge it. You’d be surprised at how many “sims” do precisely that. But for us and our partners, that is not acceptable so instead, we sat down and asked the obvious question—who is able to intuitively understand what a car is doing over the limit? Our answer was Vaughn Gittin Jr., one of the world’s most respected drifters. Vaughn has been working alongside our development team for quite some time and his remit has been to take the cars and drive them like he drives them for real—over the limit, tail-out, until he was satisfied that our over-the-limit feel was accurate.

Vaughn, combined with a lot of tech' data we have been able to garner from our new partnership with Pirelli, has seen us make massive strides with this: we got this right for Project CARS 2. When our players now get into a big slide and hold it, it’s because they’re good enough to do that. That, for us, is what realism is about, for our drivers to know that their ability in-game isn’t fudged. That’s an important part of the Project CARS franchise and an important part of what makes our game so special.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

Has the physics model also been improved?
In many ways, yes, with some being refinements to existing models in order to add detail, and others being really major changes. Here are just a few of the refinements.

We have expanded our suspension damper model to have as many as six adjustments per corner (slow/fast bump, slow/fast rebound, bump/rebound transition force), which allows us to obtain a closer match to how the real dampers work and respond to tuning adjustments on a given car.

Our brake model now has a heat transfer model with multiple layers. This allows us to model, with more accuracy, the difference between iron and carbon-carbon brakes, for instance, as one of the big factors making them work differently is how heat energy from braking moves from the outside of the rotor, through to the core, and then out through cooling vents. It also made our brake-glow effect look much more natural because that outermost layer of the brake rotors sees rapid temperature spikes, thus fading in and out of glow more realistically.

Turbocharged engines can now vary boost pressure through the engine's RPM range to match reference dyno’ data, meaning throttle response is more accurate and things like balance of performance for modern GT series can be matched precisely.

We now have much better control over properties of each surface type. Gravel, for instance, is not just the same as tarmac but with lower grip; it works fundamentally with different elements of the tyre grip and, as a consequence, it likes tyres with aggressive tread patterns to cut into and lock the surface together. Ice tracks, similarly, favour the effect of studded tyres and driving, so that you are digging those studs into the ice at the end of the car you want doing most work.

There are countless “little” things like that and then, of course, we have the big hitters: tyre model, and a new driveline model. Our partnership with Pirelli has taught us a great deal about tyre construction; how the contact patch moves and changes shape as the tyre goes through the stresses and strains of driving, how lateral forces influence vertical behaviour, etc. Matching our own model's behaviour to closer match what can be seen happening in real tyres had a great effect in making the rubber behave more naturally. Learning more about the rubber chemistry has helped us evolve that side of the model as well. Tyre-rubber grip is generally classified in three ways: deformation grip, adhesive grip, and tearing grip representing, respectively, the rubber moulding around the road’s imperfections, chemically bonding to the road material, and ripping off of itself.

We've added some new elements in our tyre model to better simulate each of those elements, tearing grip especially, and also in what activates the grip, how it responds to varying temperature, weather conditions, surface types, and so on. Working with the Schmidt Peterson IndyCar team also helped with a last element of the tyre model: the complete heat model. IndyCar teams such as Schmidt Peterson stick temperature probes on everything, and seeing how heat moved on the real car both at Long Beach and Indianapolis last year gave us a great baseline for the heat sources, heat sinks, and how fast it moves from one place to another. Our tyre-brake heat model is sort of a 9-layer dip of temperatures with energy going all the way from the brake rotor to the rim, through the air inside each tyre, then four rubber/carcass layers of varying thickness, before reaching the ambient air flowing around a tyre. Having real data for this to calibrate our model against was a big deal, and means tuning tyre pressures for track, weather, and car setup is as important in game as in real life.

The new driveline model is another big step forward for us. This sometimes gets minimalized as just new code for the differentials, but it is much more than that. Driveline handles every force/torque from the crankshaft through the gearbox and differentials to the tyres and back to the chassis via the suspension. The new code fixes a number of issues and assumptions which hindered us on the previous project, especially for doing vehicles far from the norm like a single-speed kart or big Ford F150 truck.

Then, of course, it does have all-new differential models. The player gets more than a simple choice of percentage locking in the diff’, they also get to choose the type, or even form hybrid models. A Salisbury clutch pack diff’ works differently to how a Torsen geared diff’ works or a viscous unit. For an AWD car with front, centre, and rear diffs, the player can tweak and tune those choices on all three of those units...or go with spool axles and lock everything together permanently! The new driveline model is also a modular set of building blocks, meaning we aren't locked into forcing cars to fit on basic FWD, AWD, RWD templates. Modern rallycross cars, for instance, are AWD, don't use centre differentials, and have a disconnect clutch on the rear axle when using the handbrake. R32 and R34 Nissan Skylines start out RWD and only send power to the front when wheel slip is detected; Mercedes A 45 AMG works exactly the same but front to rear, neither being what you would traditionally call AWD from a centre differential outwards. Our model allows modelling all of this precisely, with no compromises.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

With Project CARS, the weather transitions were critically acclaimed and generally regarded as the best in any title. Now you've introduced seasonal weather — trailblazing again. Just how deep does this go and what can players expect?
LiveTrack 3.0. is a big leap, yes. Technically, what LiveTrack 3.0. does is employ hundreds of thousands of sensors on every track, both on the actual track and off, with each sensor communicating with the other to create actual living, organic tracks. What this means for our drivers is a whole new era of realism.

Just to give some examples. Say it’s raining at Spa. What happens is that the sensors up Eau Rouge will “absorb” the rain until the ground can no longer do so; at that point, the rain will begin to wash down the hill, as it does in real-life. The sun’s angle, depending on the season, will also influence the grip; go to Indy on a crisp Fall morning, when Turn 1 hasn’t been in the sun, and you will experience a different grip to Turn 3 that has been warmed by the sun. Go to the scanned Nordschleife, and it’s quite possible to find rain on one side of the circuit, and sun on the other. And you’ll find that certain turns will dry faster because they’re in the sun, while other turns, in the shade, will take far longer to dry. Your choices of tyres will become critical.

Each track obviously rubbers-up during a weekend, and if the driver ahead gets a wheel off the track and comes back on, the dirt he drags back onto the track will affect the grip of the cars following.

All four seasons are in-game both beautifully realised in terms of graphics—the trees and the feel of the tracks—and in terms of physics. Go to Fuji in the winter in your Nissan GT-R, and chances are you’ll be driving through the snow at some point, with Mount Fuji in the background in the mist. It’s incredibly immersive, and as the some of the reviews have already noted, we aren’t leading in this area, we’re actually in our own space here. Just to give you an example; when you’re setting up a race weekend online or off, you can select up to four weather “slots” or you can just choose the “Real Weather” option that will take you to your chosen location with the real-world weather at that location. Go to the scanned Nordschleife in December, choose “Real Weather” and, if it’s raining, snowing, windy, misty, or cold and sunny, whatever the real-world weather is at the ’Ring, you’ll be driving in it as if you were there.

This is important because motorsport isn’t just about simulating a car on a track; it is about simulating motor racing and there’s a lot that goes into that. How you warm your tyres, being on the right tyres at the right time, being able to predict the weather, being able to tip-toe through a drying track on slicks—simulating all of this is where Project CARS 2 is way ahead of the pack. In real motorsport, varying track conditions have big consequences to determining who wins. It’s the same in Project CARS 2.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

Is it true that the weather effects also include changing wind speeds and directions? How will this impact racing?
Absolutely and this is particularly felt with our aero’ dependent cars such as the IndyCars. Get a tail-wind at Indy, and you’ll be running out of revs, and feel the car getting buffeted down the main straight-way. This adds a whole new realism in terms of your setup options.
Project Cars 2 has more motor-racing disciplines that most other titles. What challenges were there in developing so many different racing types (Karts, Indy, Rallycross, Track, Ice)?
Aside from the usual challenges of bringing new motorsports in-game, I’d narrow it down to these:
  • LiveTrack: modelling the loose materials and evolution of those materials
  • Tyres: modelling the grip on different materials in arbitrary mixtures
  • Driveline: surviving the severe impulses in material-type transitions
  • Rendering: Making all the materials look good, and puddles look the right depth.
This time you've managed to attract Top Marques such as Ferrari and Porsche — what does this mean to the team at SMS? Is there a feeling of validation/recognition?
It’s validation for the Project CARS franchise. Slightly Mad Studios has been making racing games for 20 years so for us, getting more elite brands into the game was really about listening to our fans, and the validation part wasn’t really something to which we gave a lot of thought. One of the top “asks” from our fans was Porsche and Ferrari and other elite brands in-game. Of course it’s fantastic to see these epic cars from these brands in Project CARS 2, and to see our partnership with all our licensed partners and brands expand and grow. As a fan, I’m thrilled to be able to push these cars to their limits in-game because I know from the inside how close they are to their real-world counterparts.
What other marques are you hoping to attract? Which would you like to see joining next?
Our community—WMD—is very strong and our fans are also very vocal. I’m sure we will begin to hear what other brands and motorsports they want in the franchise now that we’ve brought in their biggest requests for Project CARS 2. Ask me again in about six months!
There are still a few unannounced cars? Any hints what they might be?
Project CARS 2 - Interview

What are the plans for the OnDemand service this year? Will there be free cars and community livery packs?
We haven’t made any official announcements on this as of yet.
Community events were remarkably popular in Project Cars - nearly 53 in total - what are the plans for Community Events in Project Cars 2?
We continue to support Community Events, and have expanded on it with various new features to help engage with, and track, active and past events. As with OnDemand, we have yet to make a formal announcement yet for Project CARS 2.
You've put a lot of emphasis on E-Sports in the title both with the introduction of Competitive Racing Licenses and functionality for broadcasting and directing. Why did the team feel this was so important and what do you see for the future of E-Sports and racing?
Esports is obviously growing exponentially and motorsport is an ideal arena for esports given what our drivers do is pretty-much exactly the same as real-world drivers (minus G-forces and hurt when you hit a wall!). But you’re correct in noting that we have put a lot into the esport component of Project CARS 2.

One of the key reasons for that is that Project CARS proved to be really popular with the racing community, so we felt creating a solid foundation for esports was crucial for the new game. That includes the Competitive Racing License, which will not only improve matchmaking for casual online racing—as well as making the racing a lot cleaner—but will also, by highlighting drivers’ skill levels, make it easier for esports teams to recruit and find new talent. Live-stream functionality, of course, is an integral part of esports, and Project CARS 2 has a robust new Director and Broadcast tools built-in.

The future of esports is continued growth. In racing, that also means elite automakers and manufacturers coming into the arena with full-backing. We’re genuinely excited and bullish about what’s yet to be announced.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

The new title will also allow players to create their own online leagues and administrate them from within the game. What are you hoping to see with this new feature?
The goal was to make running online championships an easy and intuitive affair. Number one on that list, of course, was to kill the need for the Excel spreadsheet, the thorn in the side of online racing admins since forever. Admins will now be able to administer their competition entirely from in-game—everything from points tracking, inviting drivers, cars, tracks, schedules, rules, time, weather, everything is controlled in-game. It’s a big step forward when it comes to the game.
For single races, Project Cars featured private, public and friend lobbies. Will these be returning and have they been enhanced?
Yes public and private (password protected) lobbies will be featured in Project CARS 2 and yes, they have also been subject to a big overhaul in order to improve matchmaking, and to promote more orderly and clean racing.

Online players can now choose to enable our Competitive Racing Licenses (which is optional and is on by default); this component will see like-minded players able to compete with other like-minded players. If you like your racing clean, and you race cleanly, you will be matched with players who share your driving philosophy. Likewise, the opposite also applies.
This is achieved by online racing lobby admins setting a minimum Safety Score to filter out potential players that do not meet their safety requirement. (Naturally, this is voluntary—admins can enable or disable as they choose.)

We have also introduced a strength rating metric (where drivers are rewarded for winning against opponents ranked higher than them, while strong players who lose against opponents ranked lower than them will not be rewarded). Improving matchmaking and promoting clean online racing were big targets for Project CARS 2 and we’re excited with what we’ve achieved here.
What about changes to the leaderboards? Will it be easier to see where we are in relation to friends? Can we easily see what percentile we are in (top 10% for example)?
It's easy to compare friends’ records using the friends filter wherever leaderboards are displayed. Additionally, we automatically display the fastest time out of all your friends when loading to the track.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

We know that the title won't be a "PlayAnywhere" title, but will there be cross platform leaderboards between PC and Consoles?
No, cross-platform leaderboards won't be a feature of Project CARS 2.
There's a lot of focus on multiplayer, but for single player what has been improved? What can we expect from the new career mode? Will the other single player modes be returning (time trial, single weekends etc)?
The Career Mode in Project CARS was obviously one of the core strengths of the franchise and that cornerstone has been both deepened and made more accessible. The depth comes in with new challenges such as becoming a Factory Driver for elite brands, for instance, as well as more depth in terms of motorsport types, real-world series, and also getting more of the available vehicles into the series that you can run.

Accessibility means we have given players more options; for instance, choosing the number of races they need to run per Tier in order to progress through their career, thereby allowing players who perhaps don’t have the time to run a full schedule to still compete in a career with a more limited amount of events they need to enter.

Again, going back to simulating motorsport; the career is another example of that. Here we wanted to “simulate” the racing career of real-world drivers. If you look at the way drivers go through a career, you’ll often find they move through various motorsport disciplines; some open-wheel champions will swap Europe-based formula cars for IndyCars, and some will go into rallycross, touring cars, and endurance cars. This is how the career works in Project CARS 2. With 5 disciplines to choose from—everything from Formula cars to rallycross to GT to endurance—players will be able to really get a full and broad motorsport experience.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

We know that the AI Settings have been improved with two separate settings for aggression and skill. How will this be seen and how will players experience this?
This will be seen as giving the player greater control in the balance of the AI, as you are now able to increase their overall strength and speed but still keep their aggression toned down if you prefer a more passive AI experience. This makes it more accessible and enjoyable, particularly for faster drivers where they no longer have to deal with very aggressive AI just so they get a challenge in terms of AI pace. For the ultimate realistic challenge, increasing both the AI strength and aggression will make a player really work to stick an overtaking move, or hold a position.
Will we still be able to hand over to a tame AI in endurance races?
Yes. Players still have the ability to 'Swap Drivers' to AI control in pit stops.
When players boot up the game for the first time and you want them to see it at its best — first impressions — what would you recommend them to do? Which track, car, weather settings should they select?
Motorsport is always a subjective thing. Ovals with IndyCars, rallycross, ice-racing, driving the Nordschleife in the rain and fog, running Classic Spa with variable conditions and with dry tyres on a wet racing line in a Porsche 911 GT1-98, recreating the epic Le Mans 1998 race with all the cars that finished in the top 10 positions—this is an impossible question to answer! For our drivers, there’s no doubt that whatever their own personal combination of preferred car, track, and weather, they’ll likely as not find it in Project CARS 2.

If you’re asking for my favourite? Multi-class racing at a 24 Hour event like Le Mans or Spa or Daytona and coming up to slower GT cars with an LMP1 in the night through the fog and rain. Multi-class racing really is special in Project CARS 2. Knowing when to be aggressive and when to be patient as you come up to a gaggle of slower cars all fighting for position—that’s a real challenge!
If there's one thing that you hope that players take away from the title, what would it be?
That’s a tough one. For me, it would be that our players feel immersed in motorsport; challenged by the racing, and fall in love with the visceral feel of the game.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

So, finally a few quick questions to finish. Will Ben Collins (The Stig) be returning as your pit radio /spotter?
Ben Collins is Crew Chief as always. Ben is Spotter for non-USA locations and all non-IndyCar vehicles. For IndyCar, we went for more of a distinctive American voice.
Will you be challenging players to take on Nordschleife in the snow?
Our drivers will be challenged at the newly scanned Nordschleife, period. If they choose to run that epic track in winter then they could well be doing so in the snow, yes. And they will certainly be challenged for sure!
What is the team's go-to car/track combination for internal testing?
Casey Ringley (Technical Vehicle Lead): I do end up with some favourites in each class for tyre testing. The Honda Civic GRC, Dallara IR-12 IndyCar, McLaren 650S GT3, Chevy Camaro ZL1, and Ligier JSP2 are a few I tend to gravitate towards. But really, every car gets quite a lot of seat time while dialling-in the handling models.

Tracks, I definitely have a few favourites. Long Beach is perfect for working on suspension tuning; the bumps of the laser-scanned surface and off-camber corners are very unforgiving. Algarve is great; a traditional kind of GP circuit to test on with tons of elevation change, complex corners, and it really gives our LiveTrack 3.0 systems a workout in the wet with how the rain flows over such undulating topology. Then DirtFish is my favourite for testing rallycross stuff. It has the most surface changes and widest variety of corners of any RX track in game, so you get a lot of bang for your buck in testing there.

AJ Weber (Physics R&D): Brands Hatch, since it has data on my main test mule, the Lotus 51. After that combo, I like to test with Long Beach and Willow Springs, both local to me in real life, so I have been on one for real (Willow), and the other is just cool! After the Lotus 51, I bounce around a lot on cars.
What's next on the agenda for Slightly Mad Studios?
Our current objective is to get Project CARS 2 over the line, bug-free and as impressive as we can make it. For Slightly Mad Studios, though, the future is very bright—we will have some big announcements about future releases in the not too distant future.
Project CARS 2 - Interview

And on that note, we have to say thank you to Rod, Stephen and the team at SMS for spending the time with us and for giving such honest, forthright and in-depth answers. Project CARS 2 will be hitting the Xbox One on September 22nd.
Andrew Ogley
Written by Andrew Ogley
Andrew has been writing for TA since 2011 covering news, reviews and the occasional editorials and features. One of the grumpy old men of the team, his mid-life crisis has currently manifested itself in the form of an addiction to sim-racing - not being able to afford the real life car of his dreams. When not spending hours burning simulated rubber, he still likes to run around, shoot stuff and blow things up - in the virtual world only of course.