- Jun 5, 2009
Following the announcement that Studio 397 will be taking over development of popular PC racing simulation rFactor 2, RaceDepartment took the opportunity to have a chat with the man behind Studio 397, Marcel Offermans, and find out more about the future direction of the sim.
In our interview we learn more about the man behind Studio 397, discuss the future of rFactor 2, learn about what DX11 will mean for the sim and much, much more...
Marcel is not the only big name behind the new Studio 397 development team. If you missed our earlier interview with ISI and Studio 397's Tim Wheatley, check it out here.
RD: Ok opening question... so who is Marcel Offermans?
MO: Sim racing for me really goes back to, in some form, my first computer! The first computer I had was the Commodore 64. Obviously there weren't any really serious sim racing games for that, maybe REVS, but that's about it. That's when I first got in touch with sim racing really. Things got out of hand when Grand Prix Legends came around. I started racing online, trying to dial up with my modem and stuff like that. I was really enjoying racing others online. It sort of went down hill or up hill or however you want to call it from there. I play all the major titles. I just collect all the sims and enjoy playing them, but somehow over the years, I always got drawn to rFactor because it combined two hobbies of mine - sim racing and computer programming. Because rFactor was so open, it allowed me to do a lot of things I've really enjoyed over the years. Just tinkering with it a little bit, got involved with Beta testing for rFactor 1 a couple of months before it was released, and over the years whenever ISI had some smaller jobs that needed doing, especially stuff that had to happen in Europe, they called me and asked me if that would be something I could do. I did stuff like programming large motion platforms and things like that. That's how a couple of years ago, they asked me again if I would be interested in porting rFactor 1 to Steam, which for ISI really was a test case to see what Steam could do. Nobody will tell you how the Steam platform actually works until you get access to it, at least from the inside. They wanted to have a test case first. With rFactor 1, they discovered a lot about how Steam works and what you can do with it, and after that conversion was done, it was logical to do rFactor 2 as well. I was up for that and that's what I've been doing basically until about April this year, just working on that and trying to leverage some of the features. That's sort of my hobby life.
In work I started my career just as a computer programmer, worked for different companies and I love challenges so I hopped around a bit from one challenge to the next. I think about 15 years ago, together with some other people, I started Luminis and that's where I'm still working. I’m heading a 21 man development team there, working on all kinds of projects and products, also doing some work for Reiza last year on their Automobilista title. I'm going to keep combining that with working on rFactor 2, but that's obviously the big focus from now on.
RD: Why do you consider yourself to be the right man to take on the further development of rFactor 2?
MO: Very good question! Obviously I have a high regard for ISI and their technical expertise, and how they have driven the platform over a number of years and created a very feature rich, and, physics wise, a very accurate racing platform. I would be lying if I said that I knew all the ins and outs of those aspects, that's definitely not true, but I think over the years where ISI have struggled a little bit is to integrate that software with the modern internet, with the cloud, more web based stuff, just the things that you and I expect on a day to day basis. Things like being able to look up races on your phone and stuff like that, not that you want to race on your phone, but at least you would like to look at stuff and see if there is anything interesting coming up. That's traditionally an area where my company has a lot of expertise. I think by combining the two, we can bring that platform forward in many interesting ways, and fix some of the things that have traditionally haven't had as much attention as they maybe should have. That's why I'm hopefully the right guy for the job. Plus I'm obviously a big sim racer so that should count for something!
I come from a software development background, where building communities is core to open development. We are not going to be open sourcing the rFactor 2 code base, but we are treating this very much as a community project and trying to leverage that community as much as we can. That is definitely an important direction for us and it also makes rFactor 2 unique, where we are the only company really focusing on community that much.
RD: With you forming Studio 397 to take on development of rF2 going forward, will the sim be the sole focus of the teams attention, or will the studio have other projects as well?
MO: Studio 397 will just be looking at rF2. We are also discussing with various companies all kinds of projects around it, but all of those will have a focus on rFactor 2. Like ISI has done in the past, there might be some spin offs in one direction or another, but they will all be based on the same code base and it's definitely our intention to keep working on rFactor 2 for the coming years and not split the community, but unite more people behind rFactor 2, that's the focus. We won't be working on anything called rFactor 3 or 4 or any other names that been out there. As you know ISI have hinted that they are working on something else and I'm sure they'll be telling us when they are ready to share that. We will focus on rFactor 2, trying to improve that in the years to come.
RD: If a desire ever existed to create rFactor 3, who has the rights to create that game? Studio 397 or ISI?
MO: We've got rF2 rights and we've got an understanding with ISI that they aren't going to create a direct competitor to that. We are open to creating a new title down the line if we want to, but we've agreed with ISI that's not something we want to do in the short term. We want to focus on the existing product and enjoy just improving that.
RD: Why do you feel that now is the right time to take over development of rFactor 2?
MO: The interesting thing is that the initial proposal to start discussing this came from ISI. I was initially maybe as surprised as all of you were. I had a chat with Gjon early April about trying to move forward with rFactor 2 in a new way, basically because ISI were doing two products at once: their new product and the continued development of rFactor 2. That plus all kinds of ideas that we had discussed previously about taking rFactor 2 in new directions turned out to be just too much for one team to handle. I think it was a very logical and good decision. I can imagine that it was a huge step for them to try and do something like this. Just imagine this is your baby you've been working on for 20 - 25 years and all of a sudden you're telling somebody else to go and run with it. I very much appreciate the trust that we got from ISI in making this move. I hope to do them proud.
RD: So you touched on ISI's "not rF3" earlier. Will they be using the same core technology as found in rFactor 2 for the new title, or is that yours now and they have to develop new technology from the ground up?
MO: I'm not sure that I know the answer actually. Based on past experience, they've always taken the existing engine and upgraded certain parts of whenever they move to a new product, so I'm quite sure they will be doing that again. I'm not actually sure which parts they will take and improve on, that's something we haven't discussed much, and as I've said that's something that they will share with the community whenever they feel ready for it. I'm sure they will reuse some of the technology and they have the rights to do that.
RD: We understand that Studio 397 have taken some of the staff over from ISI who worked on rF2. What kind of the makeup of staff do you have in the studio and what roles have been filled from the former ISI staff side of the business?
MO: All of the content team have moved over from ISI to Studio 397, plus also some of our testing people, so it's mostly content creation and testing. As Tim has explained to you, he works 50/50 for ISI and Studio 397 as our communications and licensing guy. Tim is a guy with lots of experience and contacts in that department. In terms of development we will be adding some of our own developers to the project where we can obviously select people from a large pool, so we can pick people that are right for the job at hand. Also we are still being supported by the ISI developers in Ann Arbor. We can go to them for questions and ask them to code certain things for us. We have a good relationship with them, but they are primarily focused on a new product at the moment, so it's not that we can employ them full time to keep working on rFactor 2.
RD: Such things like Real Road came from ISI. You obviously have full access to the source code etc. Do your team feel comfortable with this tech and feel able to hit the ground running regarding further developing and expanding on the current platform?
MO: I would be lying if I would say that I know every line of code intimately in the code base. Probably even ISI staff don't have a full overview of all the aspects. Obviously when you are working in a team, everybody has their own expertise, but over the last couple of years I've been in touch with quite a large part of the code base in both rFactor 1 and 2 so I've seen a little bit about its evolution as well. I think by now I have a good overview how everything is built up, what the different components are and how they are working together. I feel confident enough to take on some of the bigger jobs that we have scheduled on the roadmap. For example, we are working on a complete new user interface. I think I have a reasonable good grasp of the whole codebase by now.
RD: Speaking of things you have already announced, regarding DX11, what are you mostly aiming to achieve from the upgrade? Performance improvements or a graphical overhaul of the title?
MO: Our first aim is definitely to ensure we can enjoy some performance upgrades by having this new engine, and it's also a prerequisite for doing VR support. Those two things are most important. Obviously DX11 gives us a lot more opportunities in terms of optimising and creating better looking shaders, touching on some of the weaker points of the current engine and improving on them. We have to keep in mind also, that we want to remain backwards compatible because with so much content out there, it would be a shame if we would have to throw that away or have everybody redo everything because we make some changes to the graphics engine. That said, if we can make it look better by introducing new shaders and optimising some of the algorithms, that's definitely a step we do want to take. First we want to just move to a new engine, enjoy the performance upgrade and enjoy the VR support that comes with it.
RD: I've heard through various channels that there is talk of developing a new graphics engine such as the Unreal 4 engine for rFactor 2. What is the story behind this?
MO: That has been discussed as an option going forward. I would say it's going to be probably a longer term thing. Looking at DX11, that's something we want to introduce first quarter of next year. I would say completely replacing the engine with a new graphics engine is at least a couple of years out. It is the logical next step to take, just looking at software development in general there is a clear trend towards using pre existing components, and building software that way as opposed to creating everything yourself, so that is definitely a trend we are going to follow. With a move to DX11, I think we have a few years to plan our next move. That's definitely going to take a while, as it has a really big impact on the engine on the whole. It's definitely not something we will be doing in a couple of months or something.
RD: It's interesting you mention things happening several years down the line. From that, should one assume you are looking at rF2 development as a long term project rather than say, give it a quick polish and upgrade and call it a finished product?
MO: Definitely. Right from the start when we started talking about doing this and continuing development, we said this has to be a long term investment for us. There are a lot of things we want to change and improve, and to fully benefit from that, you have to be in it for the long run. We are definitely looking at roadmaps for the next three years or so and looking at how we can keep improving during that time.
RD: You have already developed a third party data app for rFactor for endurance leagues. It allows servers to resume a race after a server crash and has a web interface for live stewarding (manual penalties) and live timing data for the teams. I would be interested to know if you have plans to implement some of these features in rF2 directly, or if there are other league specific features we can look forward to?
MO: Yeah that is definitely an area we are talking about. When we move the interface into a more modern web based one, this is part of it. Making sure that dedicated servers get some kind of web interface that shows live timing, track maps and stuff out of the box. We will definitely also keep supporting the API's that are out there so others can keep creating stuff, but just to give the community something to get started with more easily is something that we will be looking at. In terms of endurance racing, that's a big personal favourite of mine and it's also a hint to why we called the company Studio 397, as you know. Obviously I also have to look at the big picture and I really want to support all forms of racing that we can do with rFactor 2, but let's just say that I won’t forget endurance racing, that's for sure.
RD: Can you share any information at this early stage as to what the new user interface might look like and what sort of functionality we might expect to see?
RD: Do you have any idea when we might be seeing this in the live version of the game?
MO: That's still a little bit of a question. There are a couple of points that we need to still look into, the biggest is probably how this new user interface should interact with our VR support. As we are still developing that as well, it is still a little bit early to make promises on when all of that will be done. It is probably safe to say that when VR support comes out it will also have a new user interface, maybe a little bit earlier but I'm not sure yet.
RD: Regarding features and physics, it has been very quiet in terms of updates and core features recently. What are your plans, physics and features wise short to medium term?
MO: I'm not going to make any promises yet because at the moment, we are sort of looking at our options and at what improvements we want to make. Internally, we are compiling a long list of bigger and smaller improvements to the physics engine that we can make, but we really haven't decided yet which features to take on first. There have been obvious discussions about improving the whole drive line for example, which is an area we can definitely improve.
There is also some smaller tweaks that we still want to make to the way tyres behave when running through the grass and running in wet conditions. So there are some tweaks there that we want to make and they may extend to not just physics, but stuff like the sound engine, we definitely have some areas where we want to tweak little things and add some sound effects and just things that make the whole thing more alive. We haven't decided yet on how to prioritise those things. Probably some of them will also be prioritised by the content choices that we make. Whether we need support for more electrical systems or things like that. Looking at stuff right now, but still a little bit too early to promise anything.
RD: With you saying it's a long term project, would it be realistic to say this big long list you are creating has a fair chance of all being attended to during some stage of the title's lifespan? Or are you limited in any way, shape or form with things like the size of the organisation, content commitments etc?
MO: We are starting with a clean sheet of paper. Like any company, we obviously need to make some money doing all of this. That is why we are prioritising things in a certain way, but like I said for us, this is a long term project and we will definitely be investing in creating some of these newer features to benefit in the longer run. Also something related to what I said earlier about community, one of the things that we want to look at, is to make it easier for the community to not only share content through the Workshop, but to also maybe even sell content that way. We are looking at paid DLC or paid Workshop items. It's a long discussion on Steam itself as to whether or not you can actually sell Workshop content. They had some bad experiences with that, but it would actually work a little bit differently behind the scenes, but that's not too relevant to the public. By offering such tooling, I think we can also extend the whole simulation in some interesting ways and allow people to develop more content and even maybe make a few dollars out of it in the process.
RD: You said you are interested in working closer with the community on mods. What does that mean exactly? A lot of documentation out their feels out of date and with too many gaps. Is there an intention to create a suite of modding documents to help people create their own content?
MO: Yes, that is actually something we have been discussing this past week. It is something we hear more often and having been on the other side of the fence, I'm well aware that it’s not always easy to find the right and up to date documentation. We are going to make a push to make sure that a suite of documents is available on our website. We will try to make a manual not just for using rFactor itself, but also for modders about all the different files and file formats, trying to extend it like we do with the Brabham with some blogs and advice about how best to work with the technology. You can expect more of those blogs, and not just about cars but about making tracks and probably also about some of the programming aspects in the future. I'm talking to a lot of the modding teams at the moment to see how we can better help them, that might be through forums, but we are also discussing the option of creating Slack channels for them and things like that. Basically, using modern technology to stay in touch and try to help them as best as we can.
RD: In terms of First Party content, it sounds like you have inherited many licences with rF2. Do you plan to make content from these licences or is the focus more on securing new licences for content in game? What is the desired direction of the studio in this respect?
MO: Obviously some of the licences we already obtained will definitely follow up on those and create the content for them. In some cases, we will take another look at the licence and see if the cars that were originally licenced are still as valid today as they were when the licence was created. Sometimes we might switch to a different model of a manufacturer or something like that. We are also looking at licencing a few new things. In general we are looking more towards building not single cars, but more a series of cars. You are a sim racer as well. When you are doing leagues, you are looking for series to run. Ok sometimes there are cup races and a single car makes sense, but a lot of the time, you are racing certain classes and you want to have multiple cars in such a class available. So in terms of looking at new licences, we are looking at trying to do a couple of cars in a series and releasing them together. Those could also be our first DLC packs that we are going to be releasing, trying to come up with good cars, good quality licences and really the same thing goes for tracks, but probably for tracks, it doesn't make that much sense to put them in packs. We can do those individually.
RD: So you are thinking more about full series like you did with the F2 cars and like you are going to be doing with the USF 2000 series?
MO: Exactly. Yeah that is definitely the direction we want to go. That is also the reason why you haven't seen some of the cars that have been in development yet. I'll stay a little bit vague on that because we haven't finished some licencing talks yet.
In the second part of our interview with Studio 397's Marcel Offermans, we talk about the controversial rFactor 1 tyre model debate, the potential for cross over with Reiza Studios, Matchmaker in rFactor 2 and much more! Stay tuned to RaceDepartment for the second part of our interview in the very near future...
Check out the rFactor 2 sub forum here at RaceDepartment for the latest news and discussion regarding the simulation. Have a browse through our extensive mod database, share a setup or even better come along and join in the fun in one of our awesome club racing events!
Did you enjoy our interview with Marcel? Do you have any burning questions regarding the sim you want to know the answer to? Are you excited about the future of rFactor 2? Let us know in the comments section below!