ISI Interview: Gjon Camaj
One of the biggest treats for me at E3 was the opportunity to sit down and talk about the racing sim business with Image Space Incorporated’s VP, Gjon Camaj. Gjon was at E3 for two reasons, both related to their 2005 title “rFactor”. The title was the centerpiece of show displays by Intel Corporation and Logitech, and each featured two commissioned, ISI-developed mini-mods. At Logitech’s display, rFactor was the “vehicle” for demonstrating the new G25 racing wheel, using the Panoz mod developed for the exotic car manufacturer. Over at Intel’s display, 3 snappy VRX cockpits ran rFactor with a mini-mod featuring the BMW/Sauber F1 car at the Nurburgring F1 track, racing against the fictional FIS cars with tweaked physics. Both displays were worth the price of admission (okay, admission for media at E3 is free, but it was worth the parking lot fees), and provided the catalyst for some interesting conversation.
BMW/Sauber Mini-Mod: At the time, there was already an effort to revamp the physics model for the FIS cars when ISI and VRX were commissioned by BMW/Sauber to model their car as part of a race promotion campaign in Europe. We asked how ISI can do an F1 mod if Sony holds the rights to the race series. The answer was simple: BMW/Sauber still owns the rights to their own car, and their own team. So, ISI got the nod to create the mod to help the F1 team promote themselves and their sponsors. which includes Intel. The bad news for race sim fans is that this mod won’t be available for home use any time soon — it’s current status is as a privately commissioned mod for BMW/Sauber’s corporate use. Gjon assures me that the BMW/Sauber F1 mod will make its way to our PCs, but “not soon”. Perhaps after the 2006 F1 season? Before that? Gjon couldn’t provide a hard timeline. But hey, at least for now 20mm and I got to enjoy driving it, and I’m sure you’re all happy about that!
Seriously, the car felt really nice, and I was able to convince Ken and Gjon to turn off all the driving aids and let me drive the mod the way it should be driven. The result was that I found the car to have less mechanical grip than those of the RH2004 or RH2005 mods, and very prone to oversteer both into and out of corners. This could be attributable to a setup I had no control over, or just a lack of exposure to the mod. But I am sure that Gjon and team got some pretty good data from BMW/Sauber in order to get the mini-mod just right. With 3 VRX sim cockpits all linked via LAN, there was a great deal of fun to be had racing against other humans, mixed in with a dozen AI FIS cars as we wove our way around the challenging Nurburgring GP track. I just wish there was a way to have this mini-mod on my own PC sooner — as in, right now.
Panoz Mini-Mod: Over in South Hall at the sprawling Logitech display, the name of the game was the Panoz mod. Again, ISI was commissioned by exotic/racing car manufacturer Panoz to create a mini-mod that showcases their production Espirante car and it’s American Le Mans Series GT1 racing counterpart. I drove the Panoz at the Logitech booth, and really liked the way it drove. It felt a lot like some of the other “tin top” GT cars available in many of the rFactor mods currently on the Internet. I surely hope that there’s a way to get the racing version onto my own PC. It’s really good, and could serve as a “how to” on how to craft a car model for the rFactor free-ware modders — and it’d be fun to race the Panoz against the PCC Porsches!
Turning our discussion more towards the big picture, we took on the topic of the business of sims. The SimHQ staff really wanted to discuss whether the online sales/distribution method has made for sales success with rFactor. Gjon admitted that the expectation was that after 6 months or so, sales would probably begin to taper off, and ISI would turn its attention to the next title. But as fate would have it, sales of rFactor are still on the increase (no doubt to the ever-growing list of quality mods like the Megane Trophy, McClaren F1, Porsche Carerra Challenge, Proton and F3 mods, and tracks like Lime Rock, Monterey and A-1 Ring). As a result, ISI will continue to support and develop rFactor with future patches, mods, and upgrades. Great news for rFactor fans.
We got a little insight into the makeup of ISI as well. The success of rFactor is made even more impressive by the realities of how it is being marketed. The company has no marketing staff, only engineers and artists. And despite a lack of advertising, marketing and retail distribution, the game continues to flourish. As we discussed last year after E3, the ISI sim development team is manned with simulation fans who craft their titles as a labor of love, and although they’re not content with their pace of updates, they have made a conscious decision to strike a balance between practicing their craft and enjoying their personal lives. Although the team may on occasion undertake a period of increased work tempo, they don’t make it standard procedure, preferring to work normal hours and carve out time for their families. The down side for consumers is that updates and patches don’t flow out the door as quickly, but the up side is that ISI devs maintain a higher level of morale and motivation by not becoming slaves to their jobs. And that translates into a higher quality product.
Speaking of updates and patches, Gjon didn’t know when the next might be released, but one is in the works. Recently, work on the Panoz and BMW/Sauber mini-mods has taken all their time. Although it might delay patches and updates for us, leveraging that sort of marketing opportunity makes good business for ISI and I hope that the revenue and lessons learned from these mini-mods will help support the further development of rFactor for us general consumers. Of note, Gjon stated that ISI’s philosophy regarding the development of rFactor is to take a more evolutionary than phased approach. Future work on rFactor is in large part driven by what the sim-racing community has set as priorities, including making the game more accessible and friendly to new racers, adding and refining options for new rules implementation (to support various mods, including the addition of weight penalties, driver change options for endurance races), improving server admin options (including manually commanded cautions and black flags), and later adding weather features when the code is sufficiently polished for that to be implemented (but don’t expect that anytime soon). Telemetry could be added, but currently the push from the fan base isn’t strong enough to elevate the priority of this option. But ISI would put some more work into this if consumers voiced a stronger desire for this feature. In the mean time, if any 3rd party would really like to see this feature, it’s an open field for making a great contribution to the community. Go for it. Ditto for a “mod manager” program. ISI doesn’t have the resources or the “right person” for this feature but feel it has merit and utility. If you are that “right person” and want a job — call Gjon!
We discussed the wide spectrum of quality in the plethora of mods cropping up for rFactor. ISI is committed to not supervising or approving mods. Everyone has seen that quality and resources between mod teams can vary greatly, but the common element is their passion for a recreating a particular car or series. If they can make a mod and it pleases them, that’s great. That’s what rFactor is about. That still leaves the issue of having so many mods and sub-mods on rFactor’s online race servers, but that may be something we’ll have to live with.
One of SimHQ’s big complaints about new titles is the lack of manuals to explain the title, the GUIs and the options. Gjon tells us that a manual has been started, with a major sim-racing organization helping (Bob from A.S.S.), but the process is going slowly as the goal is to provide a comprehensive, quality guide. The game’s powerful but complex replay editor is one such area in need of a well-written guide. At the moment, Gjon is looking for someone that could make a comprehensive, instructional video for the replay editor. But finding someone for that has been hard to find — if there’s any takers, contact ISI. I’d sure like to figure out how to use it!
Online play was one of our final topics. We discussed how superb the online code is for rFactor, which was a considerable source of pride for Gjon as it was a priority to address after the heartaches and challenges they dealt with in earlier ISI titles’ MP code. Yet, Gjon says that there are many areas that can be improved in rFactor’s online code, and they’re hard at work on it. Things like frame rates in large field races, collision detection, are being addressed. One area of current pride is in the number of online players. Recently ISI experienced an online race with 40 racers and 30 spectators — over 70 connections all running smoothly on one server. That’s certainly a good goal for any game developer to strive for, but ISI wants more, like up to 100 players online!
Overall, our conversation with Gjon was very enlightening. The team is very pleased with the ever-growing consumer base, and sticking with the community to further refine and improve the code. Their partnerships with other businesses are making these refinements more robust and should result in an ever-maturing and growing rFactor title that will continue to satisfy consumers for some time to come. We’d like to thank Gjon for taking the time to talk with us, at length. It’s always great to share this hobby with those who are so passionate about it, and have the talent to make it better.
Again, Chunx is the Motorsports guy here and he’ll tell you about his conversation with ISI’s Vice President. So I’ll just say I like ISI’s approach to simulation development, and particularly rFactor. They have produced a product that continues to roll on and bring in new fans to auto racing. The Multiplayer code is solid, the support excellent. And now that I have learned they are having a manual produced, life is sweet!