WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!
I'm David Kaemmer, and I'm the CEO and CTO of iRacing.com.
WP: As we understand, iRacing's actually been around for a little while, somewhat running as a slow build-up phase. Why start announcing it and demoing it now?
DK: Well, we started really with a soft roll-out. We wanted to grow the membership using some of our beta testers and a group of real racers we've been building up to get enough of a membership that there's some activity going on there now. We also wanted to test some of the systems that are in there because it's quite complex. We have been focusing on the racing business and real racers, as a point of what it is we're trying to establish that we're doing. We wanted to make something that we could show appeal to real racers, and we figured if we could do that, then for one, the sim racing gamers are going to say, "This is really real, if these guys are saying it's real," — and they are. So we wanted to establish that first, and now, we have everything working really well, it's really time to open it up and say, "Hey, look what we've got."
WP: You come from Papyrus, which was huge in the sim racing genre back in the day, and then Papyrus sort of disappeared, and then you started up with iRacing. How did you get from Papyrus to iRacing? How did that transition go?
DK: It's a convoluted story. I'd actually left Papyrus in the middle of 2002, after we released NASCAR Racing 2002, and I came back and worked as a contractor there and helped out with some physics on NASCAR 2003. At that time, I met John Henry, who is the owner of the Red Sox and who had found Papyrus because he had bought NASCAR 2002 and loved it. He found out that Papyrus' studios were in Boston, and he came up to visit us one day, so he and I met, and then about a year after that, Vivendi shut down the Papyrus studio after they had lost the NASCAR license. John called me up and proposed that we start something to essentially resurrect that technology, and I had been thinking along those lines myself and talking to Papyrus about the potential of buying the technology back. It just kind of worked out, and that's how this got launched, anyway.
WP: From a marketing standpoint, everyone knows the NASCAR name, everyone's familiar with EA, everyone's familiar with Polyphony's GT series and Microsoft's pushing the big Forza name. The market seems a bit crowded, even though you have the heritage. How do you think racing fans are going to react to yet another racing franchise, albeit a very accurate sim? How are you placing yourselves in relation to those other franchises?
DK: With iRacing, we're working very hard actually on not just creating the simulation, although that's a core piece, but to basically create the playground as well — the sanctioning organization within which the racing takes on some meaning. What we're trying to do is take what makes real racing exciting and put it on the computer and let people experience it really the way it is. In the video game business, it's often about showing the participant an exciting experience that they can do without necessarily having to learn skills that are that far beyond what they're normally doing out on the road, but real racing is a bit different than that. It's really more like a sport, and that's how I like to compare it. We're trying to build something which is a way for you to learn about that sport and bring yourself into real racing — I mean, learn how to drive the way a real racer would.
WP: When you say "full sim," do the car models behave exactly as they should on the track? How accurate are the tracks and cars? If I'm just a beginner, can I come and just tool around, or do I really need to know how to drive in order to race in iRacing?
DK: As a beginner, you can come in and learn how to drive, and that's one of the key things. We start you in rookie vehicles that are relatively easy to drive, just as you would in the real world. You know, you don't start by driving a NASCAR Spring Cup car or an Indy car because it's too dangerous. You're likely to start in a Formula Ford or some kind of stock production vehicle. That's what we do here. We let you learn the way that you would learn in the real world.
WP: How do you move up from being a rookie? How do I get on to the track and into those competitions where I'm racing against Dale Earnhardt Jr., instead of just racing against Bob from Kentucky?
DK: We have an entire sanctioned system of series, starting with the rookie series and moving up through a number of license classes, and you advance through those classes simply by driving safely. You don't really have to be fast, although everybody is driven to be fast because we're all a bit competitive, but by keeping your record clean, so to speak, and trying to minimize the number of spins and wrecks and so on, your license will advance, and that allows you to drive in faster and faster cars in more prestigious series.
WP: Wrecks are obviously going to be somewhat inevitable. If you watch the NASCAR races on the weekends, you see them bumping and grinding and every once in a while, there's a massive flameout as a car smashes against the wall and flips over. What happens if I'm in the game and I just totally blow it? Do I lose a license level? Do I get kicked back? How do you get penalized?
DK: Well, it's usually not that Draconian. If you have a pattern of bad behavior and you're crashing a lot, then the safety rating on your license will go down. You can be demoted eventually if you don't clean up your act, but it's not that difficult, and we set it up knowing that, of course, we all make mistakes and that happens in real life as well. (laughs) People crash, and they crash all the time. It's just that we try to get people to not make it a habit. If you try and drive cleanly, you usually find that you do better.
WP: I mentioned Dale Earnhardt Jr. You actually do have him racing in the game along with a few NASCAR racers. Can you tell us a little bit about who's participating and why, along with how you ensure that people are who they say they are in the game?
DK: Well, we actually have a lot of pro drivers racing with us: Dale Jr.; A.J. Allmendinger; Marcos Ambrose, who's also in Sprint Cup; Bobby Labonte; and Ron Capps, who's an NHRA driver. We've got a lot of those guys.
WP: What's the appeal in it for them?
DK: For them, they really love it because it's very realistic. Most of them come in and say, "I've tried these games, but it doesn't really help me out on the track," but they've been finding that this one really does. We've got a number of anecdotes from real drivers who have said, "Oh yeah, my practice time on the sim has really helped me on the track." That's why they're in it, and they also think it's fun. A lot of these guys just come in here because they love to race. Dale Jr., has said that one of the things he loves about it is that it's a chance for him to go out and race and it can be with somebody who's a kid who just finished his English homework and some 50-year-old guy who's a plumber by day, but they're all racing together, wheel to wheel.
WP: How do you know that Dale is Dale and Marcos Ambrose is really Marcos Ambrose? What kind of protection do you guys have in terms of name verification? Can you pick any ol' handle that you want? Can I be RacingKiller23, or how does that work?
DK: Again, to try and create a cooperative spirit and make sure that people have some accountability, we actually decided we'd use the names on people's credit cards as the name that they have in the sim. We do allow people to change their names, but it's done through our customer service department, so we check the names and you just need a good story. But we probably wouldn't go for something that isn't reasonable. Often times, we'll change a first name if it's a family member on a different card, but not the last name.
WP: About the tracks, you mentioned that the service is a subscription service. You pay a monthly fee, and you get a starter pack of tracks when you first sign up. Can you tell us a little bit about how you gain extra tracks, and how many tracks are included in that starter pack?
DK: I'm trying to remember. There are nine tracks included, and they're basically both a series of oval tracks and road circuits that are included with the basic pack, and then you get a couple of oval cars and a couple of road racing cars. As far as getting more tracks, as you move up to the higher license levels, the schedules slowly grow, so there are a few additional tracks and one additional car per series that you need to move into.
WP: Do you earn those simply by earning the license and getting those schedules? Do you have to buy those? How does that work?
DK: No, you buy them. However, with your subscription, you get enough credit to move up through a certain number of series, and every time you renew, you get some credit that goes toward more content.
WP: Do you have any plans for a highly organized competition, such as mirroring the Sprint Cup in-game or mirroring a NASCAR series in-game with game drivers rather than the real-life drivers? Drivers enter, they compete, they win prizes, and at the end, there's ultimately one winner. Is that something that will eventually happen in iRacing? Will you compete for prizes, or are you competing just for the thrill of winning?
DK: Well, you know, at the lower levels, it's competing mainly for the thrill of winning. We do have official championships that we run, so there's a points champion at all the different levels, even at the rookie level. Next year, we're launching a pro series, both on ovals and road circuits, which is for the top 250 people in the service. We weight both their speed and quickness on the track and well as their safety. It's likely that we'll have prizes for that series. For the lower series, we've talked about doing iRacing credits. We've done that in the past, and we may bring that back at some point.
WP: Finally, how much customization can you perform on your cars? Again, in the actual racing circuits, there are strict limits on how far you can modify a vehicle and what you can do with it. Do you give the player a lot of freedom? Do you match the real-life restrictions? Where does the balance come in?
DK: There are a number of answers to your question. If you're talking about changing the setup on the car, changing its physical behavior, pretty much most of the things that you can change in real life on the cars that we simulate, you'll be able to change here. When there are rules in the real world series that we're emulating that limit those changes, we limit the changes as well, so if there are rules about minimum ride heights and things like that, we enforce those. Pretty much anything you can do to the car in real life, you can do in the simulation.
WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
DK: One of the big things that we've done is the accuracy of the simulation, and that's really what I think sets it apart. Our race tracks are fully laser-scanned, and this is what makes it appealing to real drivers. When you go out and drive on these race tracks, you are at the real facility for all intents and purposes. The curbs are in exactly the same spot, every bump is in the same spot. All the trackside objects — trees, breaking markers, everything — so if you learn how to drive the track in the simulation, you essentially have learned how to drive it. If you go there then in the real world, you would know it. It's interesting because if you see a race on TV of a track that you've learned in the simulation, it brings it alive. It's a much more interesting experience when you know what the driver is going through as you watch because you've been there.
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