It has been two years since the last NASCAR sim on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. And since EA Sports and NASCAR parted ways, rumors of NASCAR's future in gaming have consisted of everything from the NASCAR gaming license dying out completely to NASCAR signing on with a publisher such as Activision to try to one-up the deal it had with EA. Would we ever see another sim, or would NASCAR's presence in video games be relegated to a side attraction in titles such as "Gran Turismo" and "Days of Thunder"?
Then, just last week, the rumor mill heated up once again about a possible deal between NASCAR and Activision. From what everyone was saying, the deal was already signed and NASCAR and Activision were ready to drop the big news any day. But as it turns out, the rumors were only half true.
In reality, NASCAR has signed an exclusive new multiyear, multigame deal, but it chose video game developer Eutechnyx -- creator of "Big Mutha Truckers" and "Ferrari Challenge" -- to sign the deal with, not a publisher such as EA or Activision. Activision is involved, but it is acting as the distributor for Eutechnyx's game, "NASCAR The Game 2011."
This is a key distinction, enabling NASCAR to be more hands-on with the game's development thanks to partnering with a company that specializes in creating racing games, rather than signing blindly with Activision for the sole sake of dollar signs and letting the publisher decide who develops the franchise.
"If you go back in time, in 1994, Papyrus released 'NASCAR Racing,' the original NASCAR game Papyrus was a developer," explains Ed Martin, Eutechnyx's executive vice president, North America, as I get him on the phone to talk about his upcoming game. "The very first time the license went out, it was a developer doing it. The industry has obviously changed quite a bit since then, but giving the license to a developer really puts us in a unique situation. We just had the guys from NASCAR out at our studio in the UK, and it was really cool to have them in the midst of development working with the guys on the Victory Lane animation and working with the guy doing the fly-over sequence and working with the guy who is tweaking and tuning the A.I. for Dale Earnhardt Jr. so it actually drives and reacts like him.
"They really got excited about this because this isn't some big publisher using some anonymous external developer. We are out there with these guys. We are working with not only NASCAR but the drivers and the R&D center and the engine builders, and everyone is really excited about the fact that we are right there with them. Eutechnyx owns the license, we're developing the game, and it's a dynamic partnership with Activision. They've been great to work with."
Here's what else Martin had to say about the new game, scheduled to hit stores in February, in ESPN's exclusive interview.
Jon Robinson: What's the direction of the new NASCAR game under development for the PS3, 360 and Wii?
Ed Martin: I don't want to get too much into the history of the license because we want to focus on the new game, but the history is important. I started at EA back in 2001. "NASCAR 2001" was really floundering, so we moved the development to Florida (EA Tiburon) and the game became the "NASCAR Thunder" series. EA did very well with it, then the last thing I did when I was with EA was actually get the exclusive deal with NASCAR that ran from 2003 to 2009. As time went on, EA, quite frankly, lost interest in NASCAR. They had the exclusive license, so they no longer needed to put all their resources into it. They outsourced everything, and the game languished. They put out their "NASCAR Kart" game in 2009, but the last real title they shipped was "NASCAR 09" back in 2008.
Now it has been a couple of years, and it gave the NASCAR license time to refresh. When we picked it up, we sat back and thought about what NASCAR fans wanted and thought about what had worked in the past. Things that have worked very well is anytime you really get into the pageantry and the passion of the sport. To a bunch of outsiders, it's just a bunch of guys driving in circles for 500 miles, but there really is just so much more to it when you dive deeper into that pageantry and that passion. You also really need to get into the personalities of the drivers. People want to go out and race as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and drive like Dale Earnhardt Jr. But mostly, you need to get into the passion and deliver something that is more approachable. There are tens of millions of NASCAR fans, and plenty of them have video game systems. So how come NASCAR video games haven't penetrated that market as far as an NHL game or a baseball game? We really believe that's because the games haven't been approachable.
There have been times where there were "over-the-top" games like "NASCAR Rumble" and even "NASCAR Kart," but there is a real disconnect there because those games don't represent the real sport. You can't go off too far off the path. At the same time, you can't get too sim-y. We want you to jump right in and have fun. The thing about Eutechnyx, this is our 24th year, and we've done nothing but racing games for 24 years. This is a company with a rich history of creating great driving games. If you turn off all the assists in our NASCAR game, this is a very real -- as close as you can come to a simulation on a console -- but at the same time, with the assists turned on, this is a very fun, approachable game for the common NASCAR fan.
Jon Robinson: You mentioned the personality of the drivers. How does that come into play?
Ed Martin: When you see Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski go at it in the game like they do in real life, you won't need much explanation. [laughs] The A.I. system is all about knowing that Kyle Busch is going to be a whole hell of a lot more aggressive than Dale Earnhardt. Jr., and that has to be represented in the game. We've also gone into the whole friends and rivals out on the track. So out of the box, certain guys aren't going to like other guys as much as their teammates. Then again, there are some teammates who don't like each other, but that's another story. But we're really going in there to replicate the driving styles of all the guys, and we also have two women in the game. And as you race through your career, you're going to constantly be building more friends and rivals. If I put Kyle Busch into the wall, guess what? He's going to come after you and that adds a lot to the experience.
Bringing that personality of the drivers into the game is about taking what really goes on out there on the track, and not just giving you 42 A.I. cars and you feeling like you're Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick or Jeff Gordon or whoever you want to be. Giving you a personal connection, we feel, is really going to go a long way.
The thing is, there's reality and then there's perceived reality. The reality is that you and I can never hop in one of these cars and do a doughnut. We think we can and there are 100,000 fans at every race who think they can, but really? You have to give them that fantasy without bursting that bubble. Don't turn it into "Mario Kart," that's not fun. Don't add weapons and make it "Call of Duty: NASCAR." You can't go too far, but you can flirt with that line of perceived reality of how people think it would be. That's what always seems to move the needle in these game. And quite frankly, the NASCAR games needed a little rest in the market. EA's first game was released in 1997. I go back to Papyrus who had a NASCAR game back in 1994. That's a very long run of basically the same game year after year after year. Sure, there are changes to the drivers and teams and that sort of stuff, but the sport itself hasn't changed all that much. So we're really excited that nobody has shipped anything since 2008. Now there's pent up demand and interest, and now, we're really able to push the envelope of what we're able to do technologically on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the Wii. So I think we have a great game, and there's a market out there where people seem really excited and interested in what we're doing. We have a good product at a good time.
Jon Robinson: What are some of the game modes and features fans can look forward to in "NASCAR The Game 2011"?
Ed Martin: We have all the major modes in the game. You have to have a deep career mode in a game like this, and Eutechnyx has had great career modes in previous games that we've done. We have the full Sprint Cup season in there, and it's going to be based on the 2011 Sprint Cup season so the Kentucky track will be in there. We are trying to get Kentucky in the game from day one, but if not, it will be downloadable soon after. We even have a whole paint kit in there so you can customize your cars. You can play as any of the top drivers or create yourself and work your way through. The ultimate goal in career mode is to win the Sprint Cup, but there is also a lot of game-within-the-game stuff added in. If you think of all the contingency sponsors, all of those we've gone in and built, so as you go through your career, you'll have certain goals and you'll win money by doing things for these guys. We have NASCAR coins you can win along the way. We also have this thing called NASCAR NXP (NASCAR experience points). You get these in every mode in the game, and you get them for doing everything form clean passes to staying in the draft. You know how they say Dale Earnhardt could see the air of the draft, well, in our game, you really can see the air coming off the back of the car to help you. We've also gone to an entire 3D interface, so when you go in, you're walking in a 3D garage, and everything you win -- all of your banners and trophies -- start to appear and populate your garage. So this 3D interface you're working in starts to grow with your career.
Other than that, we will also have the obligatory Quick Race mode where you pick a track, pick a driver and jump right in. We're also going to have online multiplayer through Xbox Live and PSN with up to 16 gamers online. And then finally, we're bringing back something EA got rid of, and that's two-player split-screen. I never understood why that one made it to the cutting room floor, but right away we knew we had to bring that back.
Jon Robinson: Besides the 16-player races, how else will the online aspect of the game be supported?
Ed Martin: Where we've really gone with this is, you can't just have multi-player and tell everyone to go at it. We're building a community around it to help with the trash-talking aspect. I think people are going to like the online component quite a bit.
Jon Robinson: Will the game include any type of track builder or fantasy tracks, or are you sticking to simply the current Sprint Cup tracks?
Ed Martin: For this first round, not to give away anything about sequels, but for the first round we are sticking to the 23 Sprint Cup series tracks. We had to build all 23 tracks from scratch for this game and that is what we are shipping with. Fantasy tracks, to me, have to have some context to them. Again, I don't want to give away anything about the future, but the discussions we've had internally is that if we're going to do anything with a fantasy track, it needs to be based in reality. I don't want to go too much further than that, but pure fantasy tracks have really never helped us too much in previous NASCAR games.
The goal for this game was to replicate the 2011 season. Give us all the top drivers, give us all the top tracks and make them great so you have something to build on for the future. In fact, the game is going to ship with the entire 2010 season already in it -- all of the 2010 paint schemes -- but it is going to ship with the 2011 tracks. The big news is that soon after release you'll be offered a download and the plan is for you to be able to download all of the 2011 paint schemes as soon as possible. So you truly will have all of the 2010 and 2011 paint schemes in the game. Not only that, but users will be able to race on the Kentucky track before the real drivers.
Jon Robinson: A lot of people play the NASCAR games, not to race, but to crash spectacularly. How will the crashes look in the game?
Ed Martin: No one has ever done damage the way that we've done damage. I assure you that when you see this game, we've set a whole new standard for the way damage has been done. It's not pre-calculated damage, it's not just crumpling that we paste onto the car. Everything about our damage is calculated in our physics model and everything is unique. You can actually tear the sheet metal and have it hang on and have tears in the side of your car. If something falls off, you can run over it and cause damage to other cars. The damage model is absolutely fantastic. Everybody loves the big crashes in the game. I want to see the smoke and the cars flying. The only restriction we had from NASCAR is no part can fly off into the fan area. Nothing can go beyond the safety fence. But unlike any game I've worked on before, all of these fences are now geometric 3D fences, so if you get your car up into the catch fence, the fence will move, ripple, and get damaged. When you see a replay and you see a tire go up into the catch fence or you see an entire car go up into the catch fence, it's interacting with the physics of the game. It looks real.