Image courtesy of Motorsport Games

How Ignition celebrates the heart and soul of NASCAR

Brian Crecente |
November 5, 2021

Stephen Hood has served as Motorsport Games president since April 2019. Hood is an industry veteran with more than 20 years of executive game production and creative design experience, including Codemasters’ BAFTA-winning F1 series.
NASCAR 21: Ignition is the evolution of both the NASCAR gaming franchise and powerhouse racing developer Motorsport Games. In creating this new title, the expanded game development team worked to discover what they believe is the spirit of NASCAR to help give Ignition a strong sense of identity and help lay a foundation for what the team expects will be a long-term relationship between brand and developer.

The result is a game that deftly delivers everything from the cultural sense of what NASCAR is to a detailed sense of the physics of real-world racing down to the fidelity of tire models.

We chatted with Motorsport Games President Stephen Hood about how changes to the studio helped to evolve the development process on NASCAR 21: Ignition, the studio’s decision to shift to Unreal Engine, and what all of that means for the game and NASCAR as a gaming franchise.
 
 

Motorsport Games is an amalgam of MSGM studios including teams in Silverstone, UK, Moscow, Russia, 704 Games, the Black Delta team behind KartKraft, and Studio 397. How have the studios come together in their work on NASCAR 21: Ignition?
 
Stephen Hood, president of Motorsport Games:
The effort is even larger than the contribution made by the studios. We have utilized our own internal teams in Silverstone, UK, and Moscow, Russia, to provide much of the heavy lifting and skill sets necessary to design, build, and release a product like NASCAR 21: Ignition. From the outset, we very much took the view that we should harness talent wherever it resides, and in doing so, we were able to tap into unique opportunities. Many of us are used to working out of a single location as this has been the norm in the industry for many years, but it’s clear that to compete, we had to source effort internationally. In doing so, I think we have provided our development arm with a very fresh and exciting outlook on what can be achieved in the racing space. Some of that magic will continue to grow in upcoming product cycles, but I am totally confident in our ability to shape the future of virtual racing. 
 
704 Games were the developers for NASCAR Heat 5 and have been instrumental in helping us develop NASCAR 21: Ignition. Their understanding of the product line proved invaluable as they’ve seen so much of it over the years firsthand. Much of the team behind KartKraft, Black Delta, were in Australia and perhaps out of the typical industry limelight. Working on a PC-only Early Access title enabled them to produce something that spent more time in the crucial build-out phase than most AAA games. That brings significant advantages to our next round of tools and technologies, which will merge with the Ignition foundations, elevating everything we do thereafter. Their perspective on problem-solving proved helpful in bringing Ignition through to release, but we expect to see the real contribution of that team in future products, which combines wonderfully with the racing pedigree and simulation bias provided by the experts at Studio 397. We started working on what is now known as Ignition way before Studio 397 was acquired, in a somewhat typical co-dev setup. This enabled us to set to work on key elements like AI and handling well before we sourced our own talent in those areas. To have this talent now in-house and under the Motorsport Games umbrella is a real testament to the vision of all parties.
Image courtesy of Motorsport Games
What challenges did the studio face in working together?
 
Hood:
The challenge is always to look beyond the obvious and to appreciate the weight of expectation. We’re not in the business of simply replicating what the exclusive license grants us. This is not a by-the-numbers approach as we need to understand the heart and soul of a renowned brand like NASCAR. The fact that they have been so open to us, so accommodating of our persistent questioning—especially in the early days—is a testament to their desire to establish their brand amongst the best in this highly competitive gaming market. They’ve seen just how committed we are to the investments and acquisitions we’ve made. We expect their patience to pay off over the long term, and we have no doubt that NASCAR is an experience that can resonate with gamers the world over. 
 
What made the studio decide to shift to Unreal Engine for its first in-house developed title?
 
Hood:
For us, software like Unreal Engine provides us with an established gateway to product delivery and an opportunity to focus our efforts and talent on positive differentiation. Many developers fall into the trap of wanting to write everything themselves, but we’ve no interest in getting into a software arms race. The space is highly competitive and hugely complex. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel; we’re building an entire car! Unreal Engine gives us the basic tools we need to get on with the important stuff, and it’s widely known and understood, which makes it easier to hire into an environment like this. We then get to integrate the valuable elements like rFactor physics, AI, our multiplayer systems, and craft advantages without getting caught up in the basic building blocks. Those are our distinguishing advantages, and we refer to the output of all this as the MSGM Engine, of which NASCAR 21: Ignition is the opening version. 
 
This is a complete overhaul of the franchise, with the developers starting from scratch on NASCAR 21: Ignition. What does that mean for some of the staples of the franchise and what new elements are being added to the game?
 
Hood:
Three years ago, we chose a path that has led to an enormous amount of work. Discarding the Heat franchise and rebuilding almost everything will pay off over the longer term. It meant coming to market with a new NASCAR game that took longer than most could stomach, but we’re here to do a lot more than releasing a single game. We’re building a franchise and that requires considerable investment and effort across the entire business. It will also translate into rapid progression for the NASCAR franchise, leapfrogging competitor improvements. At the end of the day, we believe it will serve to provide an ever-improving game experience for our existing and future fans.
Image courtesy of Motorsport Games
Were there any elements of Unreal Engine that helped deliver a higher fidelity car for Ignition?
 
Hood:
We were immediately able to tap into the benefits of Unreal Engine, adding things like the Unreal Reflection environment, which amplifies the realistic look we’re going for. Leveraging systems like UMG for the cockpit panel is a nice example of established processes that allow us to get the building blocks in place without worrying about the fundamentals. We can then utilize our expertise in other areas.
 
The game is built on Unreal Engine but makes use of rFactor physics. How difficult was that to implement, and how does the physics engine impact gameplay?
 
Hood:
rFactor connects many elements, from multiplayer prediction to AI behaviors, with the physics component. Unstitching these and integrating alongside Unreal Engine has been a complicated process but one we ably predicted. This is a long-winded way of saying it took a while, but we knew that’s what needed to be done. Now that Studio 397 is wholly owned by Motorsport Games, all of the source technology can be directly integrated for future projects, which will improve product stability, ease of use, and performance. rFactor was not designed to be a mass-market console product, so there has been and continues to be manipulation of the control inputs for controller users, by far the largest segment on PlayStation and Xbox. The fidelity of the tire model was also such that we had to work incredibly hard to get this working on older generation consoles. We cannot rely on a high performing CPU to dig us out of that challenge, so it’s fair to say that as we improve performance and transition to next-generation consoles, we will be able to deliver on one of our ambitions, which is to deliver high-end simulation driving experiences to plug-and-play console users. Such experiences were the preserve of a patient PC audience and more plug than play!
Image courtesy of Motorsport Games
What approach did the developers use in crafting AI that matched existing real-world racers and that could offer the right level of challenge to players of all backgrounds?
 
Hood:
Within our team, we clearly have some super passionate developers who live and breathe NASCAR. This embedded understanding was complimented by outside talent involved in the world of NASCAR. As such, we were able to gain an understanding of what it means to drive and compete in these cars, which was perhaps absent from the Heat franchise. Getting the AI “brain” to run with a higher fidelity driving model was a challenge, and we’re pushing the limits of the previous-gen consoles in this regard. Untapping additional power will no doubt provide more in-depth calculations necessary to advance the opposition experience. We see this working more dynamically than systems of old where drivers receive a skill rating.
Image courtesy of Motorsport Games
How did the studio curate the game’s soundtrack and how was that balanced to work well with the robust gameplay audio found in Ignition?
 
Hood:
A top-level soundtrack was important to us because we believe there’s a movement between video games and music from a cultural perspective. Nowadays, there’s almost the expectation from fans to have renowned featured artists and soundtracks. One of the biggest feature requests we were continually asked for by our community was to change the music in our NASCAR Heat franchise. Because of this, it became imperative for us at Motorsport Games to elevate our soundtrack and to go with a robust list of featured top-level artists. 

Music and automotive culture have also been working in tandem more recently. For example, NASCAR, Le Mans, and INDYCAR have concerts at the races and sometimes turn them into festivals, making the cultural event much bigger than the races themselves. We are passionate about creating a platform to break in artists in a new way, rather than using traditional avenues like radio, CDs, records, and others. We accomplished this a bit with NASCAR Ignition by having Outskrts perform our theme song, which was featured in the release trailer. Outskrts is with an independent label, and we were able to release the song for the first time.

We took a lot of passion in working with partners from different genres, and we give thanks to our parent company, Motorsport Network. People assume that with NASCAR, all anyone listens to is country and rock, but through the data we have available, it also shows motorsport gamers also have an interest in rap, hip hop, and pop. In the late ‘90s early 2000s, there was a lot of hip-hop culture blending into racing and we wanted to play that up and appeal to a wider audience by considering every genre in this game. That's why we've included artists like Pitbull, Kid Rock, and others for an up-and-coming generation.
Image courtesy of Motorsport Games
Ignition will be coming to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. How did the next-gen features of these platforms help shape the game?
 
Hood:
We plan to leverage the next-gen capabilities as best we can on this game and take advantage of the opportunity to offer additional resolution, enhancements, and quality-of-life features. 
 
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?
 
Hood:
The obvious go-to is the performance of next-gen hardware. Finally, we’re at the crossover point where someone wanting to get into racing games can grab a console, plug it into the television in their living room and remain with that core hardware component all the way through to the top of the sim-racing pyramid. They can swap out the controller for the addition of a wheel and pedals, they can get a sim rig and sit closer to the action, they can move the growing rig into another room and complement the setup with multiple monitors; the opportunities are endless! Better yet, they do not have to compromise on visual quality or frame rate either. That, for us, is a game-changer and our efforts on the tech front will see us perfectly positioned to capitalize on this for the good of our product experiences. 
Image courtesy of Motorsport Games
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Motorsport Games and NASCAR 21: Ignition?

Hood:
Please visit NascarIgnition.com and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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