Welcome to LiveRC's weekly column, "Talk-It-Up Tuesday!" Here we spend a little time talking with industry icons including racers, manufacturers, team managers, developers, promoters, and everyone in between! Sit back, relax, and go behind the scenes as we interview them all!
Arguably one of the most addicting and enjoyable R/C simulators on the market today is VRC Pro. This computer simulator allows you to race onroad, offroad, oval, and/or just bash around with everything from electric 1:12 scale cars all the way up to nitro 1:8 scale! VRC Pro started out to many as a fun R/C game, and has now become a serious meeting place for some of the world's best drivers to race in cyberspace, as well as train for the real deal. With the ability to use your own R/C radio to play, and life-like physics, VRC Pro is like racing real life R/C around the world right from your living room.
For this edition of "Talk-It-Up Tuesday" we have caught up with our good friend, founder of Serpent and the innovator of VRC Pro, Pieter Bervoets!
LiveRC: Welcome Pieter to "Talk-It-Up Tuesday"! Let's start off by talking about your background in R/C racing. How did you get started in R/C?
Pieter: That’s a long time ago, 1972 to be precise. I saw a news item on television about the Nuremberg Toy Fair and they were showing some remote control cars. This immediately caught my imagination and I was hooked. Next day I went to buy a Kyosho 1:8 scale car, very primitive. I also bought a do-it-yourself radio set, had to put everything together, up to the servo’s, and it worked! The Kyosho car ended up being the only car I ever purchased, from then on I built all my own cars, and as you probably know, started Serpent in 1979. The rest is history. LiveRC: How did the concept of Virtual RC get started?
Pieter: OK you’ll get the whole story then. Funny enough the very first idea came up flying back from the annual Chicago Hobby Show, think it was 1995, and was thinking about how we could give visitors on these shows a hands-on experience of what driving an R/C car was all about. The very first idea was to hook 2 servos up to a joystick so you could control a game like Indy Car racing using your radio. That changed into a small unit that you could hook up to your receiver and which plugged into the RS232 port of your PC, back then PC didn’t have USB ports yet. That worked great and I though this device was so unique that I wanted to patent it. While doing this I ran into Lothar Pantel from Germany who had already done something similar but then through the printer port. Instead of fighting each other we decided to work together, especially because he was interested in developing an r/c game as well. In 2000 we released VRC-1, a very simple 2D top-view type of game, but at least we had something and I had kind of achieved my goal. With that game out (on 3 ½” diskette), sold as a Serpent product, we decided to take the game a step further and turn it into a more serious r/c game using 2½D technology. In 2001 Todd Wasson from St. Paul Minnesota joined and started working on the physics. Todd had never seen an r/c car before but with the help of Michael Salven, Julius Kolff and other people and team drivers at Serpent, plus datalogging information acquired with the DRX datalogging system we had developed at Serpent, plus the information we could retrieve from our Pro-Engineer 3D design system we were able to create very accurate and realistic models for the game, much to my own surprise. In 2003 Tony West joined as our 3D artist to create really amazing 3D content for us. End of 2004 we released VRC v3 which we marketed from a new company called Virtual Racing Industries, at that time VRC was no longer a Serpent product. LiveRC: The simulator was first released with nitro onroad racing years ago. Why did it start out nitro onroad?
Pieter: With Serpent being 100% an on-road manufacturer it was quite obvious that we would go for on-road classes, also because we had all the data available, and that’s where my knowledge and experience was.
LiveRC: Today the simulator has come so far and offers onroad and offroad racing classes. Which of the classes has been the hardest to develop?
Pieter: The physics model that Todd had built and perfected over all these years was so good that it didn’t really matter whether it’s used for on-road or for off-road as the suspension systems are more or less similar. If I had known this before we should have jumped on off-road much earlier… It’s very much a matter of configuring the car correctly (suspension geometry, drive train, inertias, yaw, pitch and roll etc.). The biggest difference is always in the tires, we can spend months until a tire works like it should and gives the racer the exact same feel as with his real car. The tire model has over 50 parameters, is like having to adjust 50 different dials to optimize the tire. We have done a series of tire tests in the past with tire model expert Doug Milliken, an authority in his field, and he happened to live in St. Paul for a few years and Todd had ran into him in tire modelers forums. The tire data is a starting point, from there on it’s really just testing and testing to get them spot on. To come back to your question though, the hardest class to model was probably the 1:12 electric on-road because Todd had to develop an complete new suspension system for it, and had a hard time trying to understand how this link system actually works. None of the conventional theories seemed to apply. But we managed. Our 1:12 class is highly appreciated by the 12-scale specialists!
LiveRC: Can you tell us what the next class of racing is going to be for VRC Pro?
Pieter: We are now working on 1:8 nitro buggy. This will be our first open wheel car and this require the suspension to by fully animated on the screen, something we didn’t have to do for all the other classes. Todd has done a complete redesign of the suspension system which was more or less a 2D lay-out, but that wouldn’t work for animated parts, and has now developed a complete new 3D suspension geometry system with 76 animated suspension and steering parts in it. Just saw the first results a week ago, the system was implemented on the short course truck chassis. It looks incredible. I’ll post a video in the near future, you’ve got to see this working, arms, track rods, dog bones, steering linkage, just like a real car. Everything in real time. This is only the visual aspect of this development, under the hood this has enabled us to implement about everything that we see in modern buggies, up till anti-squat. We will translate all these neat features into new set-up adjustments so racers will have a lot to play with on the new 1:8 buggy. Eventually this newly developed suspension technology may be carried over to other classes.
LiveRC: The VRC World currently has 40,000+ members, that is VERY impressive! Did you ever imagine that it would become so popular worldwide?
Pieter: With VRC v3 we ended up with close to 250.000 members, that is people who had signed up for an account. That doesn’t mean that they were all active racers of course, let alone became customers. But at least they had given it a try. With VRC Pro we are now at 40.000+, and to be honest I had expected this number to be higher by now. We have a hard core of around 10.000 active racers but we have now changed our membership model to Free2Play to encourage more racers to at least try it. Providing you have a suitable PC for it I can almost guarantee that you get hooked immediately. It may take a few minutes to get comfortable and for some it takes maybe half an hour, but when you get there it is addictive especially when you get involved in our online competitions with time-shifted multi-player or with our real time multi-player sessions to race anyone in the world. You’ll end up with exactly the same adrenaline rush as in the weekend at your local club or at a national race. There is just no substitute for so much easy and free track time as with VRC Pro.
LiveRC: VRC Pro is now used by several top name drivers such as Ronald Volker as a training tool. When you developed VRC, was it intended to a fun game, or to become so advanced that it would be used by top professionals as an actual training tool?
Pieter: As I explained at the very beginning it was initially intended as a promotional tool for Serpent. Later it was developed into a product that we could sell. Now we have developed that product into a serious training tool for r/c racers, offering endless track time, learning to understand set-up and feel what it does to your car, experience racing pressure, it’s all there now. A kind of underrated side of the whole concept is that we are actually bringing racers from the whole world together, something only experienced by the happy few factory drivers who travel around the world all the time. 99.999% of r/c racers never leave there club, state let alone country. We seen countless international friendships occur through VRC Pro and through our social networking website VRC World.
LiveRC: Recently the membership model has changed, and allows users to try the game for free. Why the change in the membership model?
Pieter: Well, with the help and feedback from our community we were able to come up with a much better membership model. The new model also seemed to enable the community to grow much faster, which is good for everyone. Let me explain the difference between the old and new membership model a bit. Before we had a 30 day trial for free, so after 30 days you were kind of ‘kicked off’. Then we added a Lite license, which was a 12 months subscription for $13 and you got the basic tracks and cars to race with and could purchase more content. The old full membership was a subscription type with a bigger basic package, but you needed to earn vCash prize money in race events to buy extra content, and when you stopped your subscription then access to the game ‘froze’.
The new membership model is a big improvement, because it’s a lot simpler, cheaper and much more attractive. Free-to-Play doesn’t cost anything; it is for unlimited time and you can purchase extra content if you want. So basically, anyone can just hop in and start racing VRC Pro immediately to see if they like it. There’s no catch to it, you simply get 5 cars (incl. short course), 8 tracks (incl. 3x off-road), all game features and full access to online competitions and multiplayer. Then we have a full all-inclusive membership for 1,3,6,12 and 24 months. You get everything for the period of the membership. If you do not extend your full membership you fall back to the Free-to-Play status so you can still continue to race with the basic cars and tracks plus any content that you have purchased as a Free-to-Play member before. This is a so much simpler and more attractive model.
We have now also added a premium membership which is basically pay once and get all-inclusive forever. Can’t get any simpler than that!
LiveRC: In order to play the game with an R/C transmitter (not the keyboard), what all is required?
Pieter: You need a good PC or notebook with a good gaming graphics card and preferably an HD monitor, the bigger the better, luckily graphics or video card and HD monitors have become quite cheap these days. You are looking to play VRC Pro at least at 60 frames per second, this gives you excellent feel controlling the car. Then you best control VRC Pro with the same radio you use for your real car. So, get a spare receiver or use one that’s not really reliable in a real car anymore and hook it up to our VRC-3NT USB adapter. All the adjustments you make on the radio will translate to your car on the screen. You can also adjust exponential and steering throw in the game of course. Using an Xbox or PS3 gamepad also works pretty good, is like using a stick radio though. Oh yes, before I forget, you need internet, VRC pro needs to be downloaded and unlocked using internet which is also needed to race in the on-line competitions. To race in multi-player sessions you should have DSL or cable with good bandwidth and low latency for the best racing experience. More or less the same requirements as for any other serious sim.
LiveRC: I personally still have and use the original VRC Transmitter from years ago, is that still available to purchase?
Pieter: No we stopped these USB controllers. There are several similar devices on the market and we decided to go for our USB adapter and your own radio instead as that’s still the best combination for VRC Pro.
LiveRC: VRC Pro features real-life tracks from around the world. If a track wants to be featured on the game, what must they do to make that possible?
Pieter: First of all let me explain that we can’t do every track in the world, we get many requests to do local tracks, some of them really nice. However, as VRC Pro is an international platform we are looking at international reputation AND geographical spread. We can do tracks on request but then the development cost has to be supported, this can easily be 10 to 13 grant. To do a track we need loads and loads of reference material like overview photo’s details, surface shots, lay-out, areals. We usually work with sets of between 500 and 1000 photos for a track. Then we need to have detailed information about elevations, camber angles etc. For most of the on-road tracks I have done this myself as I visited these tracks with our Serpent team. I remember doing the Kissimmee track and hiring a chopper at the War Birds museum that was next to the track to take areal pictures….
(A Main Hobbies Silver Dollar R/C Raceway is just one of MANY real-life tracks featured in VRC Pro.)
LiveRC: Do you personally race and compete often, both in the real world and VRC world?
Pieter: I stopped racing in 1985 after the 1:8 Worlds in Tokyo (came 3rd there, wowwww), too busy running Serpent and it became more and more important to build a good team and not to race yourself any longer. As I am so busy with testing stuff I don’t have time to participate in racing on VRC Pro. I probably pop in and out 10-20 per day, do 1 or 2 laps to test something and that’s it. Very occasionally I get to drive a little bit longer, like at the RCX early June, and I’m having a ball and I wish I could find a bit more time to get better at it and compete again. I know it’s a thrill…
LiveRC: What is your favorite VRC Pro class and track?
Pieter: No doubt short course trucks, never knew off-road was so much fun. I should have known before, like 30 years ago, and we would certainly have done more with off-road with Serpent. But back then this class was still in a very early stage of development and not really so much fun as it is today. My favorite track is probably Mikes Hobby Shop one because it is simple, and I do most of my testing there. We have many exciting tracks, I just don’t have the time to really learn them all.
(2012 VRC SC Worlds Final at Mike's Hobby Shop)
LiveRC: What is your favorite feature of VRC Pro?
Pieter: I am really proud of what we call time shifted multi-player feature we developed for our event structure and which was released in April. There are many more neat features of course but this one is special. It was really about 2 separate developments merged into one new feature. First we decided to change our event structure to ABC type finals, you start qualifying together, next round you race in heats of 10 and last round are the Mains, A, B, C etc. In this system you start from the position which corresponds with your position in the heat or your main final. Around the same time we had implemented recording of the replay of runs and uploading the best run to our server. We then merged the 2 systems into one, and were able to let you race with opponents in your heat or final by using the replays of their runs which were recorded before, a day, 5 hours or 2 minutes before. So even though these opponents aren’t really there at the same time with you, you are still in the same race together. If you want to beat your opponents you’ll have to beat them in that race! That’s why we call it ‘time shifted’ multi-player. I don’t think this has been done before in any other sim or game, it’s really unique. It’s a unique feature in a unique sim, something the whole development team (we’re with 9 of us) can be really proud.
LiveRC: Thank you so much for joining us today, Pieter! Is there anything you would like to add?
Pieter: I thought this was a 20 minute job, but it looks like I got carried away a bit here and there. VRC Pro remains a big passion for me and it shows, I guess. Hope you don’t mind. We want to grow VRC Pro bigger, yes it will bring us more business and that’s great, but really because I am convinced that VRC Pro should be an integral part of the hobby, endless track time, exciting racing, amazing track, international friendships. All just a few clicks away. I want everyone to enjoy this virtual part of the hobby. And now with Free2Play you can!