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Do Exclusive Licences Have a Future in Racing Games?

iRacing's Dellara at Portland

So, another week goes by and another major motorsport licence holder terminates its agreement with Motorsport Games.

TOCA, the holders of the British Touring Car Championship licence, announced it would be terminating its agreement with MSG to produce a BTCC video game. Just two days later, IndyCar also moved to distance itself from the embattled company, cancelling its own licence arrangement.

This came after a string of job cuts at MSG - which had recently sold its NASCAR video game licence to iRacing - and the apparent shutdown of the Australian studio developing its IndyCar title.

The furore over MSG’s licencing deals boils down to the exclusivity of its arrangements. Its deal with IndyCar for example, prevented iRacing from running or broadcasting its Indy 500 Special Event with official INDYCAR branding (although the Dallara IR18 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could still be used by its playerbase, despite some erroneous reports at the time).

Similarly, MSG’s exclusive licence to produce an official 24 Hours of Le Mans and FIA World Endurance Championship game also led to the departure of the famous French race from iRacing’s Special Event calendar.

A rising tide lifts all boats

One reason against exclusivity arrangements is the old adage ‘competition breeds success.’ If two developers want to make games on largely the same subject, each must pull out all the stops to trump the other.

In terms of driving games, in 2003 virtual racers could choose from three distinct Formula 1-licensed titles, all featuring official F1 branding and tracks.

Sure, today you can play F1 23, F1 Mobile Racing and F1 Manager 2023, but in 2003 we had Microprose’s Grand Prix 4, EA’s F1 Challenge ‘99-’02 and Sony’s Formula One 2003; all putting you behind the wheel of accurately replicated Grand Prix machinery.

A Jaguar F1 car on fire in the game Grand Prix 4
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The PC-only Grand Prix 4 focused solely on the 2002 championship and released the same year. However, Formula One 2003 represented the beginning of Sony’s exclusive five-year licence to produce F1 games.

Despite losing the 2003 F1 licence, EA ploughed on regardless, releasing F1 Challenge ‘99-’02; a game featuring four full seasons (1999 to 2002) of officially licensed F1 content. It also received rave reviews, making it a beautiful parting shot, framed by the relatively lukewarm reception for Formula One 2003.

On the other hand, since taking over the exclusive F1 deal in 2008, Codemasters’ F1 series has been consistently good, but can you argue that F1 23 is dramatically different to F1 2019? Is Monster Energy Supercross 6 wildly different to Monster Energy Supercross 4 for that matter? Is MotoGP 23 a massive step up from MotoGP 21? You get the idea.

With no obvious competitors, studios locked into exclusive licence agreements may take the path of least resistance, refining the previous year’s game instead of introducing bold new ideas.

And with the current volatility of the games industry, who can blame them?

Exclusivity brings focus

So, competition is great, right? Absolutely. However, the notion of having multiple licensed F1 games is completely different to multiple games using a WEC, BTCC or IndyCar licence; they just don’t have the same worldwide appeal as F1.

This means MSG’s upcoming Le Mans Ultimate - the official game of WEC and Le Mans - will sell a fraction of EA and Codemasters’ F1 23, but its laser focus on simulating Hypercar, LMP2 and GTE racing will appeal to hardcore sim enthusiasts as well as PC-owning WEC fans (a console version is mooted, but unconfirmed).

Le Mans Ultimate screenshot
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Although we’re an enthusiastic bunch, on Steam more people play Euro Truck Simulator 2 on a daily basis than Assetto Corsa, Assetto Corsa Competizione, rFactor 2, RaceRoom and Automobilista 2 combined. More than double, in fact. (source: steamcharts.com)

So, simple economics dictate that if these sim-racing big-hitters can’t attract a large enough audience then it’s difficult to see how other series will flourish.

You won’t be seeing an officially licensed Northern Saloons and Sportscar Championship title anytime soon then.

This is where multi-series sims such as iRacing, RaceRoom and Automobilista 2 could come into play, offering a DLC route for the likes of IndyCar. Even the likes of Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Motorsport offer a more stable solution.

The exception to the rule?

But there’s always an exception to the rule. Take Codemasters’ TOCA Touring Car Championship as an example. It‘s an officially licensed BTCC game that sold over 600,000 copies across PC and PlayStation, reportedly earning the developer £21 million.

Those are tremendous numbers, and for a game based on a national saloon car championship comes as quite a surprise, going some way to prove there’s a market for exclusively licensed racing games.

Ferrari F40 in Assetto Corsa
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But that was 25 years ago, when development teams and budgets were much smaller, licence costs were cheaper and the industry was less risk-averse. Costs must be covered, so it’s likely the closest we’ll get to a full BTCC game is the currently available content in rFactor 2.

As an intriguing aside, Ian Bell recently tweeted about adding BTCC content in Straight4 Studios’ GTRevival, while Automobilista 2 already features historic IndyCar licensed content.

Would officially licensed DLC packs for these titles be a more acceptable solution for BTCC and IndyCar fans?

Finishing straight

So, should we expect more or less exclusive licences in racing games in future , and is that a positive step for consumers?

On reflection, it was an ambitious decision for MSG to purchase and hold so many licences at once. The decisions were taken near the height of the COVID-induced sim racing boom and haven’t paid off, adding credence to the theory that exclusive licences stifle progress.

Well, if the games are bad, as was the case with MSG’s NASCAR 21: Ignition; or if the games simply don’t appear, which is apparently the situation with both BTCC and IndyCar titles, then exclusive licences don’t make sense for consumers or developers.

A big crash in a NASCAR race in iRacing
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Stagnant yearly franchise releases also see consumers losing out, but the guaranteed revenue stream keeps developers solvent enough to create more racing games. Catch 22.

The reality is, there’s no right or wrong answer. As sim racers, we’re lucky to have so much variety and choice, with Assetto Corsa Competizione’s comparatively obscure GT World Challenge licence helping sustain its developer Kunos Simulazioni over the last five years.

And despite this, parent company Digital Bros. announced this week it’s slashing 30% of its workforce.

In our small corner of the video games market it’s arguably unsustainable to have so many exclusively licensed titles, especially as releasing DLC packs for existing sim racing platforms is the smarter and more sustainable option.

But if Le Mans Ultimate ends up selling 20 million copies…

For more articles like this, take a look at our Opinion page.