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The tech behind Real Racing 3's time-shifted asynchronous multiplayer

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Firemonkeys is building Real Racing 3 with asynchronous multiplayer, a component that's common in mobile games. In a racing title, that traditionally entails competing with a "ghost" run uploaded by another player — you play against an ethereal vehicle driving along the exact route that person took, and attempt to finish with a better time.

Of course, that kind of multiplayer isn't possible with two corporeal cars, since they could bump into each other. So in Real Racing 3, Firemonkeys is introducing a feature it calls "time-shifted multiplayer" that lets you race against others asynchronously — but in a live race.

We spoke with Firemonkeys community manager Sam Mayo this week to find out how it works. If you log in to Facebook and Apple's GameCenter, Real Racing 3 will scan those friends lists for others who are playing the game and pull their race times. Real Racing 3 will be available on iOS and Android, and this also works for users across both platforms.

When you load up a race, you won't just be racing against CPU drivers. Real Racing 3 will create AI doppelgänger cars based on the race times that other people have recorded. The driving skill and style exhibited by those vehicles will correspond to the time. So if the person did well and finished quickly, their AI double will be tough to beat. If the person had a poor run, their car will sit at the back of the pack.

As you drive past them, or vice versa, you'll see the avatar and username of the player responsible for that AI car. And since they're not ghosts, the race plays out just like a normal contest, with cars you can bump and nudge. In a race we played at the Suzuka Circuit in Japan, one of nine real tracks in Real Racing 3, we finished near the top but couldn't eclipse the leaders of the pack. When we looked at the post-race leaderboard, we understood why: The cars who finished ahead of us corresponded to better times uploaded by other players. (The game is already live in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but won't be released worldwide until the end of the month.)

To balance out a race's difficulty, Real Racing 3 will pull in "good" and "bad" AI doubles. You can retry events in an effort to post increasingly better times, but the engine is smart enough to scale up the challenge if you keep finishing more and more quickly. As for standard simultaneous multiplayer, which was present in Real Racing and Real Racing 2, Mayo said there's a chance it will be added in a title update, but couldn't confirm that.

We were also struck by the graphics in Real Racing 3. While background detail for elements like grandstands and foliage is sparse, the cars and tracks themselves look spectacular. According to Mayo, the polygon count on the game's car models is comparable to vehicles in racing titles on current-generation consoles.

You'll really notice the visual fidelity once you start crashing into things. Real Racing 3 has comprehensive damage modeling, and damage has palpable effects on vehicular performance, both during and after a race. Smashing up your car can do things like take a few miles per hour off your top speed, increase your 0-60 time and reduce the effectiveness of your brakes. Repairing the damage costs in-game money, and in some cases, it'll keep a car out of commission for a race or two while it's in the shop, forcing you to choose another of the game's 45 licensed cars.

time-shifted multiplayer lets you race against others asynchronously — but in a live race

EA decided to make Real Racing 3 a free-to-play title. Mayo said that none of the content in the game is restricted from players who don't pay; they'll just have to keep playing races to earn in-game currency, which comes in Real Dollars (R$) and Gold. The former is used to buy and upgrade cars and pay for repairs, while the latter accelerates upgrades and can also be used to unlock some vehicles.

"We didn't want there to be any barriers to entry, as with the previous Real Racing games," said Mayo.

Real Racing 3 starts players out with pedestrian vehicles like the Ford Focus. As they earn R$, they can spend the money to buy higher-level cars, or purchase them with real money. Access to later events is gated by the type of vehicle, since a Focus would be far out of its league in a contest featuring supercars.

According to Mayo, Real Racing 3 contains more than 900 events totaling about 506 hours of gameplay. If Firemonkey's time-shifted multiplayer feature can keep races challenging long after players have mastered the art of tilting a mobile device to steer a car around a track, those players may continue playing long enough to see a significant portion of that content.

Real Racing 3 launches Feb. 28 worldwide on iOS and Android.

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