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Wrecked by the big boys 15 years ago, veterans return to NASCAR video games

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Makers of NASCAR Heat 2002 return with NASCAR Heat Evolution this September

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

About a decade ago, Tom Dusenberry was in the pits of a New England speedway, getting set for a Saturday in the minor leagues of late-model stock car racing when he overheard two drivers talking about a third, a newcomer who needed to get himself in line. The rookie, who had just come up to their division, didn't know what the hell he was doing, and was going to get himself put into the wall.

The rookie was Dusenberry's son, Matt. Tom Dusenberry, who founded and sold Hasbro's first video games operation and made a couple NASCAR titles with it, was bankrolling his son's nascent racing career. "I'm sitting there, saying, 'You're gonna kill my kid,'" Tom recalled. "And you're going to cost me $10,000. Can you teach him another lesson?"

Nope.

Stock car racing projects a genial, Southern hospitality to the mainstream thanks to NASCAR's base territory and the VIP treatment given to sponsors who make it go 'round. Underneath is an icy beauty pageant of arm-hugging, fake smiles and passive-aggressive punishments for violations of an unwritten code. Thus was Matt steered into the wall. The boy was fine, but after that damage to his dad's checkbook, he raced a little more tentatively, which was the real goal all along.

'In this sport, everyone wants to win'

Dusenberry, along with longtime colleagues Ed Martin and Richard Garcia, has since retaken custody of a video game license that over the past five years became known more for the intimate and inscrutable cruelties of the racetrack than the thrill or spectacle seen from the stands. All three — plus Matt, now a veteran of NASCAR race-team marketing — seek to put that right this fall with the first, remade title completely under their design: NASCAR Heat Evolution, coming in September for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.

"NASCAR games have become almost prohibitive," said Martin, whose tenure with NASCAR video games has spanned all of their license holders for the past 20 years. "You now have to know how to set up the car precisely within a race just to be competitive, or you'll get a nice top-38 finish out of it. Which is ... not fun.

"In this sport, everyone wants to win," Martin said, "so the challenge for us is, regardless of your skill level, that you get to live out your fantasy of being competitive with the heroes of the sport."

Dusenberry and Martin are the names behind the Dusenberry-Martin Racing label, which acquired the NASCAR license in January 2015 and rode out one more edition with Eutechnyx on the previous console generation. For their first effort on current consoles, they brought aboard Garcia who founded and runs Monster Games, based in Northfield, Minn.

All three were involved in NASCAR Heat Evolution's namesake — NASCAR Heat of 1999 and NASCAR Heat 2002, on PlayStation and PS2. The brief series exited when EA snapped up one of several exclusive licenses that defined the previous decade in sports video gaming. Martin then went to work for EA Tiburon's racing operation, but that label threw in the towel in 2008 after failing to get much more than an indifferent critical reception and disappointing sales on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

carl edwards nascar heat evoluton

Carl Edwards was named the cover star for NASCAR Heat Evolution last night. (DMR Racing)

Activision picked up the brand in 2011 and handed development to Eutechnyx, a serious racing games shop in the U.K. that ended up making one of the most technically demanding licensed sports simulations in console gaming. That and a reputation for bugs and glitches limited this run of NASCAR games to little more than a niche appeal. With Activision and, for a year, Deep Silver not seeing any upside to the license, that meant Dusenberry and Martin could get back in, despite their much smaller size. But it also meant the big boys' mismanagement had left any project they could make with a serious image problem out of the box.

"One of the issues with NASCAR games over time, and it even goes back to the EA days, is the games just got harder and harder," Martin said. "They got deeper and deeper into simulation, and there's nothing wrong with that, you want to have a deep sim, but other sports franchises continued to broaden so that a new user could pick up the game and still have a good time."

Even more than their F1 colleagues at Codemasters, Eutechnyx's NASCAR games required patience and precision, in drafting to the last second and launching out of a cluster at the right instant to pass with maximum effect. Deviate from that code, and the game would put you into the wall as surely as Matt Dusenberry's rivals did. Video game racers tend to drift more than they brake, and so many lost power in the physics of the high-banked turns, plunging to the apron until they got the message to keep the gas on at all times. For the hardest of the hardcore, their trigger buttons wore out after two seasons.

A pre-alpha build let a new driver push through traffic without worrying about a huge pileup.

The pre-alpha build of NASCAR Heat Evolution that I played about a month ago didn't have the same kind of lean-in tension. Banked turns aided my momentum more than they required micromanagement. There was a palpable sense of being able to push through traffic without worrying about causing a Talladega-class pileup. Granted, this was all on the easy setting, but the action reasonably behaved like what you see on a Sunday without threatening to wreck me every split second. Tom Dusenberry said the team is working to build a racer that adapts to its players, to offer a respectable challenge while preserving the ideal of accessibility and approachability.

NASCAR Heat Evolution still is promising all of the structure of a simulation representing a full season in its sport: all 23 real-world tracks, 36 events under their real names, and 43-car fields in all of them. All 36 of the racing teams guaranteed a start under NASCAR's two-year-old charter system will be represented (with four additional teams) as well. Dusenberry-Martin Racing and Monster Games will lean on NASCAR's broad licensing agreements and rights to bring as much as they can into the game, critical to a sport with so many recognizable sponsors. More than 1,000 will have some presence in the coming game, Matt Dusenberry said, whether it's a quarter-panel sticker or something larger. A Bojangles billboard zipping by reminded me I was at Charlotte Motor Speedway as much as its dog-leg front straight.

"When we first worked on NASCAR games 15 years ago, we were always battling consoles to get the performance we wanted," Garcia said. "So going back and using modern hardware on it, yes, it's exciting."

Garcia, whose studio last worked on Xenoblade Chronicles 3D for Nintendo 3DS, was lured back to the project as much by his friendship with Martin as his own desire to finish business left over from NASCAR Heat's first run. As part of the 2015 acquisition, Dusenberry-Martin got all of the assets and source code from the preceding NASCAR: The Game series. Garcia and his staff, which number about two dozen, went through what they had and decided it was better to start over completely.

"We also went back to the original [NASCAR Heat] source code, which was old and creaky but still had some good ideas and techniques to bring forward," Garcia said. "So we used a hybrid approach where we based some things on old architecture choices but were able to do what we really wanted on better hardware.

"We have a tire model, for example, that's the core of a modern driving game," Garcia said, "and now we can run it with a better integrator and improve the fidelity. Back when we had very little QA time, you had to make some quick and short-sighted decisions."

Made in stock-car racing's heartland

When Deep Silver, the most recent publisher, and Eutechnyx wanted out, Martin — then a Eutechnyx consultant — stepped in quickly to make a play for the license before it hit the open market. Tom Dusenberry, while acknowledging the diminished state of the property now compared to 15 years ago, said he still found it an easy sell to investment capital partners. Dusenberry-Martin Racing took office space in NASCAR's headquarters, high above the sport's hall of fame in downtown Charlotte, to communicate its seriousness. Approval meetings with the license managers are now an elevator ride instead of a plane trip, Tom Dusenberry noted.

Garcia, though, was skeptical at first. He'd been in touch about doing a mobile game only. "He said, 'There's no way we can do this kind of a game on a contemporary console, we're too small,'" Martin recalled. "A week later, he called back and said 'You know, I've really been thinking about this, and I think we could do it.'"

"We got the game up and running initially about nine months ago," Garcia said. "I just remembered how much I loved it. It involves pack racing, being able to pass 40 cars to get to the lead and then win on the last lap. That really is the exciting part of this game, and you don't see that in other video games."

"With that core group, it was like putting on a well-worn glove."

Garcia said that after EA grabbed the exclusive more than a decade ago, pushing out NASCAR Heat, he had to stop following the sport altogether. "I had to stop watching," he said, "it was too dear to me, not to be involved in it anymore."

But even with more 15 years gone since NASCAR Heat 2002 published, Garcia says development of NASCAR Heat Evolution still feels familiar, in a picking-up-where-they-left-off sense. About half of the original Monster Games development team from the 2002 game is still with the studio, Garcia said. "With that core group, it was like putting on a well-worn glove," he said.

NASCAR Heat Evolution named its cover star after last night's All-Star Race (Carl Edwards) and has more to share in the roll-up to a Sept. 13 launch. Plainly, a quality game will communicate this tight-knit group's sincerity and passion for stock car racing more than any words they say. But after a decade where sports developers their size have been shoved into the wall by big names, exclusive licensing and soaring development costs, it's a good sign to see one getting back in the race.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.