Why Starters Orders 6 works better with the Oculus Rift than I thought.

Like most video game obsessed kid’s in the 80′s I dreamt of one day being ‘in the game’. Around the time the Sinclair computers were knocking about the movie Tron came out and gave a jump start to a generations VR dreams. Back then it seemed impossible. Playing about on Sinclair basic the most you could hope for was to have a 8 x 8 pixel single character or simple shape jerking around the screen. Learning Z80 assembly language helped but even then it was still really limited to small sprites (which you had to code first as there were no hardware sprites).

Back then I remember the talk was of how big sprites would get or how smooth scrolling could be. VR was strictly science fiction.

Forward wind to 2014 and technology has caught up to a point where the ‘in the game’ VR experience is possible. There are still problems and it’s early days. The Oculus Rift really needs a screen with three or four times the current resolutions to start to give a really nice image and it’s going to be a while before they are cheap enough for a consumer unit. Motion sickness is another problem.

When I decided to add Oculus support to Starters Orders 6 I was not hopeful. For a start I knew the text heavy menu’s that players spend most of their time on simply would not work. I also wasn’t sure on how the visuals and game models would stand up. When you glance left for example the horse and jockey will fill your entire view. Not just a rectangle a couple of feet in front of your face. Also in order to accommodate many racecourses the game racecourses (in SO6) need to be able to be constructed via an editor rather than a 3D artist put the whole scene together and light it nicely (it would look better that way but the flexibility and number of courses would be lost AND it would be too expensive). I thought it may well look crap.

Luckily the way the unit (at least the DK1 anyhow) works makes it suitable for SO6 because it can be easily turned on and off while still being registered as active on the PC and it can be re-initialised at the start of every race. So you can play in the normal way on your monitor and when it comes to the race you can watch the usual 3D race on your monitor. If you are riding however you hit the on button on your Rift and put the headset on and the game will switch to a stereo 3D view. So Stereo mode will be activated if you have a Rift plugged in and you are riding in jockey mode.

What I didn’t realise is how well this would work. Because you are only wearing the headset for a short time during the race sickness is not a problem. It’s cool to just suddenly be in the starting stalls and even with the low-fi DK1 Oculus Rift the race is fun. The ability to look around by moving your head is a real plus and makes the whole expieirence feel more natural. Also because you are sitting on a horse you kind of have a frame of reference. Your brain knows in effect you have no relative movement to the object your are sat on (the horse). Your legs are not moving and that is consistent with the virtual world. So the experience is not broken in the same way as playing for example a FPS game. Cockpit game work best on the rift because of this.

The meters and indicators on the race screen (in jockey mode) were a problem. They just didn’t look right so I got rid of them. It was a revelation that I found riding a race much more exciting this way. After all a jockey does not have a HUD with the horses preferred tactics, level of reserves and pace etc. It means you have to know and research the horse before riding and getting a winner is much more rewarding (and that is how the game should be played anyway). So the Rift mode will have no indicators at all except for the JUMP indicator. I am also going to have an option to get rid of this too. Races are genuinely better with absolutely no help on screen at all. Maybe not so newbie friendly though.

Frantic tapping of the Action1 (or L-CTRL) for whipping in a tight finish at a big meeting with the crowd noise coming through the headphones and a big stand looming over your left shoulder is I expect the closest most of us have ever been to riding a race. Another step up will come with decent motion controllers for the reins and whip and I have something in mind for this but not right now. I realise VR is not everyone’s bag and to be honest I’m not convinced it’s going to boost sales much but I do this because I like it rather than for the money and right now it’s fun and interesting (I’m no business man). I also have a vague plan to enhance the whole experience with an interesting piece of hardware but that is strictly top secret right now. All I can say if it works it will make for some amusing YouTube videos!

So it turns out the Jockey mode is very well suited to VR headsets. I expect to add experimental support within a few weeks.

Having said all this I do not recommend anyone buying one until a consumer unit is out and no one currently knows when this will be. It had been thought the end of 2014 may see a consumer version but the year is rapidly running out and no news yet. If you have access to a Rift dev kit or can get to one of the shows we are displaying at it’s worth trying out though (we may be able to get to some racecourses next year). If you want one of these you will need a fairly high spec gaming rig with a decent dedicated video card and the whole setup is not cheap. Clearly in two or three years when average gaming specs have stepped up a little, the prices come down and higher resolution screens are in the devices this will be much more of a proposition but even right now it’s something to behold.

Definitely the last video.

Mike finished the night racing mode yesterday. Any racecourse that has floodlights (not many) has a day and night mode. Lighting can be quite a complicated business but the evening lighting for Starters Orders 6 has been kept very simple so it has little impact on frame rate. I had my doubts about how well it would look but it turned out pretty well. So here is a race (in first person again) from Dubai.

Best watched in 720p HD resolution:

We are still on for a beta release by the end of this week. If I was a betting man I would go 1/2 on with next week 13/8.


One of the main reasons for going 3D was to attempt to reflect the variety of racecourses we have in the UK. Having done most of the racecourses that will be in the first beta release one of my favorites is Cartmel. I have never been there and expect many are in the same boat but It has an interesting layout and is quite undulating (this may be overdone in places in the game). I like the fact that you can visit these places in the game and the variety that has been lacking in previous games will hopefully add to the overall expierience. I hadnt planned on releasing anymore videos but anyway here it is recorded in first person jockey view on the 11/4 favorite.

Best watched in 720p HD resolution:


As we get closer to a beta1 release surviving only on kebab topped pizzas and caffeine laced sugary drinks the state of the courses at the first beta is becoming clear.

As expected there will be some repetition. The UK schedule flat courses have virtually no course repetition at all though. Every racecourse has been individually done (apart from one I think). The jumps courses do have some repetition but most of the more interesting ones have been individually done.

The Australian and New Zealand racecourses have no repetition at all. The US racecourses have the most repetition with a lot of courses shared. This is partly due to their number and legal reasons but mainly down to the fact that many have the same layout anyway.

The Irish racecourses in the main UK schedules will be mostly done but the Irish schedule itself will be held back so we can spend more time on the bulk of the Irish racecourses as there are quite a few. We know the Irish schedules are the least played of all and most will play the main UK schedules anyway.

Mike Gaffney who has done previous schedule work has been tinkering and updating schedules but has not finished yet. Hopefully these can be included in the first release.

I have been playing around with the idea of releasing the editor at some point. There are issues to consider so right now I can’t say that this will happen but I know there are those who in the community who enjoy modding the game and who would create better racecourses than we have done. It also would give those with higher spec machines free rein to put as much detail in as their machine would allow. It may be that we give players the option of submitting racecourses for inclusion in the game if they wish.

The editor would need a manual as the whole process takes a bit of getting used to. Creating the basic terrain shape can be tricky and problematic. There are still issues floating around in the editor and the odd crash happens. It is not possible to create your own racecourse 3D entities (it is possible to add 2D entities) but a lot can be done with the current library of entities anyway.

The editor. It’s not pretty but it works (mostly).

So we are aiming for the very end of this month. If there was to be a problem it could slip into the next week (first week of June) but not beyond that.


Sha Tin

The bulk of the work remaining before BETA1 will be released is the creation of the racecourses. There are two ways 3D racecourses could have been created. The first is to have an artist model the whole environment for each racecourse and provide each one individually with lighting and positioning of everything done. From a development point of view this is easier as it removes the need for tools to be developed (the course editor being the main one). It also would mean the courses look nicer as the Arist can apply all the lighting get things looking just right. The down sides are it’s very expensive and most importantly it would mean we could not create our own courses and would have to have just a handful of stock courses that would be repeated throughout the game.

So Mike has been developing an editor specificaly for creating game racecourses and this is what we are using. The process begins with creating the terrain (hills, undulations etc.) and then painting the terrain with dirt, turf, water or whatever. The actual course is then laid down by positioning the rails. It is possible to trace the rails from satellite images of racecourses if required. Then the terrain objects are put down. There is a database of objects including stands, trees and foliage, course objects etc. etc. and every racecourse is created from these objects. The next step is to lay down markers for each route on the racecourse. These markers will dictate where the horses go. It can be quite a tricky process especially for the more complex racecourses.

After the racecourse has been created the static lighting is applied and it is exported. It can then be tested in the game and then any problems are fixed back in the editor.

It tends to take minimum or around 2-3 hours to create and finalise a racecourse. Occasionally the racecourse creation highlights a bug in the editor and that is where the recent delays have come from. It’s great that we have this flexibility to model racecourses as we want and do not have to rely on third parties to get it right. And I don’t know any other racing game that has had the number and range of 3D racecourses we will have.

I reckon we are about 40% through the racecourse creation right now. The release date of the second half of May stands. Realistically it will be later in May rather than earlier but I’m intent on getting the game out before June. Still, all we can do is plug on. It will be done when it’s done.

The videos so far have been UK turf races so I uploaded a quick Sha Tin dirt race last night. It’s probably the nicest looking racecourse so far in my opinion. The frame rate for this course is can be 50% lower (in places) than Cheltenham was so maybe I went a little far with the detail but Sha Tin itself has a lot of detail on and off the racecourse (mental note to keep the rest of the racecourses a bit more simple for frame rate reasons!). Sha Tin must be some place to visit with the Mountains, cityscapes and massive stands they have in Hong Kong. Maybe one day I’ll have to go there. The last time I got out to a racecourse was an evening freezing my arse off at Wolverhampton one winter and there must have been all of 200 people there.

Best watched in 720p HD resolution:

I may post one or two videos of racecourses as things progress.

Welcome to the machine.

Facebook buys Oculus VR and I’m pretty down about it but anyway…

Starters Orders 6 ‘unannounced feature’ details:

Six months ago I bought an Oculus Rift prototype. The official line was that it was for Starters Orders R&D but to be honest I really wanted to play with the thing.

VR contraptions and 3D headsets/glasses have been around for years but the technology have never been up to the job. From the early 3D Nvidia cards (red and green lensed glasses that I could never get to work at all) and the VR Gameboy to the underwhelming modern 3D cinema experience it’s always been disappointing.

Putting the Oculus Rift on for the first time was once of those rare moments where you know you have just experienced something special. Something that with time is going to be very, very big. You genuinely feel that your INSIDE the game. Don’t get me wrong it has problems right now. Big problems. Motion sickness is one. A quick go on RIFT COASTER and 2 mins on HALF LIFE 2 was enough to have me feeling like chucking up my tea. It takes a bit of configuring and calibrating to get working and the changeable lenses are a pain. Also the Rift uses split screen. It has a screen resolution of 1280 x 800. This means an effective resolution of 640 x 800. Combine that with the required distortion effect and you end up with a very pixelated, low res look especially around the center of the view (think playing those old PC games  in 320 by 240). From what I hear a lot of this has been fixed though.

Anyway. The good news was that the rift would be great for a horse racing game. The head tracking means that you would simply glance left as you past the on-course big screen and the in game view would follow. Again you could look around freely to view the rest of the field and all this would be in true 3D. There is obvious potential for motion tracking and controllers but that is all for the future. Right now it’s 3D and head tracking.

A mockup of a ‘punter’ approaching the chair today:

VR isn’t just about games. It will put you right inside Movies, sports events, news items and transport you to places you could never get to or don’t even exist. The possibilities really are endless and fascinating.

Here is a link to a random Oculus Rift video.

Also a new prototype/developers kit is about to be released that is much improved on the previous version including a significantly higher resolution and improvements in all areas.

So I have been talking to Mike about getting experimental rift support into SO6. Experimental because:

1.    The Rift will not work with all the detailed text heavy menus so it would mean taking it off and putting it back on for a race.
2.    The headset is not available yet and may be costly when it does arrive and is likely to have a very small take up for a while.
3.    Getting the Rift working with a game is not so hard but getting a game working well probably means a lot more work.

In short it is probably a feature more for SO7 and beyond but the plan is to at least get it working in a basic way for SO6.

Yesterday Facebook bought Oculus VR and I’m a lot less excited by the Rift than I was before. I look at the Rift on my shelf now and see a big ‘F’acebook icon plastered on the front and image 3D adverts popping up everywhere. There was a very good, dedicated and talented team behind the Rift development (including John Carmack) and now with Facebook holding the reins I just get the feeling that the momentum may be lost and the direction will change for the worse. Facebook are about numbers. Getting as many people as possible to use their software and then using personal information to target them with adverts. They are not gamers and for me it will be less about creating a great VR experience and more about working out how to exploit it to increase advertising revenues.

I have always had a bad vibe with these massive corporations like Facebook, Google and Apple to name the prime suspects. No matter what the intent of the creators when a company get’s so big it takes on a life of it’s own. It almost becomes a higher form of evolution and it’s only aim is to get bigger and eat everything. No one is really at the helm it and it can’t be shut off. It will suck up wealth and trample or assimilate promising start-ups before they can flourish until it get’s eaten by a newer, leaner machine that will grow even bigger. Look at what Google are doing. If they get their way everything you do, see and hear will end up stored at one of their ‘data centers’. Sometimes it seems like we are sleepwalking right into 1984 by a corporate back door with a nice logo on it. Are smartphones that know what you want to do before you do and websites full of strangers holiday snaps worth the price?

Ok. I’ll be fine tomorrow and probably be back to ‘liking’ the Rift again and anyway I have a game page on Facebook so the ‘unannounced feature’ is experimental Oculus Rift support which may or may not work at some point! This is maybe a downbeat way of announcing it but it is potentially a very big feature (for the future anyway).

PS. I do not recommend anyone goes out and buy’s a dev kit to play games or buys the game specifically for Rift support. It’s not there yet (and may not end up in the game anyway). The new kit (available soon) does sounds like it’s very close but right now it’s an option for developers or tech heads with more money than sense. If we do go ahead with this there is a possibility of us rolling up somewhere (a small computer show is possible or maybe a racecourse) to demo it this summer But I’m not sure right now.


The National.

The National.

A Grand National Video from the game was uploaded last Friday:

The real race is just around the corner too. I like to pick a couple a decent priced horses out before the bookmakers start to shorten up the field but reading through the form last night felt kind of underwhelmed by the field as a whole. I had planned on having a few quid on TEAFORTHREE but didn’t expect it to be favorite and at 10/1 that’s out. SAME DIFFERENCE (46/1 betfair) looks interesting after a respectable prep at Cheltenham off a low weight if it takes to the fences and get’s good ground but has drifted a bit lately and SHAKALAKABOOMBOOM (42/1) didn’t run too badly last year and sits right at the bottom of the weights (but needs a few to drop out). Other than that BATTLE GROUP seems to have lost the plot lately but has run well at Aintree for the last two years so at around 65/1 is a hopeful punt at best. Beyond those I’m struggling. I tend to stay away from those higher in the weights but as the fences have got a bit easier over the years it (weight) doesn’t seem to be the handicap it once was so it will be interesting to see how Long Run goes. Good Luck!

Vote Bez!

I live near Manchester and was driving down the road the other day listening to a local radio station. Apparently Bez (the bloke who did the mad dancing with the Happy Mondays) is going to run as an independent MP for Salford and Eccles. I’m all for it.

Anyone who has heard Bez go off on one will probably not have him at the top of their potential member of parliament list. That’s a good thing. No, he is definitely NOT a politician. Politicians are really salesmen. If David Cameron or Tony Blair (or pretty much any of them) turned up at your door selling double glazing you would either have to slam the door in their face or buy stuff you probably don’t want or need. They may have good interpersonal, diplomatic and sales skills but most shouldn’t be let within a mile of actually running a country. Now I’m not saying the Bez should but he has a great almost childlike enthusiasm and if nothing else he is honest and says what he thinks and I like his grow your own self sufficiency message. I like him and if I lived in Salford he would have my vote. And the day you can turn on Prime minister’s question time and spot Bez off his head and dancing around at the back waving a glow stick about will be a great day for democracy.

So VOTE BEZ. I reckon he might have a chance of pulling it off.


A feature I have previously said will not be introduced that will be in SO6 is LEGENDARY HORSES.

This feature has popped up a number of times over the years and in the past I have dismissed it for a number of reasons. Primarily horses are flesh and blood and to presume to be able to ‘simulate’ them with any accuracy is not realistic. Secondly do we simulate their career path? Will the simulated horse win the same races as their real life counterpart? One way the game loses out (because we know the results beforehand) and the other way we lose any claim to actually simulating the horses with any accuracy?

But having said this I do like the idea of having the option of bringing ‘legends’ into the game. With previous games familiar names occasionally popup in the database and it’s nice to see them if (by coincidence) they happen to run over similar distances to their real life counterparts. so I have done it in the following way:

First off care needs to be taken over the legal side of the game. This unfortunately will get worse (in all areas) as time goes on so Legends will NOT have real names. That may sound confusing but their names will be familiar and the user can always rename them.

Legends will in most cases follow a realistic career path (feature races only). The computer AI trainers may run them in extra races and there is an option to allow this.  Their performance in these races is NOT predetermined. It is based on the parameters that the person who creates the legend  (me at the moment) helps set. Think of a legend as a GENETIC RECREATION of that horse. It may hit the heights of it’s name sake and also may fail. They will vary from game to game. Significant failure is unlikely (unless Injured or unusual conditions etc.) but overall performance should be fairly familiar. That’s the best way I can put it. Obviously this raises game play issues. Bookmakers will shorten the odds of legends to help offset betting opportunities. Legends will not be found languishing in sellers or claimers (any any auction for that matter). I am as yet undecided on breeding. Breeding your horses with legends is currently not allowed and would probably cause league related problems. I may change my mind as time goes on though. So to be clear. Players WILL NOT train/own legends. Legends may be trained by the correct trainer and may also have jockey attachments.

The actual editor will not be available for players to use. It is quite a complicated process and although I have simplified and distilled many of the parameters it still requires some knowledge of how the in game algorithms work together to get the best out of the process. Also when creating a legend it’s parameters will be relative to the parameters of other legends so multiple users creating legends will not work. Ideally I would have liked to open this up to the community (it would save me a lot of time) but the consistency would not be there. The editor also allows feature races to be scheduled at different ages and retirement ages forced etc.

The way this works in practice is that the game provides a list of legends at the start of the game. The legends for the particular code are selected by default (flat/jumps). You can choose to play without legends or select the legends you want in the game. You then start the game. All legends exist at the start of the game and once they leave they do not come back (unless you start another game). I can add legends at a later date (available through patches probably). The legends in the game on release are a random mix of horses I picked out. Legends can have their own specific portrait image.

To begin with there will be a handful of Legends (currently there are 15). More could be added at a later date. Really this feature should give an extra challenge to players and make certain races a little harder to win with your own horse(s).

Don’t just watch the National. Run it yourself!

I’m not talking about SO6 right now because I’m fed up of it.

I do a bit of running in my spare time. Not an awful lot as I’m usually injured but having entered a good few races over the last few years I get loads of emails promoting races around the UK.

One caught my eye a couple of weeks ago: A 10K running event at Aintree AROUND THE NATIONAL COURSE.

Now right away an image was in my head of a few hundred runners thundering towards the chair and the comedy that would follow.

Unfortunately (and predictably) the run does NOT include the national fences. It’s a shame. I reckon a human race around the national course could be a great attraction maybe taking place after the big race itself. Some of the fences would be a problem though. Maybe a ‘fossbury flop’ approach over the chair? Extreme running events have taken off recently so why not a HUMAN GRAND NATIONAL? I’m all for it, but not elite athletes or anything like that. Ordinary people. Heck, you could even source the field from the beer tents post national and televise the highlights!

Anyway, even without the fences it will still be good to run around the racecourse. And 10k is just over six miles so you can sit down with a cold one afterwards satisfied that you ran further than the National horses (if maybe a bit slower).