Digital Exclusivity

I’ve just learned that Great Plains Region cancelled their Spring Fling Driver Education event out at Raceway Park of the Midlands this weekend.

(A moment of silence for my loss, please.)

However, this sad occurrence does serve to amplify what I was going to write about this month anyway: the importance and high profile of video gaming when it comes to marketing a car brand.

This story begins back in 2000, when Electronic Arts and Porsche collaborated on “Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed,” the fifth entry in a series of video games that began with the original “The Need for Speed” in 1994. “NFS: Porsche” was released for both PC and Playstation.  A lot of the reviews were mixed, complaining about the handling of the cars and the collision detection, but I remember being just staggered by the “feel” of the cars (I think perhaps the complainers didn’t know how Porsches, especially early ones, really handled). Right from the very beginning, you learned NOT to lift mid-corner in your 356.

Nearly every road-going Porsche from the earliest 356 up to the just-debuted 2000 996 Turbo was modeled, and several of the race cars (550A, 935 Moby Dick, GT1) were as well. A few additional cars (the 928 GTS was one) were released later as free, downloadable extras on the frontiers of the baby internet.

I had a burgeoning interest in Porsches at the time, and NFS: Porsche threw high-octane gasoline on that fire.  I’m fairly sure it was the first video game I ever stayed up all night playing.  Through until the dawn, a friend and I took turns, discovering and driving Porsches through the virtual years, from the 356s and early 911s, to the 930, to the 914 (1.7, 1.8, and 2.0, but no 914-6), to the 944, to the Carrera 3.2, to the warp-speed 959, to the 964 Carrera 2, and 4, and Turbo 3.6, to the voluptuous 993 Carrera 4S and glass-roof 993 Targa, to the Boxster, and finally to the 996 Turbo. I came away from NFS: Porsche an educated Porsche customer, knowing the company history, its racing heritage, and which cars were the fastest and not-so-fastest. NFS: Porsche made the notion that I would never own a Porsche completely laughable; after playing that game I was always, inevitably, going to someday have one in my real-world driveway.

Then, however, someone at Porsche (it is not clear exactly who), no doubt basking in the glow of what they and Electronic Arts had wrought, made a critical error: they signed a contract giving Electronic Arts exclusive digital rights to the Porsche brand. With the deal in place, no other software publisher could touch any of Porsche’s intellectual property. At the time, the exclusivity deal itself was somewhat defensible, as the Need for Speed series was among the best-recognized and best-reviewed driving simulations out there. But the term of the contract was SIXTEEN YEARS, an eternity in the consumer electronics and software market. As Ars Technica‘s Automotive Editor, Johnathan Gitlin, put it: “Indeed, in conversations on the topic with Porsche North America over the years, we always got the sense the company knew it was paying a hefty price and couldn’t wait for the deal to run its course.”

During those long years, Electronic Arts lapsed into a mere also-ran among driving simulation publishers, easily outstripped by, at first, the Gran Tourismo games, and then by the Forza series. The band-aid solution used by non-EA publishers was usually to contract for the digital rights to Porsche partner company Ruf, so at least there would be 911 look-alikes in their games. In fact, when I first wrote about the original Forza Horizon on, I used an in-game picture of a Ruf RGT-8. Rufs are undeniably great, fast, exclusive cars, but everyone knew that they only slipped into the gameworld because there weren’t any “real” Porsches.

At long, long last, though, the exclusivity contract has expired, and grateful gamers everywhere can welcome Porsche’s cars into the best virtual realities that the world has yet seen. There is perhaps no more welcome place for the now-liberated Porsches than in the latest, greatest in the Forza series, Forza Horizon 3—a wide-open fantasy recreation of Australia chock-full of highways, B-roads, dirt roads, fields, streams, forests, beaches, mountains, cliffs, and every other conceivable environment in which you’d love to see or drive a car. Look upon the results, ye mighty, and be joyous:

At long last, we’re back to my original point. Not everyone can get to a track day. Not everyone can go on a long vacation drive to see and experience cars and vistas like these. However, almost everyone DOES have the means to access the digital experience. And in the case of the younger ones among us, a great digital experience will ignite a yearning for an even better real-world experience. Goals will be set and dreams cemented in place. With the exclusivity deal expired, a whole new generation can discover the allure of Porsche—and learn for themselves that there is no substitute.