Auto Club RevolutionImage: The BMW Z4 Roadster sDrive 35is in Auto Club Revolution

A lot of racing-simulation games put equal emphasis on drizzling the car porn along with the actual driving experience. Now the genre’s new core pillar is social interaction. DriveClub, from Motorstorm developer Evolution Studios, earned a staring role at Sony’s PlayStation 4 announcement event for an attention to fine detail that bordered on outright lust … and a focus on collaborative, asyncronous gameplay that drops you into an actual racing team of friends facing off against other player teams. “We’re making the game we’ve always wanted to make,” said game director Matt Southern.

Only it seems Eutechnyx already made it, and it’s called Auto Club Revolution.

“They overlap 100 percent,” says Darren Jobling, the owner and chief operating officer at Eutechnyx. “We have real-time multiplayer and asynchronous multiplayer modes, and both are vitally important to the whole experience.”

“Our clans are the auto clubs,” he adds. “These are groups where gamers can get together, socialize, and combine their efforts to progress through the game and compete with other clubs.”

Browser-based and free-to-play, Auto Club Revolution opened its beta in July 2011 and went gold in 2012 with over 60 licensed cars in its stable. BMW, Bentley, Lotus, McLaren, Bugatti, and Jaguar all tear up the Daytona International Speedway, Indianapolis, and Silverstone, so yes, it’s a real racing game. And it’s a fairly successful one, too, by Jobling’s account. Eutechnyx announced a $31 per-player revenue average last November. $20 is the more common figure player average for successful free-to-play games.

Despite nine years of development, details on DriveClub are still thin. It’s easy to discard the “100 percent overlap” speculation, but its licensed cars will likely match or exceed Auto Club’s list, and the photo-real graphics will almost certainly leave all others in the dust. We also know DriveClub boasts a true first-person perspective, not unlike Need for Speed: Shift 2’s inside-the-helmet camera, something Auto Club doesn’t do. Auto Club doesn’t even have cockpit views for most of its cars — “We’re not seeing these demands from our players,” says Jobling, who notes that Auto Club iterates on a weekly basis based on player feedback. And directly or indirectly, DriveClub plans to tap into the social game model Auto Club proved is a winner.

“Our players very much buy into the social experience,” says Jobling. “About 50 percent of player time is currently spent racing. The other 50 percent is spent in social activities.”

That’s the big differentiator for both games. You meet up online with your racing buddies, geek out like proper gearheads, share your custom car tunings, and go on the road together as a team racing against other live opponents in relays or multiday rallies. They bring the sport aspect into the equation and let you share your enthusiasm with your amigos.

So here’s the real question. In an even matchup between a successful, rapid-iteration, free-to-play social racer and a more traditional, pay-for-play, social-centric race game with more features and far superior graphics, who wins?

It might simply come down to gameplay or platform preference — DriveClub looks like an exclusive launch title for the PlayStation 4 — but it’s tough to beat Auto Club’s price. And if the 50/50 split Jobling offers between socializing and actual racing proves out, a PC’s keybord/mouse configuration trumps the PS4 controller. As yet, we haven’t heard anything about Sony’s new voice chat options or whether their new console comes with headsets included. Microsoft’s Xbox packages do.

Could a hardcore racing game take the lead based in part on a direct message system and chat windows? Possibly not, but with focus shifting from social interaction, those count as big advantages.

For a social game especially, so does community. Auto Club already has one, and it’s thriving. DriveClub has a Facebook page that’s updated every two to four weeks and a slightly less neglected Twitter account. It’s got a lot of catching up to do. The genre is shifting focus. Physics and control will always dominate racing games, but it’s less about the cars themselves. Everybody’s got beautiful cars, and pornography has a very short half-life.

Now it’s about who’s driving those cars. Whoever brings those players together in the best way for a complete high-octane fantasy will take the checkered flag.