Ash Robertson (UI & Brand Design Lead)
Ash Robertson had an American Dream. Except he was raised on a farm in the UK. Since he was a boy, though, all he ever wanted was to get into the monster truck scene. So, when he finished school, he ended up making a monster truck sim that was so good, it got picked up by Monster Jam. Straight4’s UI & Brand Design Lead (and displacement king) tells us what’s next …
As UI lead, what does your job entail and what do you have planned for the new sim compared to what you’ve seen in other sims?
My job is to oversee the development of the User Interface of Straight4’s titles. The User Interface is a fancy name for all the buttons, menus, and screens which are interacted with to control the software.
Historically, this has been a bit hit and miss in the sim racing world to the point where in some cases, people even use mods to avoid using the stock UI. I often joke that, “the worse the UI, the better the car handling”, but there’s plenty of good reasons why UIs feel ‘janky’ in a lot of the sims we all know and love. Chief among these is the juxtaposition of hardcore sim users wanting every single tiny detail to be tuneable to the nth degree, but also not be too complex because they’ve only got 20 minutes to get on track and beat their mate’s lap time before dinner. So it’s a massive challenge to find a balance.
I’ve certainly done my fair share of complaining about UIs over my ten-plus years of sim racing, but I have a newfound respect for those who tackled the mountain before me. Now, my brain is etched with the knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past, and I have an extremely talented group of individuals forming the UI team here at Straight4, so it’s game on. Let’s build this thing right.
You did a lot of liveries for monster trucks. Have any favourites?
These ones are very special to me. ‘Crash Test Dummy’ was built by a long-time friend of mine, and it perfectly represents how both of us achieved our crazy dreams from way back when we first met. ‘Game Over’ was recently completed for YouTube sensation (and good friend) Kevin Talbot. That one was the first design I did for UK based team which meant I got to see its debut in person. ‘King Sling’ was done for Dennis Anderson who is monster truck royalty—the man who created ‘Grave Digger’. That one is still a ‘pinch me’ moment for sure.
How did you get into this field?
It’s a pretty wild series of interconnected paths that lead me here and weirdly, it largely revolves around monster trucks (bear with me). Since I was probably three years old, I have been obsessed with monster trucks, so I channelled everything into landing a career in that industry. Straight out of high school in 2012, I started a freelance design business and worked my way into producing graphics for monster truck teams and event promoters in the US. Flyers, team clothing, merchandise, helmets, wraps, toys, flags, you name it. Around the same time, I spent my spare time being disappointed with the lack of good monster truck sims, so I started messing around with building my own. I met a like-minded friend here in the UK and together we evolved our sim into something that managed to catch the attention of Monster Jam—the absolute pinnacle of monster truck racing.
Over the next few years, we utilised the sim to work on a number of very exciting (and mostly top secret) R&D projects with Monster Jam including things like jumping a monster truck over a flying aeroplane. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I entered an online monster truck league race based on a physics sandbox game called Rigs of Rods. It was something like 2 a.m. and, in round one of the racing bracket, I took down the top qualifier. This guy never made a mistake, and his qualifying time was untouchable. I was the unknown stranger and we all watched in total confusion as he bottled the final turn and rolled his truck almost into my lane right before the finish line. That guy was Austin Ogonoski, now Game Design Director at Straight4. We became lifelong friends that night. So, I had Graphic Design and marketing experience from one part of my career, sim racing and software development experience from the other part, and Austin, who asked if I’d be interested in joining the team to build a racing sim with him. It’s hard to get my head around the whole journey, but I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity and I’m very excited about what the future holds.
What’s the story behind your Trans Am and your weird obsession with displacement?
It’s my dad’s! My parents are both massive petrolheads. Mum drives a ’01 Mustang and Dad drives an ’82 Trans Am and a ’79 Camaro. They actually had their first date at a drag racing event in the early ’80s. Dad had a Ford Capri back then, so I think the drag racing converted him to the dark side of American displacement. Unsurprisingly, their interests trickled down to me and I’ve always wanted to get a ridiculously loud, rattling lump of American perfection of my own.
What’s your go-to combo track/car in sim racing?
I’m a sucker for the historic touring car scene. Give me a 1970 Plymouth ’Cuda against a field of old Jags and Mini Coopers on a tight, technical, but flowy track like Oulton Park. Solid rear axle, a million cubic inches under the hood and enough oversteer to make your sim rig cook an egg. Bliss.
What was your first sim racing experience?
I’m not sure if it can be counted as “sim”, but I can still clearly remember playing the original Need For Speed with a joystick on my dad’s windows 95 PC. Man, I need to fire up an emulator and take the Viper for another spin on Alpine.
What’s the most exciting thing about working on your first sim?
That’s a tough one to narrow down. Firstly, it’s so interesting to see “behind the curtain” and gain a new perspective on how the development process works—especially under a well-oiled machine like Straight4. There are so many amazing people with amazing stories to tell from all over the world and to see everyone’s contributions coming together so seamlessly is mesmerising. Secondly, sim racing is a huge part of my life. I’ve met some of my best friends through it and it has steered my entire career. I’ve seen it evolve massively over the last twenty-plus years and it’s awesome to now officially be a part of it all. What we’re working on now is going to inspire the next generation and that is very exciting indeed.
What’s surprised you most about working on your first sim?
It will probably sound cliché, but it’s the sheer amount of effort that goes into it. Even the smallest details are meticulously mapped out and discussed at great length. Every decision is made tactically for a number of very specific reasons. At any given moment there are new challenges arising and being conquered. Everyone’s enthusiasm for what we’re doing is next-level and it’s fantastic to be in the middle of it all.