How much time must a racing driver spend in a car to learn the art of drifting? For Pluto Mok’s younger brother Jason it took just minutes: he pulled off the technique during his first time behind the wheel, on a Japanese racing circuit at age 17.
Overseas racers can train in a real vehicle almost since childhood. Mok, his brother, and most other enthusiasts in densely-populated Hong Kong had no such opportunities.
What bridged the gap for the Moks were their years of playing car racing simulation games. The right time to brake, turn or accelerate was “branded in my brain,” Pluto Mok said.
As a result he was first runner-up in his first real-life race when he was 19. “It was just a small contest with slower vehicles, but I was very inspired – what we learnt from gaming was actually useful.”
The brothers went on to prove in multiple amateur competitions that simulation racers can be real contenders. At the Macau Grand Prix in 2020, they took first and second places in the Elise GT Cup.
“We had been racing on the virtual track of Macau for 10 years, we didn’t have to invest efforts in memorising where to turn,” said Pluto Mok. Other newcomers were only starting to become familiar with the track.
Success in Macau brought investments and sponsorship from established companies like Challenger and Shell. So Pluto Mok, now aged 27, decided to “bet all-in” on their next project – building Hong Kong’s own auto racing simulation game from scratch.
Hong Kong’s own racing game
During a recent visit by HKFP to Plutonization – the design studio of Mok and his team – colourful glows from computer monitors were the only source of light in the shuttered premises. “They don’t like to have the lights on,” said a member of the team.
The dim lighting was appropriate as the development team worked all hours to try to deliver the game for its scheduled public release in March or April, with most of them getting only three to four hours of sleep every morning.
Wearing a T-shirt bearing the title of the game “Rev to Vertex” (R2V), Pluto Mok appeared weary when chatting with HKFP, and often shut his eyes when deliberating on his next sentence. But when discussing his passion and goals for the game, his eyes came alive.
Enthusiasts like Mok and his brother had been forced to use simulations of foreign tracks in games built by developers overseas. “We thought to ourselves, were we completely incapable of constructing a simulation?” Mok said.
“There are many talented individuals in Hong Kong. If people overlook that, we will take the lead and use gaming as a platform to show them.”
Plutonization has just five core members including Mok and his brother. But they managed to bring their project close to the finish line in just a year and a half.
Trevor Ting gave up a job as an English teacher with regular hours to become the sound engineer. For him, it was a worthwhile trade-off in order to pursue his passion.
“I was literally having goose bumps,” Ting said, when he described his first time playing the game he helped develop.
Mok said Hongkongers from overseas, working part-time or freelance, contributed to the game’s programming and 3-D modelling.
“Some are studying subjects that have no career path in Hong Kong… like automotive design, ” Mok said. “They asked if I was making a game, I said ‘yes, you should join,’ then they joined right away.”
It took them three months to create each vehicle in the game, and nine to ten months to replicate the challenging routes of Tai Mo Shan – the city’s highest mountain at 957 metres.
In the demo version of the game they showed HKFP, players are able to choose to race on three sections of the Tai Mo Shan route based on their difficulties – the easiest Kam Tin route, the longest Tsuen Wan section or the most challenging – Route Twisk between Chuen Lung and Memorial Pavilion.
Mok said the road surface was created according to laser scanning data provided by the government, and the team had also accounted for how different surface textures and weather conditions would affect tyre grip.
The aim was to ensure the simulated experience would be “close to a one-to-one replica” of the real world.
“We have a commitment – as our career started with [racing] simulators and we have been in love with gaming for years, now that we have a chance, we won’t settle for just making a mobile game. We are building a proper racing game project,” Mok said.
‘My life began with gaming’
Auto racing simulators have been Mok’s key to many opportunities.
Visitors are struck by an impressive sketch of a humanoid robot right next to his desk. Apart from the world of automobiles, he is also keen on comic illustration and graphic design.
As a teenager he acted as administrator for an online racing game forum, and the virtual community helped him build his connections with local auto racing teams. Mok went on to work for Hong Kong race car drivers by designing car paintings after he graduated at the age of 19.
“My life began with gaming,” Mok said, “I decided that gaming would be the best way to give an account of what I have learnt throughout my life.”
Mok was fully aware that he and his team were among Hong Kong’s lucky few, able to devote their life to pursuing their dreams “like characters in a cartoon.”
With the new racing simulation game, Mok wants to identify more young talented people and support them on a version of his own “miraculous” journey – from virtual racing to driving on a circuit in real life.
“If a driver can overcome all the corners on Tai Mo Shan, in fact he or she will be on the same level as some of the legendary car racers in Hong Kong. What we are doing is putting this testing ground in a virtual setting,” he said.
A big upside of virtual auto racing is that it levels the playing field for all contestants.
“You can get into a fair and open race at practically no cost,” Mok said. Taking part in the Macau Grand Prix, on the other hand, would cost tens of thousands of dollars and even more for the upgrade and maintenance of the car.
There have been tournaments in Hong Kong for virtual racers, where winners will receive support to compete in real-life racing, Mok said, adding that he could share his own experience on how a beginner could progress affordably.
He said it would be ideal if a potential race driver could get into the sport through simulation games at an early age.
“Otherwise, Hong Kong will have to keep waiting for a person – they have to be rich and young and have time and resources, and be capable of winning without a local racing circuit [to practice on]. We might have to wait forever.”