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Gameplay Fundamentals: The Identity Crisis in the Racing Genre

In this design article, veteran EA, Radical and THQ designer Mike Lopez looks at the make-up of the racing game genre, asking what factors truly differentiate one title from another, and how we can communicate them effectively to players.

[In this design article, veteran EA, Radical and THQ designer (and design director) Mike Lopez looks at the make-up of the racing game genre, asking what factors truly differentiate one title from another, and how we can communicate them effectively to players.]

Back in the early 1990s, the racing genre was quickly becoming a major sector of the gaming market. In the early days of the console racing genre, there emerged some real-world emulating racing simulations like Super Monaco GP, Indy Car Racing and Formula One.

On the other end of the spectrum there were games that focused more on non-traditional racing environments (i.e. OutRun, Test Drive, etc.).

For several years this division was very clear, in that everything that was simulating real-world sports was a "simulation" (or "sim") and everything else was an "arcade" racer.

This division held all racing titles quite nicely, because those games that fell into the sim category were obvious and most everything in the arcade category (everything not-sim) played quite similarly -- due to the relative infancy of racing development and the technical limitations on the consoles.

Then -- lucky for me -- along came Road Rash which sort of broke out of the clear division. While Road Rash was clearly focused on non-traditional environments and mostly fit into the arcade category, it also added a large and distinct layer of fighting -- and so EA begin to market it as "Motorcycle Racing Combat".

A few years later, with the emergence of Twisted Metal, the industry created a new sub-genre called racing combat.

Cue 15+ years of racing game evolution. Now it's 2009 and the simplistic and archaic arcade/sim categorization struggles inadequately to describe modern racing games that have evolved in many different directions, and that no longer have such clear-cut differences.

The racing games of today have truly blurred the lines between arcade and sim descriptors, with executions that vary wildly in physics model (deep vs. simple), racing style focus (technical vs. non-technical) and track type (circuit, point-to-point or open-world).

Because the industry marketing and press have not kept up with advances in gameplay variations and provided more granular descriptions, many racing products of today suffer from an acute identify crisis and are poorly differentiated from their competition.

In fact, this market confusion presents a serious need to better define the racing experience of each game and to educate the industry and consumers about where racing has come. This will also help game developers and designers who are looking to properly understand and identify the experience they are seeking in their racing game.

My overall intention here is to identify three separate gameplay categories that should be communicated by marketers and press to clearly communicate a racing game's identity profile given the racing products of today.


1. Mechanics Depth

The racing games of today provide a large range of depth to their physics model and to the driving mechanics that allow the user to control the vehicle.

These days the term "simulation" is vague and confusing, in that it is used inconsistently throughout the industry, press, and by consumers. A simulation game sometimes refers to the physics model, sometimes to a technical mastery-focused race style and/or to a real-world sport.

Today there are racing games like Project Gotham Racing that share many elements of traditional motor sport sims, such as a detailed physics model and technical track mastery, but do not share the real-world motor sports vehicles or track locales like those found in real life Formula One or Grand Prix racing.

With this ambiguity, the control model style becomes one of two major culprits in the racing genre identity crises. The depth of the underlying control mechanics is an area that must be clearly communicated to the consumer, ideally on the front of the box, and cited in reviews.

I propose we do away with the generic and ambiguous simulation label and strive to clarify the level of depth to the control mechanics, either with text descriptors or even on a simple scale of depth.

[Note that I do recognize the term "physics" could have negative connotations and may be considered undesirable by marketing, as it implies math and complexity. So we should focus on communicating the depth of the control mechanics, with the understanding that we are assuming all mechanics related to the vehicle control.]


PGR has clearly blurred the line between fantasy and real-world motor sports simulation.

An example of a relatively deep model of mechanics would include more controls and nuances that allow precision adjustment and management of turns, slides, jumps and possibly more complex areas such as suspension weighting (traction/sliding) and torque.

An example of shallow depth of mechanics would be a game with controls only for throttle, brake and steering with little to no control over sliding.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the most shallow depth of control and 10 being the greatest depth, I would rate OutRun at a 2, Ridge Racer at a 3, Road Rash at a 7, Need for Speed at a 7, PGR at a 9 and Gran Turismo at a 10 (including all the tuning/balancing access).

[Note that although OutRun and Road Rash are not modern, I include them to demonstrate the range. One could also correctly argue that each franchise version has a different mix of control depth. But I am treating all versions as a single entity since most readers will not have played every one. In the case where the model has varied or evolved greatly, I am considering the franchise in its heyday.]

While there is often a strong correlation between Mechanics Depth and simulation titles, this need not always be the case. A team could create a game with deep control mechanics that are easy to with only a few controls required but a lot of optional control depth.

Also I would say that most of the AAA racing games of today measure in the upper end of the scale on Mechanics Depth. Yet many would be classified as arcade racing games under our current archaic and inadequate terminology.

Note also that mechanics depth does not always translate to an increase in difficulty or accessibility. A team could develop a deep set of mechanics that are easy to pick up and play, but difficult to master, or a relatively shallow physics model that is still hard to learn or play.

I believe that difficulty and accessibility are actually much more components of the Racing Style -- see next section. In the case that the learning curve or difficulty are not obvious, either could also be called out as a separate scale on the back of the box (like how we sometimes see learning duration called out on PC titles).


2. Racing Style: Perfect Line & Track Memorization vs. Competition

The other key culprit of ambiguity that needs to be clarified to the consumer and well-identified by developers when making the game is what I would call the Racing Style, which is determined by the micro, moment-to-moment focus of gameplay.

Is the player focused on the technical mastery of the track and vehicle in order to perfect the perfect line and perfect time, or are they more focused on besting the competition?

An easier measure of the racing style is how much track memorization is required for success. A very technical game requires complete memorization at the micro level of every turn and bump in the course (which is why these often tend to be shorter circuits that can be reasonably memorized to that level of detail).

A non-technical game would only require the memorization of up to a handful of more complex turns or choke points. These would likely be marked with road signs, interesting scene objects or buildings to aid in memorization.

A more competition-focused game (both single player and multiplayer) will focus more on car-to-car interactions like blocking, collisions, and possibly very controlled sliding and/or drafting. It would also often  concentrate on AI interactions at the micro and macro level such as speed management, blocking, passing, and bumping logic.

The reality is that a player can only focus on so much information at one time, and so it is this focus on other vehicles that tends to make the memorization of a large amount of track details impossible. Hence, these games must be much less technical in nature.

A racing game like Burnout can have a relatively deep control model but non-technical gameplay that does not focus on the perfect line and finish times. Road Rash is also an example but obviously in the Racing Combat sub-genre.

These deeper control model/non-technical racing games are typically inadequately described as arcade racers, which highlights the limitation of the arcade and simulation descriptors.

A similar limitation is obvious with Dirt, where the physics are very arcade-y (often referred as "floaty") but the gameplay is very technical (perfect line and time focused.) Dirt is vaguely described as a rally racer, but neither an arcade nor a simulation racer.

My point that old-school vague categorization is inadequate is further illustrated by the fact that even after a dozen hours of play, I had to look up the reviews to see where it was positioned -- when I could not easily assume whether it fell into the arcade or sim camp.


Dirt mixes a floaty physics model with highly technical track mastery and memorization.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the most competition-focused (and least technical) race style and 10 being the most technical (full track memorization) I would rate NASCAR at a 1, Road Rash at a 2.5, Need for Speed and Burnout at a 3.5, PGR and Gran Turismo at an 8, and Baja: Edge of Reality and Ridge Racer at a 10.

Notice that few to no games will fall in the very middle of this range, since technical driving and heavy competition focus are usually mutually exclusive types of gameplay.

Note also that PGR and Gran Turismo are at the pinnacle of AAA effort and quality. As such, they deliver a better experience of competition than most other technical racing games, though still the focus is mostly on lap mastery.


Clearly, Burnout is focused on vehicle competition and interaction with minimal track memorization.

The quantity of competition in single player is also an important element that should be called out clearly. Technical driving games like PGR tend to have fewer opponents in a race and less often opponent interaction, since the bulk of the gameplay is about mastering the track.

In reality, many games hype the number of opponents when the number is large and/or the opponent interaction is engaging. But they are quiet about opponents when that number is small, or their interaction is robotic.


3. Track Type

The last, but secondary differentiator in modern racing games that often leads to ambiguity from a design standpoint is the track type / environment style.

While many games do communicate this through box print or art and marketing materials, it is not uniformly communicated. The game's external messaging can often indicate numbers of tracks -- but not style and experience.

Environment descriptions are usually reasonably well handled, but we need to think about what users might be looking for. Are the environments real-world, fantasy or hyper-real in art style? Are the roads open or closed to traffic? Are the roads forgiving with large run-off areas or punishing with lots of hairpins and choke points?

Track types would include circuit (Gran Turismo , PGR, ATV: ORF), point-to-point (Road Rash 1-3, Test Drive 2-6), circuit open world (Baja) and point-to-point open world (Road Rash: Jailbreak; Test Drive: Unlimited, Burnout: Paradise, and NFS: Most Wanted).

Track types can also be mixed (i.e. MX vs. ATV with circuit tracks and point-to-point) and they should always be called out as such.


While recent NFS games struggled with their identity NFS: Most Wanted was a monster success with an accessible, but deep control model, focused vehicle competition and interaction and open world, point-to-point races.

The Debate About What is "Hardcore"

[Surely this section opens up a huge can of worms that I expect to be rehashed in the comments, as it has in countless other articles across the web. So I might as well embrace the expected.]

Another area of unnecessary confusion in the industry is what type of gameplay is considered "hardcore". Often a racing game is considered "hardcore" if it is very difficult and punishing, which is often the case in normally categorized simulation titles like Gran Turismo and Project Gotham Racing.

Since those games are highly technical driving sims "hardcore" is often loosely attributed to all simulations. But I believe that to be only a large sub-set.

Let us examine a textbook definition:


hard core

--noun

1. the permanent, dedicated, and completely faithful nucleus of a group or movement, as of a political party.

2. an unyielding or intransigent element in a social or organizational structure, as that part of a group consisting of longtime adherents or those resistant to change.

[Dictionary.com Unabridged; Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.]

The key relevant synonyms of that definition for me as a 17-year industry veteran and racing expert are "permanent" and "dedicated". In a gaming context, this would clearly indicate a heavy level of gamer experience.

Certainly, not all experienced racing fans are technical simulation fans and so it is obvious to me that not all hardcore racing fans are sim fans either.

I submit that hardcore racing fans are the larger and more general segment of very dedicated and experienced racing fans. Technical driving, track mastery and racing simulation fans are merely a subset of this larger group. That fact was reinforced in racing usability testing of the type pioneered by Microsoft.

While there is clearly a correlation between hardcore and technical racing fans, they are not equal. In screening, organizing and moderating multiple usability and playability testing sessions on Baja: Edge of Reality, the last racing game I worked on, I experienced a mix of preferences in highly dedicated and experienced racing fans.

Although the preferences of these fans were weighted a bit towards the technical driving simulations, there were a reasonable amount of these racing fans who play racing games 15-30 hours per week and had mastered 4-10 racing games over the previous year or two -- but who preferred Need For Speed and Burnout hands down to Gran Turismo and Project Gotham Racing.

These players rarely cited the technical simulations as positive examples of gameplay in the discussions. They tended to thrive more on the competition of opponents in both single player and multiplayer modes than the technical sim fans -- who thrive on achieving perfect track mastery and lap times.

To help us evolve the genre I feel we should stop making gameplay generalizations about what a vague, ill-defined group of hardcore fans would like. We can focus on the specific variations of gameplay defined above, and from those determine which type of player each variation appeals to.

Conclusion

Often there is a large correlation between Technical Driving Races, Deep Control Mechanics and Circuit Tracks. But this is not always the case -- and certainly the opposite mix of Non-Technical, Point-to-Point racing is a lot fuzzier and less connected.

I strongly believe as an industry we can and should do better to think carefully while developing gaming and then set player expectations accordingly, and the racing genre is the place where the most confusion lies. 

Once the modern differences in racing games are more clearly communicated throughout the industry, developers can set more conscious, up-front goals on where they wish to fall in each of these categories, and then work towards these development targets.

When a game is ready to ship, the marketing team can clearly communicate the experience of gameplay and best manage the expectations of the consumer.

In the end we want consumers to be able to find and buy the best type of racing games they enjoy. We want to be able to develop games that serve both under-crowded and high demand sectors of the racing genre.

The genre and the industry as a whole will be better off once we treat racing games as the more interesting and unique entities that they have evolved into -- and once we become better at educating the market about how each is unique.

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