Thursday, February 28, 2008

Going in circles

There's a thought-provoking feature in Edge about the decline of the racing game as a genre (via Rock, Paper, Shotgun), as discussed by a roundtable of developers behind games like Dirt, Sega Rally, MotorStorm, and Project Gotham. The essence of the problem with racing games was flagged by RPS in their headline, and it's spoken by Bizarre's Gerard Talbot:

"Why am I doing this?"

This was the question I was unable to answer while playing Dirt. It's the question I can't answer while I'm playing The Club (which, though not a racing game, shares many characteristics in common with Bizarre Creations' Project Gotham series). It's the question that has prevented me from investing the time and effort necessary to succeed in Gran Turismo and Forza. For some people, simply being challenged to do well is reason enough to play, whether that means achieving high scores or low times. But these skill players are only one segment of the gaming community, and those of us who look for some more personal reason to play won't find one in these games.

What racing games don't generally do is tap into the player's emotions. I don't mean that they should have stories or characters, necessarily, just that there needs to be some animating reason for the player's actions beyond a basic desire to win. Look at Dirt: the rally style means that you race alone, and afterward compare your time either with that of hypothetical computer opponents, or of real-life opponents you never actually see. There's no drama there. The best games for tourist-style players are those that connect with something elemental, like fear, empathy, or a desire for justice. Obviously this wouldn't work for hardcore sims -- the niche products -- but I think it's going to be necessary for mainstream racing games to connect with mass audiences in the future.

One way to do it would be to ditch the straightforward lap mechanism, and instead create courses in which the player is racing either toward something or away from something. "Why am I doing this?" Because if I don't get to the finish line in time, something terrible will happen. Because if I don't outrun this horrible thing behind me, I'm going to die. What about a game based on The Wages of Fear? The physics engine possibilities alone are exciting, and the ticking-time-bomb scenario adds that missing impetus for those of us who need one.

Whether that's a good idea or not, the point is that as long as racing games are just about running laps, then they'll all be going in circles. There will always be a market for Gran Turismo and games based on NASCAR. But if developers really want to push ahead conceptually, then what's needed is a willingness to move beyond the prevailing mindset that racing is about winning a trophy. There's a chance to do so much more.

9 comments:

Ed Borden said...

This is funny that this topic seems to be coming up lately often. More and more people are wondering WHY they are playing if games aren't stimulating. Playing for the sake of playing just doesn't do it.

Mitch Krpata said...

Which is not to say there aren't games that succeed as pure fun -- only that most great games have something deeper happening, too. Most good games succeed on more than one level. I wrote at some length about how I think Guitar Hero does this.

The problem is if you don't find something like racing cars fun on its own, and a game gives you no other reason to be racing cars, then you've been shut out. And while not every game can appeal to every gamer, it's always nice when you find those that do.

daniel said...

I wonder what the author would think of the story mode of F-Zero on gamecube.

Mitch Krpata said...

Daniel, I haven't played it, but it sounds like an interesting way to go. Did you think it worked?

daniel said...

I would not say that the story mode captured the drive and immersion that comes from true character and plot development. However, the scenarios did not all focus on a repeating looped course, but still provided an exciting racing experience. Perhaps the game stands as a good example of "alternative" racing ideas.

While not interesting to me personally, I could see a "Fast and the Furious" style game use this non-repeating style of scenario quite well.

Mitch Krpata said...

It's tough to figure, really. The flipside of the argument occurred to me: how often do we bash the vehicular sections of narrative action-adventure games? Nearly always. But look what happens when a game gets it right: things like racing the Warthog in the final sequence of the original Halo work well on their own and are integrated into a larger framework.

Billy King said...

I'm a big Forza and GT fan, mostly because I'm a car enthusiast, but I've noticed how so few people play or get excited about racing games these days. I like what you’ve said about incorporating emotions like fear into a driving environment, but then would those games be racing or just driving action?

The racing games that have really left a mark are typically arcade games, such as Sega Rally and Outrun. Those games were simple to play, much more so than a modern arcade racer like PGR, and with Outrun had that element of fantasy, the Ferraris, blondes, blue seas and palm trees that so many people would have found desirable.

I’d like to think that a truly unique and interesting concept holds the key to bringing the genre back into the mainstream, but realistically the game that stands the most chance is likely to be Mario Kart Wii. The more simplified and accessible a game is the more people will feel up to playing it, despite the games overall quality.

On the other hand, Criterion seems to be taking things the opposite way by further complicating the experience. Paradise City incorporates the open world gimmick that has so much popularity everywhere else, and everyone likes a good crash every now and then. In the end, Gran Turismo 3 is the fifth best selling console game of all time. If GT5 doesn’t fair too badly then maybe the genre hasn’t got a problem after all.

Mitch Krpata said...

That's an excellent point about the sales numbers of Gran Turismo. On the basic level, the way to sell a lot of copies of any game is simply to make it a very good game. That's a little tautological for my liking, but any quality game has a decent shot at mainstream success.

And I'm also trying and failing not to fall into the trap of wondering why game developers don't make every single game with my specific tastes in mind...

hyde said...

oh dang, i'll play the wages of fear game. let me know when it streets!