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.