Race for innovation: The future of racing games

Race for innovation: The future of racing games
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

June 4th 2014 at 10:35AM

Develop asks veteran devs how the sector can avoid stagnation after a recent resurgence of the genre

It was only four years ago that people proclaimed racing games were dying. There were frantic attempts to shake things up, most notably with the likes of troubled action racers Split/Second and Blur, but nothing seemed to dissipate the feeling that the genre was already becoming stale.

And yet in 2014, a variety of titles are bringing something fresh to the racing space, from the anti-gravity quirks of Mario Kart 8 to the social functionality of Driveclub and the open world antics of The Crew. But how are developers making these titles stand out when they’re arguably all centred around the same concept: crossing a finish line?

“I think ‘just crossing the finish line’ is to the racing genre what ‘just shoot the other person’ is to the FPS or ‘just jump from block to block’ is to the platformer,” argues Will Musson, producer at The Crew co-developer Ubisoft Reflections.

“Racing is about a sense of mastery, high-speed decision making, risk taking, perfect execution, and putting in the work to be better than the next racer. I believe that gives plenty of room for innovation.”

Eutechnyx’s marketing manager Ashley Westgate adds: “Compared to other genres, driving itself is a known quantity. The majority of people drive, or at least have been driven in a car, and so have an understanding about a driving experience. Not deviating from this expectation means that the core mechanics across sim-based racing games will always be similar, making wholesale change hard.

“That isn’t to say innovation is impossible. Just because the objective is to get from A to B, it doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with the how and the why. Across the genre we’ve seen a wealth of interesting innovations: dynamically changing tracks, narratives, objectives, social features and meta games to make the journey more interesting.”

Codemasters’ chief games designer James Nicholls says the company looks at every possible aspect of both the race itself and everything around it to find new ways to excite fans of the genre and newcomers.

“Looking at the drivers, how can we can make the competition more personal?” he says. “How can we make AI opponents more human? How can we create narrative and drama around each race?

“We’re also continually working on the camera, force feedback and audio to tell you what a driver would be feeling. There’s so much we could do given the time and raw processing power that we’ve not even touched yet.”

WACKY RACES

Plenty of companies are attempting new things with their games, although perhaps not all are as high profile as the serious simulation titles now on shelves.

“We look across the various digital stores at some of the vehicle-based gaming that isn’t ‘cross the line’ – it’s pretty amazing,” says Nick Burcombe, creator of Wipeout and now CEO of Playrise Digital.

“I wouldn’t have thought parking would be an enjoyable activity for a game, but there’s certainly a skill-based game in there and it requires fidelity and control. Extreme taxiing? Crushing zombies before fuel runs out? Mission-based chases, endless racers, abstract racers, the list goes on.

“All of them are filed under ‘racing’ but none of them are just ‘cross the finish line’. Even when you look at some of the more unusual challenges in Gran Turismo, like smashing cones and eco-driving, there’s variety of gameplay even in the sim market.”

However, Nicholls warns that developers could be in danger of trying too hard to bring something new to racing.

“It would be easy to fall into the trap of trying to create complex race rules with over-the-top scoring systems and actually failing to move forward with the actual game mechanics,” he says. “You need a very clear, focused direction on the experience you’re creating, or you’ll end up with a mountain of conflicting features that don’t complement each other.”

Nicholls’ comments bring to mind some of the scepticism that accompanies the unveiling of new racing games with unexpected mechanics – particularly when it comes to more outlandish franchises such as Mario Kart.

We just don’t do a good job of explaining to players why such features are transformative and why they’re a great reason to check out the driving genre again.

Paul Rustchynsky, Evolution

The latest title’s anti-gravity courses were initially dismissed by some as gimmicks, and there were even people that doubted the impact of social features in Driveclub or the introduction of an open world to Forza Horizon. Each, it can be argued, are attempts to overhaul their franchise or the genre without stepping too far out of gamers’ comfort zones, but are these new features under-appreciated?

“I don’t think gimmicks are the solution for any genre – there is only ever short-term gain to be had from them,” says Evolution’s Paul Rustchynsky, game director of PlayStation 4 title Driveclub.

“But neither do I think these examples are gimmicks. Most are interesting, vibrant new features that are well integrated into the entire experience, that can change the entire dynamic of play. We just don’t do a good job of explaining to players why such features are transformative and why they’re a great reason to check out the driving genre again.”

KEEPING IT REAL

As has been mentioned, the simulation market dominated by Forza and Gran Turismo is far more limited in how it can keep itself fresh – flying cars are unlikely to fit seamlessly into either series. Instead, the constant push for authenticity is what drives progression in these franchises.

“Motorsports continue to push their boundaries, so as racing game developers we need to do the same,” says Eutechnyx’s Westgate. “That means keeping pace with the changes and innovations within the sport. In NASCAR ’14, we patched in the new rules, keeping true to the sport. In Auto Club Revolution, we worked closely with BMW on their 1 Series M Coupé, adding it in-game to support the real car’s launch. Keeping in sync with the auto industry, launching cars, rule changes, tracks and race series in tune with real world events is key to keeping our genre fresh.”



Ubisoft Reflections’ Musson says that making players feel immersed in the action has been a long-running challenge for developers: “Transferring the visceral physical sensation of piloting a vehicle over into a stationary 2D monitor and controller living room setup will always be tough. In that respect, the big leaps forward came early but there is a massive amount of work still needed to convey this kind of experience.

“Delivering the adrenaline rush of racing via a PC or console setup will still require leaps in innovation – and that’s before you think of all the tech around it: Driver AI, damage systems, sound systems, number of active racers and so on.”

Michele Caletti, development director at MotoGP and WRC studio Milestone, agrees: “Involvement is everything in a racing game. It might seem obvious but the amount of buzz they’re building recently tells us that people are liking it a lot. Plus Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus – these new devices are a great opportunity to create even more heart-pounding simulations for petrolheads.”

It could be argued that improvements to simulation games can only be on a small scale from this point forward, refining almost unnoticeable details rather than overhauling the mechanics. But Burcombe argues that there’s still a long way for the genre to go.

“I’d like to believe sim racing could only be exhausted of innovation once we can create an experience so convincing on the senses, it’s as good as racing in the real world – apart from the risk of death, of course,” he says.

“If we reach a point where you can virtually sit in the cockpit of Lewis Hamilton’s F1 car and then race on sub-millimeter scanned 3D circuits, with advanced AI, photo-real graphical detail – both inside and outside the cockpit – and emerge from the experience exhilarated, exhausted, but safe, then I think we will have delivered on the dream of all aspiring sim-racing fans.”

THE RACE OF YOUR LIFE

Many of our experts refer to the narrative of a race. Rather than literally writing storylines for the next Forza, instead they refer to the unique encounters and moments that players can carve for themselves while on the track. And if these can remain unscripted, it will be all the better.

“There’s as much thrill in pulling off an impossibly tight overtake, nailing the perfect drift, squeezing every ounce of grip from tyres, or nursing a damaged car home as there is in any explosive action game setpiece – perhaps more so as it’s a fully dynamic experience rather than being pre-baked by the hands of a designer,” says Codemasters’ senior executive producer Clive Moody.

“The drivers interplay on the track, realistic ‘human’ AI behaviours, improved damage modelling and environmental effects that go beyond just the visuals and have a tangible effect on how the narrative of a race unfolds.”

That said, Evolution Studios has already proved that well-designed setpieces can bring a fresh experience to racing games.

There’s as much thrill in pulling off an impossibly tight overtake than in any action setpiece pre-baked by a designer.

Clive Moody, Codemasters

Rustchynsky says: “With MotorStorm Apocalypse, we focused on the large-scale spectacle and really pushed the boundaries of environmental destruction.

“We could have just tightened up the handling and added more intricate details as a sequel to Pacific Rift, but instead we changed the formula and shook up the series to provide a fresh take on the visceral driving action. And I see no reason why we won’t see more of this within the racing genre this generation.”

The improved capabilities of the new consoles also opens fresh possibilities for racing developers, as does increasingly complex smartphone and tablet hardware.

But Torsten Reil, CEO of CSR Racing owner NaturalMotion, says this is just the start: “We believe there is a massive opportunity for great leaps in technology that will accelerate the realism around cars and we already strive to have them play a bigger role in the game rather than just a vehicle for manoeuvring around the track.”

Caletti predicts: “The next big thing in racing games will probably be a believable procedural destruction – that can be quite a technical and visual showcase. Not all games can or will be able to afford it, and I’m not talking about technical boundaries: you can easily imagine that not all licensors – car and bike manufacturers, championship licence holders – are so happy to heavily dig on that.”

As with many genres, developers have spent decades searching for new ways to get players interested in racing games. Some ideas fail and fade away, others can be revived years later. The important thing, says Burcombe, is to keep pushing forward.

“I saw the trailer for Mario Kart 8 and thought ‘how we’ve come full circle’,” he says. “It’s been well reported that the first Mario Kart was a huge inspiration for Wipeout, so it’s great to see anti-grav Mario. No doubt they’d probably be keener to reference F-Zero than Wipeout, but it’s nice to see the anti-grav mechanic in there nonetheless. I think the trick is to keep trying new things.”



Reil agrees: “It’s hard to innovate on racing games if you only focus on the car going around the track. If we focus on creating compelling consumer experiences that go beyond a traditional approach to the racing category, we can deliver an experience that people will want to partake in throughout the day.”

DRIVING FORWARD

It’s also important to keep in mind why the racing genre felt like it was becoming stale just a few years ago. For some, a big contributing factor was the lack of new contenders and the death of old favourites – most notably Bizarre’s Project Gotham series. It can be tough to see new ideas such as Blur and Split/Second being rejected by the media and consumers alike, but it shouldn’t deter devs from at least attempting to reinvent the wheel.

“You really need competition within the sector, which in turn means you need enough developers being in a position to try new things,” Nicholls concludes.

“If everyone tries to pile in on making variations on a driving simulator, you’ll end up in an arms race with everyone fighting over the same audience. However, if enough developers can try out different expressions of racing as a broad genre, there’ll be a much lower chance of stagnation.

“I believe that racing is a very primal thing. It’s part of human nature and it’s also very compatible with competitive play. Children will have running races with each other long before they’ve mastered kicking a ball. As long as you keep that at your core, there are a huge number of ways to try different angles, which would definitely stave off genre fatigue.”