the rantings and ravings of a not quite sane cow

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Game Theory: Racing

(those of you looking for a discussion of economics relating to motorsport should go here)

This is a somewhat more serious (and looooooooooooooooooong) article about game design. Now, don't get me wrong, I've never studied game design professionally, but I knows what I likes, and if anyone reading this has ever played War Pong, you'll know that I know how to make every mistake possible.

First, I'd just like to point out that this is probably the worst subject for me to start on. I suck at racing games (could have something to do with my complete and utter lack of perception, reflexes, decision making skills and manual dexterity) but that doesn't mean I don't try. Racing, it seems to me, can be inherently boring. After all, you are just going around circuits again and again, no? Needs a bit of spicing up, me thinks. There are three common ways of doing this:
  • Uber-realism: generally going extremely realistic will only appeal to a certain group. Turn down the realism a little bit though, and you appeal to a much broader audience. Some people like tuning every single tiny detail of their cars, and having a single tiny mistake in the race (which could well take you an hour) either make you lose or at least be a significant penalty). This leads into our second category...
  • Arcade: still uses real cars, and sometimes real tracks, but you probably don't have the opportunity to spend days tuning your car. Also, the physics tend to be a bit more forgiving, generally allowing you to drift, as well as not punishing you as harshly for making mistakes. Races are generally shorter.
  • Ridiculous: Mario Kart.
Let's look at what's most important for a game: fun! That's why you play a game, isn't it? Single player, I find arcade racing games the most fun. I don't want to have to spend hours setting up my car perfectly for a race. I don't want to have to try to figure out what car is best based on measurements I haven't the first clue about. I don't want to have to use those measurements to pick upgrades for my car, and if I do, please don't make me choose what brand of part I want if it doesn't matter. And it better not matter. As such, I don't want a realistic racer.

On the other end of the spectrum, games like Mario Kart aren't as fun by yourself. Half the fun of MK is hitting someone with a well placed green shell (or a well deserved blue shell) and then gloating about it, preferably because they're right next to you. Online, that isn't so bad, as you at least know that another human is suffering. Yes, I'm cruel. Get over it. That leaves arcade racing games what I'd pick as best for single player, because you can just get into a race and you aren't penalised too badly when you screw up.

As for multiplayer, I do tend to prefer games like Mario Kart. Not just for the human suffering, but because races in it generally don't have any lulls where you're just zombieing around a track, and they're fairly short... not only do you get a change of scenery fairly often, but if you're doing badly in a race it's not long until you get a fresh start and a new chance at REVENGE. Sims tend to attract the wrong sort of crowd in multiplayer (the obsessed, who can't believe that the setup they spent weeks tuning lost to some idiot doing donuts on the main straight), and while arcade tends to attract a better crowd, the racing doesn't tend to be as action packed (still awesome when you beat someone despite doing donuts).

Next up: control. There are three main controllers that you use for a racing game: keyboard, gamepad, or racing wheel. The problem is that as accuracy of control goes up, difficulty in controller accurately goes up too. A keyboard is generally the easiest to use but offers the least precision (as a base, you're using 4 digital buttons)... is good enough for many things but you can do better.
Gamepads generally have analog sticks and these days analog triggers. Yes, theoretically, this does give you much finer control, but some of us just move the stick/trigger as far as they'll go 90% of the time anyway, so while it feels different, it's not necessarily any better. BTW Sony: Analog buttons - WORST IDEA EVER. Seriously, half the time when I play the PS2 I have to push the buttons so hard it hurts my finger hoof.
Finally, we have racing wheels. Yes, they're designed to be as similar as possible to driving a real car. That has both good and bad parts. Yes, they're more like driving a real car. That's good. Yes, they offer finer control. That's good. No, not all of us know how to drive a real car. That's bad. Racing wheels probably fall into the uncanny valley (if there is one) of controllers. That's not to say that they're bad, it's to say that they come close to real control but don't quite make it the whole way. Personally I prefer whichever controller gives me an excuse to spend the most money.

Okay, time for a short section: graphics and sound. Graphics I don't care about too much, as long as I can see everything clearly and the game isn't GT Pro Series (that thing is fugly). Sound, again, isn't too much of a worry, as long as it has all the appropriate vrooms and such. That just leaves the soundtrack. Now, realistically, for a racing game, you have a few choices for what music you should include. These include:
  • Rock
  • Rock
  • Rock
  • Maybe a little classical
Of course, the good thing these days is that most of the time you can bring your own music. If I had to pick one racing game for a standout soundtrack, it'd be Burnout Paradise.

Finally, how a racing game motivates you to drive correctly, and how that never works on me. Surely losing a race is punishment for not doing well; I'm sure it is, but generally games don't care how you reach the finish line first. PGR4 probably has the best example of what I'd like to see more: not only is there a reward for placing well (that gets bigger the better you do) but there's a reward for driving well throughout the race. It only has a minor punishment for screwing up, too (losing all the kudos in your current "combo", which also encourages you to calm down a bit now and then).
I guess on the other side of the proverbial coin there are the games where you can take damage. This isn't so much rewarding you for good driving (positive reinforcement, which is always a good idea) as it is punishing you for bad driving (which is better than nothing), but it doesn't really act as a deterrent to me, since I just restart the race if I deliberately ram some other car too hard.

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