Race : In

Image result for gran turismo

Ok this one turned out long so here's some music to get you in the mood.

I was playing SSX Tricky in our games library, and noticed that course design is a unique level design typology - a good race track is as difficult to design as a good multiplayer map.  I started playing a bunch of racing games in our library, trying to get some idea of the patterns involved - what makes a track good, bad, etc.  

I still can’t say I “get” racing games.  I like them, but I don’t understand have the love for sims like Forza.  Even the more bonkers kart racing stuff is pretty boring from a formal perspective, and leans too hard on item drops to keep things interesting.  

Kart racers (Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing, etc) get a heavy Disneyland treatment - things are heavily themed, races are cartoonish and unpredictable, rubber banding is almost absurd.  These are really Racer v. Item (as opposed to Racer v. Racer, or Racer v. track affairs).  

Excitebots Trick Racing was probably the strangest of the bunch that I played - you aren’t trying to “win” per se, but are trying to earn as many points as you can during a 2-3 lap race.  Placing first gets you a good amount of points, but not enough to progress.  You need hit jumps properly, do motion-control mini games, and .. go bowling? .. in some levels.  Also running over certain power ups will dynamically change the track, adding jumps or boosts in front of you.  

There’s something sad about playing kart racers alone, so I didn’t play these very long.

I played about 15 minutes of Forza Motorsport for the Xbox One.  There wasn’t a lot unlocked, so I tried to do a few career races.  The game feel in these sims is super nice - using the dual sticks for gas/brake is actually pretty slick.  But actually racing was painfully dull.  I had the turn assist on - basically a guiding path that gives you the “ideal” turn and warns you when you’re approaching too fast.  

I can't say I enjoyed the game, apart from appreciating the really good game feel and car porn.  Tracks seem to reward precision in execution, like playing a pre-written piece of music, rather than racing your own way.  I want more expression+improvisation in my games, so I guess it isn’t for me.  I felt like there was probably "fun" content, but it was locked.  Devs - don't lock away the fun in your game. 

Gran Turismo seems to have the car sim/arcade racer balance down right.  It has evolved a lot since the PS1 days, but maintained two modes the whole way through.  One is a grindy, simulation game where the first challenge is literally pressing x then pressing square at exactly the right time.  I gave up on Sim mode after 5 failed attempts, but I played through the Arcade modes of GT 1-6, trying a couple of tracks on each title.  

One of them in particular I really enjoyed - it’s a desert track on GT6 called Willow Springs.  Basically your wheels grip well on the road, but if you stray into the sand you might as well be riding on soap.  Unlike other racing games, though, there was no speed penalty for going off road, and no physical barrier keeping you on the track.  So the track design is a kind of risk-reward tradeoff that tests both your finesse in executing turns as well as your ability to correct when you go off.  after a few laps I was able to sneak through patches of sand as a shortcut - it felt super satisfying to loose control for a moment only to skid back onto the asphalt.

Track design in "traditional" racing games is all about turns.  Have too few and it's monotonous (or Daytona), have to many and you never gain speed.  GT4 proved to me that a track with only 2 turns and a long straightaway can be exciting - it's a bit gimmicky, but still memorable.  

The way turns are enforced is another design consideration - do you use wallsBottomless pitsBranching paths?  Environmental hazards, like the sand in Willow Springs, provide more interesting gameplay, but you can't do that for every track. The new Mario Kart games "solve" the problem of turns by making steering optional, which is a pretty lazy way of equalizing skill levels in an already low-skill-ceiling game.

You can also relinquish track design to the player - like in some of the more recent Need for Speed Titles, or in Burnout Paradise, where you are just given a start and a goal and the path is up to you.  These almost get a bit Narrative-Immersive-Sim-y in the world design, affording branching paths and different play styles.

SSX 3 is the most narrative-immersive-sim-like for racing games, which is probably why I like it.  This image is a fan map of the Peak 3 "Backcountry" track:

There are multiple ways to reach your goal, every track (including the whole mountain) has a well-designed diamond parti, and the Tony-Hawk-style character progression feels meaningful and expressive.  It's not a "pure" racing game by any stretch, but I think I've established that racing sim games are boring and hate fun.   


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