In case you hadn’t noticed, I like racing games. Anyone with the nickname of Speedy Boi probably does. But in recent years I have noticed the number of racing games go down, and while the quality of the games is generally better, there seems to be something a little different. Let’s try and explore why and what could be done to change this.
Ok, so to start we need to look at when the racing game market really took off. This was around the time where 3D graphics started taking off meaning that the games could start looking more realistic. Before 1990 most racing games where using a pseudo-3D rendering style, this meant that while you may be turning left and right around a track you never really had the feeling that you were racing around a track. This was because the background image was normally a static image that wouldn’t rotate as you went around a corner. The other issues about pre-1990’s racing games were that there were normally located in arcade stores and were in huge cases, sometimes even designed around the shape of a real car.
Moving into the 1990’s home consoles were starting to take off and the technology was improving as well. In 1992 SEGA released a racing game called Virtua Racing. This game used a technology called Polygonal Modelling. While it wasn’t the first game to try rendering with this tech, it definitely was the most successful early attempt at the style as it managed to be the most realistically looking at the time. Since then, graphics have only improved to the point where cars look almost as good on your 4K TV as they do in real life. Stepping back in time again we can have a look at another game released by SEGA, Crazy Taxi. It was one of the first open world games out there. Without racing games, we wouldn’t have had anything like what we now know of games. For example GTA V and the Witcher 3; they both have a huge complex open world where your free to come and go as you please but without Crazy Taxi. We might not have had them at all.
One of the companies’ that helped push the quality of racing games to a new level was Electronic Arts; this was particularly evident in their racing series, Need For Speed. This series of games helped popularise the idea that a racing game could have a story within the game rather than just mindlessly racing around a track until you get bored of the game. Need For Speed: Underground was released in 2003 and paved the way for the success of one of the biggest racing series of all time. The question is where it all went wrong for EA. For me I can place this down to around the release of Need for Speed: The Run. While the concept was a good idea, it was handled badly. The biggest problem of the game was that it had forgotten the most important thing about a racing game. It has to be FUN. Every Need for Speed game that I have played in the past 8 years has been questionable in the amount of fun; either due to the story being shit and over the top, or due to a failed reboot and being plagued with micro-transactions.
I can’t entirely place all the blame on EA though. The problem with racing games is that they are extraordinarily expensive to make. Not just due to the standard development cycle of a game, but because of the many licences needed in the game. If the game is using real cars, then the manufactures need to first give permission for the car to be used and then sign off on the design of the cars. So I can’t blame company’s like EA for wanting to make some extra money on the side with micro-transactions to help balance out the costs (as long as they don’t ruin the game with them… which they did…).
What makes a racing game fun? That’s the huge question for today. I think this ultimately depends on what style racing game you are playing. Is it a burnout game or is it a project cars game? Is it a Forza or a Midnight Club? Is it an arcade racing game, or a simulation racing game? What’s the difference? Nowadays, the line isn’t as distinct as it could be. But the simple idea is that a simulator will immerse you as much as possible and try and be as realistic as possible. An arcade racer is all about pushing things over the top, exaggerating things so that things that may not be possible in real life can be experienced. Like driving off of the roof in your car at 200MPH and landing flat on all four wheels rather than nosediving into the ground.
When I’m playing a simulation racing game, I would say I’m having the most fun when I’m not being distracted by what’s happening around me; when I’m fully immersed within the game. Defining what makes an arcade racer fun is more difficult because there is more at play within the game. Along with the way that the cars handle and the AI behind the other cars, there’s the in-game music, the story behind the game, is the game based within an open world and if so how well are the tracks laid out around that world? How does the location feel and are there props that make the place feel real and is the map populated with other cars doing their own thing and are there pedestrians walking around? Does the place feel alive? These various questions are why a lot of racing games that are coming out right now are simulators, in comparison, they are far, far easier to make.
While there’s not exactly anything that we can do to get developers to start making these arcade racing games that we know as fun again, we are starting to head in the right direction. The developer BugBear is working on the spiritual successor to the FlatOut series, with the game entitled Wreckfest, A game all about crashing into other cars on purpose. We’re also getting a remaster of Burnout Paradise, one of the best-loved racing games of all time. Microsoft is also doing well with their Forza Horizon series mixing beautiful scenery, good music and fun racing together. Ubisoft is also attempting to do something similar with The Crew 2 which will be entering closed beta testing soon. Now all I want is for Take-Two Interactive to let Rockstar reboot the Midnight Club series and the world will be all good again; until then, we’ll make do with the memories of the past.