Realism is the enemy of fun in video games, or so is the feeling in the wider gaming community. In a recent blog post, the mysteriously named “qntm” posited that, had Deus Ex been focussed on realism, then realistic password security may have been a significant block to gameplay progress. He states “making a game which is realistic is a goal totally opposed with making a game which is enjoyable to play.” So where, then, does this leave simulators; a genre that has strived for realism in everything it does since its inception?
Anyone that remembers playing vehicle simulations over twenty years ago will look upon some of the titles released at the time with a certain fondness. Driving laps in 1988’s “Grand Prix Circuit” was never something you thought of as stunningly realistic, just as no one would have extolled the complexity of the flight model in “F-15 Strike Eagle 2”. Yet, as our PCs got stronger, and could move more polygons and make more calculations, we began to demand more from simulators, so some software houses took up the challenge and delivered.
When we look to the modern day, where people travel on hovering skateboards and pictures of cats occupy more of the totality of human free time than politics, what has changed? Instead of “F-15 Strike Eagle II” we have “DCS:A10 Warthog”, featuring realism so fearsome as to require a 670 page manual for one aircraft. As well as this we have racing simulators that have put in so much work replicating real-world tyres and vehicle dynamics that their technology goes beyond the understanding of all but the longest of beards. It’s what we wanted, it’s what we demanded, but is it still fun? Well, I derive a lot of fun from it, and I know a few other people that do as well, but how about the millions of people that play video games day to day; the enthusiasts, the knowledgeable, the keen? Oh, they know about vehicle simulators; they read PC Gamer and see the reviews, and they remember the days when they fired up “Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco Grand Prix II” on their Mega Drive, they look at screenshots wistfully, and they dream. Then they see the reality: that racing simulators of the highest calibre are hard, very hard, and not an easy genre to break into. Can it be played with a joypad? Can I play from a camera on the roof, or maybe from behind the car on a ladder? The concerns of the everyday gamer are at odds with what most hard core simulator pilots would yearn for; on the one hand you have a niche market of simracers and simpilots that regard any compromise to realism to negatively impact on their enjoyment of the title, on the other hand you have a much larger demographic that wonders what fun can really come out of studying Motec to ascertain optimum ride height settings.
I remember reading an exceptionally long thread on rec.autos.simulators concerning whether simulators should be classified as video games or not. Whether there should be conventional concepts of video gaming implanted into simulators to broaden their appeal, or whether they should always be pure simulators, with no compromises. The argument suggested that a pure simulation of a vehicle, such as those we now see in use with F1 teams, is a different form of software, a training tool such as the aviation industry has used for years, and not for entertainment. Indeed, the recently released “Prepar3D” states in its terms of service that it is not for entertainment use. When it comes to racing car simulators, this is a difficult angle to level at any sim on the market now. As much as the likes of iRacing will tell you that they can be used as a professional driver training tool, there is inevitable compromise in its design that ensures a “game” element to the whole process. Online racing is a game, and very few will argue, beyond a press release, that it is a tool they use to get better at racing in real life. However, the core simulations have continued to become more and more realistic, but whilst realism is near the top of the design criteria, where is it getting the developers?
If you’re a casual gamer and you look at iRacing, you see a video game that is focussed only on online racing, and an existing player base with up to five years’ experience under its belt. What drags you in? Would it be the assertion that racing without a wheel and pedal set is unlikely to be much use? That competitiveness requires a concerted commitment to practice over a potentially long period? That your experience of most online only gaming environments tells you that making a mistake and crashing into a fellow player could result in a torrent of vile abuse coming your way?
Well, maybe, but what is more likely is that the casual gamer will play a simulator for fun; to have a bit of time away from more mainstream games, as a diversion, and to enjoy delving into something new. When they see the website for a given simulator, terms like “ultimate realism” might as well translate as “It’s really tricky and you haven’t got the time.”
It’s the same thing I ponder when I consider it might be a bit of fun to do a different type of simracing in “Virtual Skipper 5.” What fun, I imagine, racing sailing boats online against the world’s best. Then, as the download slowly grinds on I think a little more: “But hang on, I don’t know the slightest thing about sailing. Am I going to have to learn? Is it going to use terms like “gaff rigged” or “scow”? Am I going to look like an inept buffoon in front of the assembled masses of the world’s best virtual sailors? I know I shouldn’t think these things, but all of it becomes daunting, and before I’ve hit confirm on the sign up page, I’ve abandoned the whole idea and gone out to get a baguette.
Once I’ve got my baguette and I sit down and have a think, I can only wonder as to quite how many people really want to race virtual sailing boats, or how many people want to be the best simulated fighter pilot and, really, how many people want to drive a tooth grindingly accurate racing simulator?
The answer to the question is clear: not that many. iRacing’s 30,000 odd members seems to tie up with assorted sales numbers here and there, but could it be more? Should it be more? I don’t know. From an outsider’s perspective, many of the current crop of racing simulators have been based around the desires of the online racer for many years now. Instead of the delights of Grand Prix Legends, that let us drive a variety of cars in the 1967 F1 field against AI versions of the heroes of the time, we now have a selection of sims that let us drive this or that car on this or that track, with little or no correlation between tracks and cars, and in many cases no option to drive the car in question against its contemporaries. In the same sense, we can look at flight simulators such as X-Plane 10, that give us a broad mix of aircraft to fly around the world, but no purpose in doing so. I’m a big fan of realism in simulators, I positively revel in it, but when a simulator has nothing to offer beyond the driving of a vehicle, is it still video game? It’s all good and well flying a Boeing 737 from LAX to San Diego, but why? What are you doing it for other than to prove to yourself that you can? Similarly, what’s the point in finishing fourth in a Renault Clio race in rFactor 2 against people you don’t know? This absence of purpose breeds a deficit in immersion, which can fail to capture the imagination of all but the most committed.
There is a contention that in a racing simulator you can win, and winning is important for humans. We find winning a special thing, even if it is pointless. We like that we can say that we won at something, sometime; it gives us a warm glow inside. It’s a curious thing, and not one I really partake in. Whenever I have won an online race I don’t really feel any different to how I do when coming second or third. In fact, a few weeks ago I came second after starting last and it felt better than any win I can remember. It didn’t achieve much when it comes to “game” though, and it could be said that the simulator I was playing didn’t involve any emotional moments at all. Had I failed and crashed, there would be another race in 20 minutes to try again, and by that time everyone involved will have forgotten who won the last race.
This is all good and well for simracing enthusiasts; in a good sim I can usually find myself sufficiently motivated to run plenty of laps on my own. I have lots of equipment specific to the task, and I derive fun from just driving the virtual car. But what of our forsaken casual player? When they look at some simulators, do they wonder where the game really is?
It’s long been a thought of mine that racing simulators could do a lot more in this respect, and the push towards online meant that many sims left behind their single player elements over ten years ago. It is a shame, but fairly common amongst developers across the video game spectrum: online was new and exciting back then. Now many players actively avoid online gaming if they seek a relaxed and immersive experience. Immersion depends on imagination; playing with others, who may not be in the same imagination space as you, can easily break that immersion. Playing alone, just you against the game, can also be more relaxing, because everything you do only matters to you, and not to someone on the other side of the world who might get unreasonably upset with something you do in the game.
What’s quite apparent to me in the simracing arena right now is that the single player is not being catered for particularly, and in the larger scale, over the many years we’ve had virtual cars to race, single player aspects of racing simulators have not really changed much since Grand Prix Circuit.
Kazunori Yamauchi, creator of the Gran Turismo series (who curiously cites Grand Prix Circuit as the first racing game he enjoyed), has tried to change this. His approach, that allows cars to be customised and upgraded -along with bought and sold- based on money made from race winnings has been duplicated in a number of other racing games since. Whilst the driving physics were never class leading, they were pleasing to drive, and the Gran Turismo series has been an undoubted hit for console simracers. This “Elite” like method adds a simple financial aspect to the game that allows players to progress steadily and provides various gameplay advantages such as: players never end up in a car that is beyond their skills before they have the experience to cope; players have a considerable number of races to partake in and cars to buy, making the game have significant longevity; and finally, when the player is competing in their Mazda Demio against a fleet of Hyundai Atoz (Atozez?), they have a purpose to do so. This strive for more, the good fight in the Demio, is based around the desire to be able to afford a Subaru Impreza, and then a Lotus Evora, and onwards and upwards.
Ultimately, however, this design leaves the player flat. As with Elite, once a player has huge reserves of money and a vehicle that is nigh-on unbeatable, the purpose starts to ebb away. It becomes simply about expanding ones garage, and watching the “completion” number increase.
So how can a single player racing sim become more of an engaging game for the casual player, but not at the expense of realism? What’s that, no compromise to realism? Well, I am not convinced compromising realism is necessary. A good car driving sim should be able to implement simple aids to help a player get around the track using any control device; how many of us played Crammond’s F1GP on keyboard? How many people play Gran Turismo on a joypad? It shouldn’t be impossible, and may not be the way to get the best out of the game, but if you’re the only one playing and you can lower the difficulty to your tastes, then what does it matter? If a casual player gathers from reviews that a sim is unplayable without a Logitech G27, they turn away. So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the whole controller issue is fixed.
Bringing narrative and story elements into racing simulators has been loosely tried before as well, initially with Codemasters’ “Race Driver” series. This was not met with huge interest by the hard core simracers at the time (Oh yes, in 2002 the hard core were just as vociferous in their judgement in the “simcade” debates!), but sold well in the wider world, aided by its cross-platform release.
The plot of the game saw the player take the role of a young, up and coming racing driver, trying to make a name for themselves in a variety of different racing series. This push for triumph was clouded by the tragedy in their life of having witnessed their father die in a racing car on track. If that were not enough, they also, like Ralf, had an older brother who raced cars -with a considerable amount more success- to contend with.
It’s all good stuff, maybe a little clichéd, but it covers the excitement of racing, the pressures of a superior sibling, it even approaches the tragedy in motor racing that is rarely addressed by any simulation of the subject. Clichés exist for a reason, and this plotline mirrors the kind of stories we see in motor racing all the time.
We’ve seen from other media that motor racing can be portrayed well alongside compelling storylines: Steve McQueen made for an enjoyable watch in Le Mans, and Garth Stein’s novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” told a splendid, heart wrenching tale of a man obsessed by his career as a racing driver. So even if Codemasters didn’t necessarily bang the ball out of the park, why has this concept not been picked up and developed further by anyone else?
Well, a story, when written, usually needs to have a beginning, middle and end; so if you are a video game writer you often have to work the “beginning, middle, more than one end” angle, and this is generally accepted as normal. If you’re talking about a motorsports simulation, you’re putting a player in various situations in which they must perform, and the level to which they perform determines the development of the storyline.
So what happens when your objective is to finish second or above and you finish sixth? Well, you do it again, and again, and again… Storm off, rant at girlfriend, back to it, again, and again, then you make it and the story can move on. It’s not great gameplay, some might even say a touch frustrating, but how else can it be? The alternative of a game that dynamically modifies your “campaign” as you advance surely would involve too many endings?
For a potential answer, the simracing world could do worse than take a look at “Rise of Flight” from 777 Studios. This World War One flight sim is a tremendous piece of simulation software that models various aircraft used in the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. It features meticulous vehicle detail, outstanding flight physics and sumptuous graphics. In its own right, this alone makes it a success in the genre, but you can also go online and test your skills against the world’s finest sim pilots.
However, another aspect to its online modes is the career mode. Essentially a single player campaign, the player is baffled (if they are me) initially as to why this is classed as online play, until one delves deeper. Each sortie you fly in Rise of Flight (ROF) is treacherous; there is a very real chance you will not make it back alive, and there is also a very real chance that your other (AI) squadron members won’t survive either. Thus, a major part of the career mode is to survive. This means that often you may find yourself in your Sopwith Camel getting rather shot and struggling to keep the engine running. If, in said scenario, you elude your attacker, the best thing to do is to head back to base, thus failing to fulfil your mission objectives, but fundamentally living to fight another day.
What happens next is where the fun comes in, because the results of your mission are uploaded magically to 777 Studios servers and taken into account to establish what your next mission will be and, ultimately, how your tour of duty will play out. This means that every foray into the career mode will result in a potentially different result for every player, but there is always a purpose and an overbearing campaign that links in with ground forces and an ever changing front line that forces a narrative. Whilst you will never change the outcome of the war, you can make the kind of small difference that one fighter pilot could. All of this, I remind you, in a sim that makes no bones about keeping everything “hard core” in the physics department.
I would say that this system could well work in a racing simulator, and add a vast amount to a single player experience. A championship campaign over fifteen or more races is something a single player could embark on knowing full well they may not win, but if you take the example of TOCA Race Driver’s career mode, allied to a dynamic system as seen in ROF, then a driver’s performance could change the way the AI respond to them, to other teams or series interest in them as a driver. Maybe they would get to the end of that first season and their career has to end, maybe they would get a test contract in a shiny red Ferrari that leads to a race contract after the surprise retirement of their star driver. The survival aspect of ROF could also be employed to great effect, with persistent vehicles needing to be repaired or maintained, as well as the important maintenance of the player character should they get involved in any scrapes. Hospital time, or bodyshop time could make for missed races. And, macabre as it sounds, historic sims could address the reality or their given eras’ accident survival rate, thus forcing a cleaner style of racing, in the name of verisimilitude.
The possibilities are endless, and present the chance for a truly dynamic offline racing experience that engages the player over a longer time period.
But why stop there? Such a system is not dissimilar (though maybe more complex) than that seen in Codemasters current round of F1 based games. Motor racing is a sport filled with emotion and human stories, it is not all about the cars and the driving, often there are complex human relationships that influence the smallest of matters. How can video games bring this to life?
RPGs have long been making complex algorithms seem like social interrelationships via the use of tools that the player can use to their advantage or detriment. In many RPGs a player’s attributes are based around various unseen numbers, some of which will govern the player’s “reputation” in the game world, this attribute reflecting the way the many non-player characters (NPCs) you have interacted with regard you. Thus, if you talk to old Greybeard McMountainface in the village, and your responses to his requests for help are dismissive, or maybe even scornful, this NPC will react to you differently the next time you speak. It will then be assumed that one NPC will talk to a number of other NPCs, and your reputation around the whole village can become one of being a surly, scornful, misery guts. This then potentially affects gameplay in the future as and when you may need help from the people of said village.
It’s not the most groundbreaking concept, but the unseen nature of these attributes makes for a mystique to the playing experience. What if it were employed in a racing simulator? RPG elements that let you walk around the paddock, interact with other drivers, team owners, press officers, or even just the guys that run the burger van? Coupled with an over arcing storyline that offers a rich experience outside of the car, your ability to make friends, or conscious decision to be a strong, silent type, could directly influence the way other drivers react to you on track. Paradoxically, how you behave on track with some drivers may change the way they feel about you off it. Bundle this with the detail of vehicle simulation put forth by Simon here and you end up with a game that gives you plenty to do outside of the car as well as inside it.
All of these suggestions: a varying and complex career mode; storyline with RPG elements; and a reactive and adaptive system for dynamic AI throughout a campaign, could all add a noted richness to any racing simulator if done right, and provide a chance for the offline player to have an experience that goes beyond just pure driving simulation. Any such game could sit alongside an online mode that can keep the hard-core players happy, and ultimately appeal to a broader spectrum of players.
The downside? Building a game like this would require a large development team with a broad range of skills and, fundamentally, a reasonably large budget. Modern day video games are all too often bereft of innovation as publishers strive for the safest route to their ultimate goal: making profit. It’s not really unreasonable as publishers are in business to make money, but this stifling of the art form is causing a theme which results in video games homogenising throughout the genres. Simulators have been following a similar trend, and by focussing on the desires of their committed player base they have rejected the gameplay elements that could make them appeal to a broader sphere. Is it time for something new?