Improving racing games

An open letter to developers

14 April 2018

I’ve always been a huge fan of the racing genre. It’s one of the few genres to offer a very true-to-life simulation, where skills learned with a steering wheel and a PC can be transferred to the cars of the real world.

The racing genre faces a problem: the same mistakes are made by developers time and time again, but, as gamers, we might not even be aware that there’s better ways of doing things, or that developers can give us a much better experience.

Online is a mess

Online multiplayer is almost a given for most racing titles, and it’s a huge shame that it’s treated the way it is in most games of recent years.

This is the key problem: gamers expect to go online and have fun, and to play within the rules of the game. Competitive motor racing has a number of rules that can’t easily be enforced by an online server, and, unlike most online games, has a history of etiquette as well.

In a game like Overwatch, the rules are set by the server on which you are playing, defining things like how your character moves, how the guns work, and how damage is dealt and taken.

If you can do it in the game, it’s “within the rules”, more or less. There are some activities that are frowned upon, like spawn camping, or camping in general, where players remain in one particularly hard-to-reach spot for long periods in order to get a perceived advantage.

The difference with online racing is that it is a non-contact activity with, in most cases, the possibility of contact. It’s up to individual players to drive in a way that avoids collisions, while, at the same time, attempting to finish as high up the order as possible. These two things are often mutually exclusive.

This leads to a huge problem: how do you create a fun environment for everyone? It’s no fun to be involved in a first-corner pile-up every race, or get shunted off the track on the final lap when the person behind you decides to use your car as a brake in order to get an unfair advantage.

This problem is so prevalent in online racing games that for anyone moderately serious about playing them, that is, who plays for the true competition and parallels with the real-world sport, is immediately put up against the more casual player who has no concept of what “fair” racing looks like, or has no interest in entering into the spirit of it.

Forza Horizon 4: A blue Volvo 850 in the showroom

The non-contact solution

Some developers have opted to have collisions disabled entirely, where cars can pass through other cars as though they weren’t there. This entirely solves the problem of troublemakers on the circuit, but misses the whole point.

Racing is a sport of mutual respect, and the act of finding a legitimate way past your opponent is part of the challenge. A good racing driver will know which lines to pick to defend a position, and how to attack a defensive position most effectively. A large amount of mental strategy comes into play.

When defending a position from the car behind, a driver will take less efficient lines through corners, slowing both himself and the driver looking to overtake. This means that if you’re lagging behind a pair of drivers engaged in an overtaking battle, you will catch them up, and a good driver might use this as an advantage.

All in all, simply not having collisions is not a good solution because you’ve effectively created a multiplayer time trial mode without having any of the challenges of the racing world in your game.

The temporary ghost solution

This one involves the server disabling collisions for your vehicle if you approach a corner at a speed that is obviously too fast. This counters situations where a player is so unfamiliar with the circuit that they’re putting other drivers at risk by not slowing down for an upcoming corner, and counters a situation where a player deliberately refuses to brake, in order to cause a collision.

Although this is a noble concept, it does not work in practice. There has to be some trigger; some speed at which the ghost mode is enabled, and it’s always going to be quite high.

This means that it’s still possible to make contact during a corner, and still possible to brake late enough that you collide unfairly with the car in front.

It also gives players a false sense of justification: “The game didn’t make my car invisible, so what I did was fair.”

Forza Horizon 4: A Suburu Impreza WRX in the rain, in front of a brightly lit festival marquee

The vote kick button

This idea is where any player can nominate another player to be kicked from the server, and other players are invited to vote yes or no. Usually, a 50% majority needs to be achieved in a particular amount of time for the vote to succeed.

This idea is really dumb. For one thing, when you’re in a race, you need all your controls for, you know, actually driving. You don’t have time to navigate through a menu of players and find the “vote kick” button.

Secondly, racing is spread out throughout the circuit. It’s highly unlikely that other players have seen the incident that caused you to press the “vote kick” button at all, so they’re not in a position to make a fair judgement on whether to remove the “offending” player.

This is a “better than nothing” solution, but barely. It’s a clear sign that the developer has not properly thought about or implemented a decent system.

The safety rating system

In this system, each player is given a rating or number of some sort, to indicate how safe their driving has been over the course of their online career in a particular game.

To use iRacing as an example, you will rack up “incident points” for things like leaving the track, facing the wrong way on the track, or making contact with another vehicle. Rack up enough points in any given race, and your overall rating will take a hit. Keep it clean, and your rating will increase.

Not only is your rating visible to other players, giving an indication of what they can expect when they’re out on the track with you, but it also limits entry into some types of events if it is too low.

On paper, this is the best possible system. It rewards players for safe driving and punishes players who are reckless or who drive without knowing the circuit properly. In practice, there are still issues.

For example, in iRacing, if you accidentally bump another vehicle from behind, both you and the other driver pick up incident points for the collision. The server has no way to determine who was to blame, so it simply punishes any contact whatsoever, on both sides.

If you’re unlucky enough to suffer multiple collisions, none of which were your fault, you can be punished for this despite doing nothing wrong.

In practice, over the longer term, safer drivers will always have fewer collisions than reckless ones, so the “not my fault” issue only really occurs over the short term.

The safety rating system requires a persistent online account and dedicated servers, and this is an issue for a lot of developers.

A yellow Renault Sport GT car

In the old days, multiplayer gaming just meant one of the people in your group joining the game as “host” to start a server, and then everyone else joining that server. No persistence: once the game ended, the server died and there was nothing to remember who the players were or how they performed.

Nowadays, persistence is not so much of a problem: on Xbox and PlayStation, you need to sign into an account to get online in the first place, and on PC, it’s common to have some sort of system like Steam to handle accounts.

The real issue is dedicated servers run by the game developer or publisher: what is the incentive for a publisher to run and maintain online servers, when they can just offload that expense and hassle to the player by not offering dedicated servers?

The benefits of dedicated servers for the gamer are real: a good quality server that is known to be running a legitimate and fair version of the game and isn’t going to suddenly go offline when the host player rage quits and throws their controller across the room.

The benefits to developers and publishers are non-existent, except that dedicated servers might be a “feature” that can be advertised to help sales, but this has to be justified against the cost of keeping them running, and it probably does not equate to enough additional units sold in order to make that justification.

Then there’s the issue of splitting the community: generally, developers and publishers want as many people to be available for online games as possible, in order to minimise the waiting time and ensure that servers are full or near capacity.

By introducing a system that excludes reckless drivers from certain servers, although this is of benefit for everyone (yes, even the reckless drivers, who get to drive with other reckless drivers and see just how frustrating it is to have their own behaviour reflected back at them), it’s not of much benefit for the developers or publishers.

A post-race rating system

This is a newer idea that has been introduced into games like Forza Motorsport 7 but not really noticed by many people.

The idea is that you can compliment or criticise another driver, a bit like a Facebook “like”, after the race, based on your interactions with that player in the race itself. If someone drove respectfully and avoided unnecessary collisions, you would rate that driver upwards, and those drivers who chose to use your car as a brake would get rated downwards.

The issue in Forza 7 is that this system is way less than obvious. If the developers had truly had the confidence to carry this idea through properly, the game would know which drivers you spent the most time battling with in any given race, and prompt you to rate their behaviour afterwards.

There are potential issues here: gamers would naturally tend to rate another player down just because they couldn’t beat that player. It’s human nature, unfortunately.

However, this kind of system will benefit from the law of averages, in that consistently bad behaviour will end up getting rated down, and consistently good behaviour will end up getting rated up.

This type of system will only work if players are prompted to interact with it, not hidden away in some obscure menu item, and it will only work if developers are willing to separate badly behaved players from better ones, preventing them from playing on the “good” servers.

Forza Horizon 4: Rear view of a BMW M5 against rolling hills, at sunrise

Educating the ignorant

I feel that no racing game really offers an education in racing. I distinguish “racing” from “driving” here because they are separate skills. One player might be able to set very good lap times on his own, but when placed on a track with others, can’t behave sensibly.

It’s quite possible that most of the more “casual” crowd don’t understand how to race, despite knowing roughly how to drive.

When approaching the first corner of the race, everyone has to slow down. If there are cars in front of you, you have to brake earlier than they do, otherwise you will cause a collision. This means your braking point is earlier than it would otherwise be, later in the race.

When defending a corner, pick a side of the track and stay on that side. If you try to swerve violently across the track to prevent the car behind from overtaking, not only will this cause a collision, but we call this a “dick move.”

These are concept that are not present in single player racing against AI. Players are not punished for crashing into computer-controlled cars or using dangerous tactics. This leads to the same lack of responsibility when those players go online.

It’s down to developers to offer players the chance to learn how to race, before going online and wreaking havoc on everyone else.

A carrot and a stick

Carrots are better than sticks. Have you ever tried to eat a stick?

Developers could offer several tiers of server to players, requiring a specific safety rating for each tier. To limit the splitting of the community, perhaps three tiers would be a minimum: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Your online experience would begin in the “ugly” tier, right at the bottom, unless you were willing to undergo a few single player sessions first.

Perhaps drive round the circuit 3 times in a row, under a specific time, without leaving the track. Perhaps overtake a series of AI vehicles, in a specific time, without touching any of them.

This would grant access to a higher tier immediately, so players who already know how to race safely are not forced to be around dangerous drivers.

Good online racing games are like environmentalism

There’s absolutely no incentive at all for developers and publishers to listen to any of the points I’ve raised above. It’s not going to make them more money, or produce better single player racing experiences, or better graphics, or more responsive controls.

It’s purely for player benefit, so in that way, it’s like environmentalism. Why recycle? It’s harder than just chucking something in the trash. Why bring your own bags to the grocery store? It’s a pain to have to remember that. There’s no benefits to me, the developer, in being environmentally conscious.

It’s purely that to developers, the players and their experiences are your Earth, and you’re destroying it. It’s time to decide whether your priority lies with furnishing your wallet, or saving the (metaphorical) Earth.

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