Since 2005 when the next generation of consoles were ushered in with the XBOX 360, the racing game genre has seen a healthy amount of improvements. These have ranged from simple graphical upgrades to under-the-hood systems that rely more heavily on physics and real world car performance than ever before. We've also seen an incredible breadth of interpretations of what a racing video game is and what it can be. Everything from car combat, arcade racers, hardcore simulations, licensed racing games, kart-inspired games and a few games that defy labels.
In the past seven years we’ve seen titles ranging from the traditionally arcade focused: Ridge Racer 6, Sega Rally Revo, Project Gotham Racing, the Need for Speed series, and Midnight Club: Los Angeles.
Combat focused driving games: Full Auto, Burnout Revenge, Burnout Paradise, and the Motorstorm series on PS3.
More simulation focused games: the DiRT games, Race Pro, Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo 5, NASCAR 2011: The Game, and F1 2011.
The MMO-like: Test Drive Unlimited series and the superb downloadable Trials HD and Trials Evolution (coming soon, I hope).
There have also been some major failures, including Pimp My Ride, Split/Second, Blur, and MX vs ATV Alive.
There was even the hard to describe Driver: San Francisco!
Are racing games slowing speeding away?
The question in 2012 is where do we go from here? The recent lukewarm reception of Need for Speed: The Run has caused many analysts and racing gamers to pause and reflect on where we've been and where we're going. Where are the new ideas going to come from? What can be done to freshen up the racing genre, and recapture the wider gaming audience that it once enjoyed? Will the PS Vita help give the genre a much needed push? Will we see a single new innovation that increases immersion? Will the downloadable games space become the breeding ground for innovation? Where is Road Rash!? I don't think anymore questions are needed.
I think we've already started to see some of the necessary innovation with EA's Autolog feature and Forza Motorsport 4's car clubs and content sharing. Going forward however, there will have to be more to keep the genre moving forward. Racing games have been stuck in neutral recently with high quality titles such as Dirt 3 and Driver: San Francisco struggling to find solid sales in a crowded console games market.
The genre no longer has clear-cut differences between arcade and sim the way many gamers have always tried to categorize them. The racing games of today have truly blurred the lines between arcade and simulation. Take for example, the ability to rewind a crash or a poorly timed slam of the brakes in Forza Motorsport 4, a completely simulation experience by almost every standard. Look at Need for Speed: Shift 2 with its simulation inspired “Helmet Cam” in a traditionally arcade space. Wild variation in physics models, racing focus and track types further blur the lines. The only sure thing is that difficulty and accessibility, along with strong AI, will continue to be key in the future.
Clearly in order to keep racing games relevant in a sea of AAA titles every year, some new ideas are going to have to be brought to the table. To no one’s surprise, developers have tapped out the power of the current consoles in this generation. Unfortunately it leaves racing fans in sort of a limbo right now. So you have to look outside of the traditional upgrades that you expect in a console racing game.
Like it or not, the DLC model in racing games is here to stay. New cars and track content that extend the life cycle of racers will be huge. The business model of micro transactions has gone the way that many gamers feared that it would. It’s deeply ingrained in almost every game and every genre now. So barring a mass gamer revolt, they are here to stay.
Maybe an MMO type racing game like the Test Drive Unlimited games could be the answer. EA’s Autolog was lauded with praise for bringing gamers a more social experience. If you’ve ever played Test Drive Unlimited, then you have seen the potential that exists there. An always on, persistent world where you can find a race anytime, day or night. Expand that to include more content, regular new content, and a larger variety of events, and you could have a sustainable console MMO.
What about the popular free-to-play arena, mostly seen on the PC right now? Could it become the future for racing games? MX vs. ATV Alive tried something similar, but didn’t take it all the way. THQ offered a very basic version of the game for $40 and then tried to sell upgrades through DLC. Gamers pretty much universally rejected the idea. A true free-to-play game however, with a rich content set and compelling upgrades could be a success. Look no further than the success of the games like Farmville to see the potential. It’s just a matter of time before someone makes the free-to-play model viable and profitable on consoles. Racing games could be the genre to push it along.
Even Forza might start losing steam.
With Codemasters taking an arcade sidestep for its next DiRT installment, Twisted Metal’s unique car combat on the way for PS3, Ridge Racer Unbounded coming for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 and Test Drive: Ferrari Legends coming to PS3 and Xbox 360, the console market still has some intriguing racing titles coming in 2012.
The question is, can any of those racing titles compete with the likes of Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport and Need for Speed in the shrinking racing genre? If you look at the most successful titles in the last few years, you’ll see that they have made a name for themselves among gamers through sticking with a basic formula and catering to their audience.
Here are a few other ideas for injecting some new life into the racing genre.
Different Pay Models
Again, this has to do with finding the balance between a full retail releases with DLC or trying the free-to-play model and offering up a serious suite of features that gamers will actually want to add to the game. Turning towards Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Store for quality releases (see: Trials HD) is another intriguing option. The low cost of entry is appealing while the limitation is obviously one of initial content. However, add-ons are regularly sold for downloadable titles so that’s another possible variation on the retail vs. free-to-play models.
Motion Controls That Make Sense
It’s really quite amazing to me that both Microsoft and Sony are this far into the era of HD motion gaming and neither has found a way to smartly integrate motion controls to truly augment the traditional experience. Every effort that I’ve seen seems tacked on as an afterthought. Short of an expensive and bulky steering wheel setup, using the Kinect and Playstation Move to control the action seems like the natural fit for the racing genre. Maybe Microsoft or Sony should build a new racing IP completely around motion control, and really flesh it out. Both Microsoft and Sony could really use a killer app to boost sales of their motion control hardware. This could also draw in non-gamers who might never otherwise try a racing game, fearing the complexity of the game. We’ve all seen how motion controls have had the ability to appeal to a wider audience.
We’ve all seen the cool cross market promotions and tie-ins in other games. We saw an interesting promotion with Mortal Kombat, featuring Kratos in the game for PS3. Dead or Alive 4 had the Halo Spartan. What if the next Need for Speed had the Batmobile or the motorcycle from Ghost Rider 2? Custom painted cars are extremely cool and popular in Forza 4’s auction house. So how cool would it be to have the full, licensed automobile?
What if the next DiRT had classic Euro touring cars or special futbol cars? How about bringing back the mini-games and stunts from Flatout 2? Who wouldn’t want to use modern car destruction and physics in events like the high jump, bowling, ski-jump, field goals and the classic dartboard toss! Include online head-to-head play and leaderboards and you’ve got a fun addition to your standard racing game.
What about a NASCAR game with classic paint schemes from the 70s, 80s and 90s? Product placement is certainly nothing new in video games, but the point is that there are many opportunities to tie in various other aspects of entertainment. Put these in the game as rewards for playing, don’t make them DLC. Beyond special crossover cars, let’s try to really think out the box here.
Bring back my Easter Eggs!
As we enter the 2012 market, racing fans will have some solid choices. The question is will those options be compelling enough to keep the genre from shrinking even further?