Fast is the beating heart of the racing genre. Fast is the primal thrill, the desire lurking deep in the reptile brain. Because legs did not have enough fast, wheels were invented, artificial appendages, to make more fast. When the heart and the muscles couldn’t keep up, when biology lacked a large enough power source, we invented engines – steam engines, combustion engines, rocket engines. Faster. And when we can’t go fast, when our brains desire but our bodies can’t, we build our toys to keep our brains moving.
Building a better fast takes more than increasing the speed. Criterion’s take on the venerable Need for Speed brand shows a deep understanding of the fast.
Velocity. There’s the number the game presents to the player, and the number the game is actually using. The most obvious and straightforward way to make a game faster is to, well, make it go faster. But how fast is Hot Pursuit, which has a practical cap of 250mph, next to F-Zero GX, which reports to be moving in excess of 900mph? Not some small fraction, certainly – no one would argue Hot Pursuit looks to move at a quarter the speed. And while F-Zero is at least somewhat faster in absolute terms, it is not nearly as tense or high-strung an experience as Hot Pursuit, which truly is Criterion’s update of the racing side of Burnout. Does it feel faster to the player? Are those hard-earned clicks transferred into the experience of your user? F-Zero GX uses its speed to induce a flow-like state in the player, relaxed yet alert. Hot Pursuit is a better simulation of driving fast – it’s nerve-wracking, crazy, and occasionally unpredictable. Fast is more than the movement through the game world.
Visual Density. Presenting objects moving towards the player, and in contrast to the player’s movement, feeds the sense of speed. These are the bushes that zip by, the buildings dotting the side of the road, the trees rushing past, and even the AI-controlled cars. Many of these objects also have gameplay implications, but purely as visual events, they increase the sense of speed. These objects have always been an important part of racing games – 1976’s Night Driver had one graphic: white posts indicating the sides of the road. And it was more than enough to capture the essence of driving.
When the PlayStation and N64 were in their heyday, we saw massive, hideous clumps of billboarded alpha textures used for everything from bushes to trees, buildings, and spectators. It may not have been pretty, but it served that functional purpose of keeping things moving.
Hot Pursuit spends a large amount of its budget on the scenery. The courses are arranged as one large world of interconnected roads; individual scenarios are built by choosing sections and blocking off other routes. The map, set in southern California, includes a decent assortment of terrain types – rocky coast, mountain, desert, and redwood forest. The forest is perhaps the most interesting. The very dense trees make the speed of the game almost unbearable.
Games have been fast while eschewing these background elements. F-Zero is the most notable example, its sparse, open-air backgrounds give the game a bit of a sedate feel – while corners do happen quite fast, the in-between moments, the long stretches of road, pass by in a quieter state than they do in Hot Pursuit. A contrast is presented between the stripes and track patterns of F-Zero, whipping by, and the background, looming static and sedate. In Hot Pursuit, that separation disappears, and objects exist at all depths – many close-range objects, several medium range structures, and frequent glimpses of terrain elements, such as mountains or the ocean, to retain that majesty and visual interest.
Objects used to convey speed can be described as either being collidable objects or purely visual ones. Smaller objects like bushes often have no effect on the player’s vehicle, while larger objects such as trees, buildings, and other cars will often cause a crash. This is an area to tread lightly; the more collidable objects exist in the environment, the less tolerant of failure and the more hardcore the game becomes. Note how Mario Kart, despite its visually interesting environments, leaves the track relatively bare and wide open. Motorstorm, with its many stumps, posts, and general ‘screw-you’ elements, ends up being a much slower game, more difficult than its appearance belies. Hot Pursuit uses a traditional balance, with a relatively safe zone of about ten feet on either side of the roadway in which relatively few obstacles are placed, and beyond that, many large, deadly obstructions. The NPC cars are the exception; they are explicitly in the way of the player. However, their semi-random nature (players can confidently predict they are in more danger when driving on the wrong side of the road!) is used as a mild randomizer, to add some spice and danger to the game.
Responsiveness. This is the speed at which the player’s inputs become actions in the game world. Framerate is a major component of this, but even more important is the handling model, the way that the player’s vehicle reacts to input. Is it slow and ponderous, transmitting a feeling of a heavy machine, a few solid tons of steel? Or is it light and nimble, a futuristic hovercraft drifting on air?
Hot Pursuit, dancing between a serious sim and an arcade racer, goes with a model that suggests somewhat heavy cars. Steering feels like it takes place on an exponential curve; very little impact to begin with, followed by critical mass, which pushes the vehicle quickly in the intended direction. It’s difficult to get a handle on and gives the game a steeper learning curve than Criterion must have been intended. But it also makes maneuvering the vehicles at high speeds more tense, as the player is keenly aware that the situation can easily get out of hand. Traffic ahead may be spotted with 5 seconds of reaction time, but can still be nerve-wracking to avoid as the player is engaged in gentle nudging, attempting to shift the car slightly without inducing a steep turn.
Does this make the game feel faster? No. By making the act of maneuvering around obstacles more difficult, this limits the number of obstacles the designers can place in the player’s way. A game with instantly responsive vehicles, on the other hand, can throw much more at the player while expecting them to respond. The more actions the player is taking within a shorter span of time, the greater the sense of speed.
However. The steering model chosen by Hot Pursuit is still an engaging one. Its fiddliness scales well at speeds; it allows for obstacles to be a threat all the way from 100 mph up to 250. It keeps the player keen and alert at all times, well aware that a great run can easily be undone. And with skilled placement of obstacles (particularly traffic distribution), the game can feel much more challenging than it is, limiting these ‘steering events’ to every fifteen seconds or so.
Encouraged Behavior. Hot Pursuit, as a successor to Burnout, rewards players for risky driving – getting too close to traffic, driving in the wrong lane, long drifts. When players are encouraged to take these actions they are given the incitement to voluntarily increase the difficulty of the game. It’s a mechanic similar to shortcuts, allowing more skilled players the ability to double down, serving many of the functions that betting plays in a game of poker.
Pickups serve a similar role in other games, giving players the option of attempting a more difficult route to acquire useful tools. Again, Mario Kart shows the accessible counterpoint – pickups are plentiful and rarely require the player to go out of their way to acquire. One must be careful to avoid being behind another player when they are given, however.
Action Density. This is the number of actions the player is required to perform simultaneously or in close succession. Think about the skill curve of a player: they start always holding down the accelerator and simply steering the vehicle. After ‘press the button’ has been mastered, they learn to use the brake on tight turns, to avoid that unfortunate crashing business. Note that more accessible games allow a player to get very far without moving beyond this step – Mario Kart assumes most players will never move into drifting, and the track designers appear hardly aware the brake button exists.
While braking, the player is using a combination of acceleration, braking, and steering to move around corners. They must learn how to brake when easing into a corner and accelerate at the apex. They learn the timing required for different grades of curve. And all these actions must be done in a shorter timeframe than simple turning, as the player is now moving faster through these corners.
Generally, drifting mechanics come last. Applying brake and gas in the proper order and feeling when to snap loose traction from the back wheels is a complex and multi-layered skill. Watch a player drifting in a game like Hot Pursuit. They pull the triggers in quick succession, and then begin moving the analog stick back and forth, back and forth, pulling it in some mystical combination that will keep the car moving in a tangential direction. But they’re not doing it randomly. Subtle cues – sound, tactile, and visual – are being relayed to the player about the state of grip. They are feathering the analog stick to keep the angle of the car in a desired sweet spot. Muscle memory is in effect, guiding the player based on hours of experience where they stand on that balance beam. In fact, this act would best be analogized as a balance beam – a character with a possibility of falling off either side, with constant adjustments needed to their angle. A certain button combination is used to induce the state, and a certain time duration of good balance breaks out of it.
F-Zero works in a similar way, and this pushes it to feel faster than its “relatively” sedate visuals would indicate. A player operating the game at a high level is constantly shifting in and out of drift mode, applying the shunt-like air-brakes, and maneuvering their craft in a way that seems impossible upon first introduction. Wipeout, which has a faster speed than F-Zero but less complicated drifting mechanics, comes across as weaker for it. It can only rely on the visual indicators of speed and the movement of (very dangerous) obstacles. As a result the game is very difficult, with constant punishment for hitting one of the fast moving obstacles. Without other elements to sell speed, frustration and fast go hand-in-hand. Player skill is pushed into learning track layouts over mastering vehicle handling. It creates the barrier to entry that makes modern updates like Wipeout HD feel dated.
As a tool of fast, the layering of actions is key. The human sense of time is fluid – in periods of high stress or learning, time can appear to slow down. Give the brain a simple, repetitive task, say, driving the everyday route to work, and time can disappear. Counter-intuitively, the state of slowed time induced by high-stress gives the greatest feeling of speed in a racing game. The mind can look in on itself and be amazed by its ability – Wow, I did all that in that short of time? – and the sense that things are really moving is enhanced.
Clearly, then, the designer must get the player to the skill level wherein they are applying the level of complex actions to truly feel a sense of speed, to marvel at their own ability. Games are naturally excellent tools for training but racing games seem to be falling down when it comes to bringing players up to higher skill levels. Because so many factors go into a player’s performance in a race, vehicle handling, the fundamental skill, can be neglected as the balance between vehicle speeds, track difficulty, and AI aggressiveness can all be put on a curve to guide a player through a game. It is extremely common for a racing game to allow a player without enough fundamental skill to progress a fair distance into the game, and then abandon them without the tools to get better or understand the flaws in their technique as they just can’t win races anymore. The player may be perfectly capable at the track layout, avoiding crashes, and aggressively blocking, but they have not learned to use the advanced techniques and so a hidden barrier is preventing them from progressing.
Giving the difficulty of training players to use drifting mechanics (commonly, players are told how to induce it and left to fend for themselves, leaving those who do manage to try it convinced of its uselessness after they immediately crash), perhaps a visual guide indicating balance and showing the sweet spot would be a useful training aid.
Hot Pursuit is no better at this training. Rather, the proliferation of events and secondary victory conditions alleviates this issue until it becomes a problem for players. As a cop, players have access to weapons. Use of them constitutes a secondary skill, and a player good at the weapons can cover up for poor racing fundamentals. Indeed, these pursuit events seem to be poorly balanced compared to the rest of the game, coming in way too easy.
Played as intended, these elements are much to the credit of the game. Layering driving skill with smart weapon skill can be great fun. And they make the game more accessible to new players – by giving them an area to do well at besides driving, with which they may still be fumbling, they can feel empowered earlier on. It’s flashy, loud, and spectacular. But it disguises the proper skill progression, a sticking point in the racing genre.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is a fast game. It’s faster than F-Zero and blazes past Wipeout. And it does this through its game mechanics rather than technical speed. The speed and density at which objects fly past the player, the handling of the cars, and the density of actions required ensure that at the end of each race, the player’s heart is pounding. And you know what? I think that’s the real test of how fast a racing game is. That’s the real test of any fast-paced game. When the player stops, when you deign to give them a break, have they physically reacted to your game?
Cross-posted at the Game Design Guild.