Saturday, July 11, 2009

Progressive Victory

I have been playing Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo 5: Prologue recently and, as you'd expect from someone who is a massive fan of the franchise, I have enjoyed it immensely.

Returning to the series is like riding a bicycle; it wasn't long until I was comfortable with the controls and completely immersed in the racing I was doing. As an experienced fan, I was paying attention to the new features such as Gran Turismo TV or the online play, as well as more aesthetic features like which cars were included (nice to finally see Ferrari) and of course those stunning graphics.

Making my way through the game's series of events, I came across a race that was quite hard. Not in the frustrating or annoying sense, just difficult in achieving the gold medal in the time required for the event. It was three laps around Fuji Speedway with the goal being to finish first after starting at the back of the grid. Conveniently opponent cars got in the way through some corners, impeding and slowing progress that ultimately hurt when it came to catching and then passing first place. It took multiple retries before I was successful and while attempting it, a thought came across my mind -- why do racing games always expect the player to win, in order to progress?

Now I could have easily settled for second or third place. The game would have given me the respective medal, classed the event as passed and I could have continued on into the next one. Most games have a similar system where a podium finish is enough to pass an event, but these are video games we're talking about, we're meant to win if we are to claim that we have successfully beaten a racing game.

That's fine, race drivers in real life all aim to win and it's a goal we as players should be happy to strive for, but the thing is, it's easy to strive for victory but it's another thing entirely to actually achieve it in the real world. It is literally impossible for someone to win every single race they participate in due to the random and unpredictable nature of motorsport. Drivers could be involved in a crash, a race could be canceled, a mechanical failure could mean that a particular driver's race is over or, more likely, your opposition could surprise you and be better than you on the day, be it due to skill, luck, or the fact that his team had the better car setup suited to that particular track. It's just the way it is in Motorsport.

Which is precisely why it strikes me as a little odd that racing games, particularly ones designed to simulate real life and/or the various official championships out there, rely on the idea that every race must be won in order for that game to be completed 100%. It is both a good and bad thing. It's good because as much as they are representing the real world, these games are not real life and outside of your own expectations with a given title no one else is going to care whether you have successfully obtained every Gold medal or whether you only nabbed half of them. On the other hand, it's bad because they are representing the real world; they are designed to provide players with the chance to race cars from their favourite manufacturers or Motorsport categories, around their favourite real life circuits and to enjoy it since, obviously, the majority of people won't get to do such a thing in real life. If the intention behind these games is to provide players with that experience, then surely the ideal goal of winning everything is a misguided one since it would be easy to assume that someone interested in such an experience would already be aware of the fact that winning every race is impossible? Most of these games already feature a championship mode of some sort so using it and structuring player progress with other, more realistic and clearly defined goals over the course of a given championship seems like a better option to pursue than the 'win everything' mentality that racing games currently follow. It could even be combined with another prominent mode in these games, the career mode. Generally, these are designed to loosely simulate how a driver rises up in the ranks, starting out in the lower categories with cars that are usually slower and gradually progressing into the faster, more popular cars as they gain experience and reputation. Combining the two could see a driver (IE: the player) climbing the ranks as (s)he completes multiple championships, their reputation and invitations to drive in new and different categories based on how they have performed over an entire championship rather than by the fact they won one or all of the races. Instead of the goal to win everything, have more realistic goals such as finish in 5th place or better in the overall championship standings with the player being able to progress if this is successfully achieved. If not, then it wouldn't be such a bad thing to have them compete in the championship(s) again as it's quite common in the real world for drivers to compete in a championship multiple years in succession until they have achieved their individual goals or because they enjoy the particular category. This would further add to the realism that these games are trying to portray, hopefully in turn providing players with a more enjoyable experience.

Of course, it's a fine line to manage -- what should and should not be included to provide a simulated experience but one that is also enjoyable, both to the intended audience and also to one that may decide on a whim to try it out. Too much realism can alienate potential audiences, putting them off the game, the franchise and even the genre. Not enough realism alienates the core audience and leaves them feeling unsatisfied. This reliance on victory to dictate a player's progress throughout a racing game seems like a move that would only further alienate players and their enjoyment, which is why I believe it's time for developers to find other ways to effectively show a player's progress whilst not imposing unrealistic expectations upon them. The example above is just one possible direction, I'm sure there are plenty of others and I hope to see them one day in future racing titles.

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