Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Night Forza: Driver Mentalities

In terms of simulation the physics of the driving models in racing games like Forza Motorsport or Race Pro are usually what receives the attention critically, and for good reason too; If the physics and dynamics of racing a car quickly around a race track do not feel right -- regardless of whether it’s a controller or steering wheel being used -- then the illusion is broken and the experience becomes less enjoyable. Or worse, dull. Get it right, however, and it can be an exhilarating, fulfilling experience that is probably as close to real life racing as one can get in a virtual sense. But just because handling is the main focus that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other aspects of racing that are being simulated simultaneously.

Driving a race car consistently, precisely and most importantly, quickly, is an incredibly complex and involving task. Not only do drivers in real life need to manage the physical side -- acceleration, braking, gear changing and, of course, steering* -- they also have to manage racing mentally, and it’s here where racing sims do a pretty remarkable job of capturing the mental processes a driver has to go through not just throughout a race but in preparation for one as well.

Most real life race weekends follow a schedule that allows for drivers to learn the track; test various car setups that suit not only the track but its conditions as well (sunny, overcast, rainy, etc.); secure their position on the starting grid; and then, eventually, the race. The thought process in the approach to each session -- practice, qualifying or the race -- differs based on the performance of the car, the goals the driver or team may have, and the experience with how the track may or may not change over the course of the weekend. In practice for example, the mindset is relatively relaxed and it’s here where experimentation with setup, different racing lines and when to be on the track versus being in the pits can be used to potentially improve the prospects for the overall weekend. In qualifying, the mindset shifts to one lap dashes (usually involving three laps: the out/warm up lap, the actual lap where a decent time is hopefully set, and the in lap on the way back to the pits) where concentration, focus and absolute precision is necessary to set and achieve the best lap time. Arguably, it’s here where the track really does become like a tunnel, the driver’s vision not focused on anything else except what’s in front at the time. I’ll explain this “tunnel vision” phenomenon in a little more detail in my next post. Lastly we have the actual race, where the mindset once again shifts and all eyes point towards a victory. Concentration isn’t necessarily focused on precision -- though it helps -- with the location of competitor vehicles being important, and avoiding any collisions is crucial.

Something that both surprised and impressed me while playing Forza Motorsport 3 is just how amazingly realistic it is in recreating the various mindsets a driver has. Of course, to speed up the process and not alienate the more impatient audience of gamers out there, the way race events are presented in these games is significantly different to the way a normal race weekend pans out, but this is mostly irrelevant. Instead of practice sessions or qualifying, racing games have testing (for the tuners out there) and time trial modes, not to mention quick races or free runs. It’s in these modes that the varying mental approaches appear, and in reality it doesn’t matter what a mode or session is called because the end result is going to be the same thing.

I’m a fairly passionate person about time trial modes, as I enjoy the challenge in being as precise and perfect as I possibly can. As far as Forza 3 is concerned, I have a goal in mind to be in the top 200 people around the world for each specific time trial event, and, if possible, the various hot lap leaderboards as well. It’s a big ask but based on my experience with Forza 2, it’s entirely possible and I’ve already got a few decent times down. When I’m on the track pushing to be as perfect as I can be, my mind is focused entirely on precision, and getting the best out of the track and car I’m in. My focus is literally that of the tunnel vision I’ve already alluded to, and the side and background detail of a track -- including the walls if it’s a street circuit -- is ignored without even realising it. It’s just me, the racing line, and the clock, and if anything else enters into my concentration span then I’m not at the peak of my potential ability. This is a big contrast to how I approach a race, where, as in all racing games, all I care about is winning -- both for the progression throughout a game and because that is the ultimate position. Failure to win means restarting or retrying a race until that victory is secured, and anything else is just trivial distraction until that is achieved. This changes again when it comes to approaching, say, an online race against real people (as opposed to AI); the desire to win remains as strong as ever but the variables are different, so the approach needs to be. Racing against the AI cars is serviceable but mostly predictable: assuming how they will react as I make a pass or block my line into a corner results in relatively easy outcomes with very few surprises. Racing real people, on the other hand, is unpredictable: the lines that they take, how deep (or early) they will brake into a corner or whether they will try to ram you as you make a pass are just some of the unknown factors against real people. This unpredictability can make online racing really exciting, but also has more potential for collisions, unfair competitors and less of a chance to actually win. The differences in the various approaches I take depending on what I do in the game is remarkable, and extremely similar to how a real race driver would adapt to the conditions they may have to face.

Exit Strategy

At any given time on the track, a driver’s thought process can be focused on a multitude of things depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Ranging from how they took the previous corner to whether they are close enough to an opponent’s car to make a pass, decisions are constantly being made based on what is being presented at the time. It’s no different in a racing simulation game.

I may not realise it while playing, but I too am making decision after decision as I make my way around a track, and as you’d expect, the choices I make will either help or hinder the outcome of my race. For example, exiting the final corner of America’s famous race track Laguna Seca can present many different situations to deal with. As I exit, I could be thinking about my throttle application because I may have gone wide (off the racing line); started to accelerate too early (thus inducing wheel spin); or because I’m trying to get the best exit possible. This latter point can be for two reasons: to end a fast lap as precisely and as quickly as I possibly can, in order to obtain a decent lap time, or, to get the best run down the short straight as I can in order to hopefully make a pass heading into turn one. This second situation gives yet more possibilities: am I close enough to my opponent’s car to slipstream him? What about close enough to brake later than him into the first corner? Or do I need to patiently bide my time, because I’m not close enough, and wait for another opportunity to pass? While thinking about these potential scenarios and what to do with them, I also have to be mindful of what my opponents are doing, too. They could be aggressive and therefore hard to pass; they might not see me alongside them heading towards the corner and so when they turn into it like normal, they cause a collision; or they could be slow -- either because they had a poor exit from the corner or because there’s something wrong with their car -- meaning I have to be careful not to ram into the back of them because I’m going faster.

These are just some of the potential situations that can occur leaving the final corner of Laguna Seca. There are plenty more, and that increases exponentially once you consider the rest of the corners -- including the famous Corkscrew -- that make up the Californian track. And that was just one example! The mental prowess required to not only race quickly but competitively and precisely is amazing, and now that I have noticed it I am impressed by just how well racing simulation games manage to replicate that complexity yet still maintain the fun factor videogames are usually known for. The intriguing thing though is that despite all of this, motorsport is mostly a reactionary sport which relies on reflex and quick thinking as opposed to careful consideration and planning. You can strategise for a race as much as you want but at the end of the day, once you’re out on the track and the light has gone green, it’s just you, your opponents, and the path to victory -- it’s up to you to deal with whatever comes your way, and it will always be the drivers who are best at doing this that will come out on top.

*A lot of people assume motorsport is just a hand-based sport but it is as much a foot skill as it is a hand skill.

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