Get Set Go!
Racing games have always been one of the most sought-after genres in gaming. Unleashing the beast within you on public roads is impossible because you may have a banger of a motor vehicle and the driving skills on multiple terrain types to keep up with it, but parameters like public safety and rules will keep the rally monster within oneself in check. As much as there is a need for speed, there is also the need for safety. Not everyone can set lap records on the tracks. For those people and for gamers who are into racing, sports racing games are a bargain.
The Evolution of Racing Games
The inception of racing games dates back as early as the 70s. Games like Space Race (the 70s), Pole Position (the 80s), and the superhit phenomenon Super Mario Kart (the 90s) served as the foundation for racing games of the future.
Then the NFS series followed suit and were trendsetters in the racing genre. Rockstar hit gold with the Midnight Club Series, which the fans still love.
But something changed in these games. With the evolution of graphics, tracks, and terrains, racing games evolved into something more than just racing.
The Open World Phenomenon
Today we have games like Forza, The Crew, and the Need for Speed franchises which have changed the racing game dynamics and ecosystem altogether.
The graphics have consistently improved in the past years, and the recent release — Forza Horizon 5 has ultra-realistic graphics thanks to the superb hardware in the new generation of consoles.
A vast fleet of vehicles are available in racing games today, some even licensed, with accurate vehicle sounds and even emulating handling to an extent.
But all these were cherries on the cake.
Sandbox and RPG games made open-world games the norm, and the rest is history. What’s interesting here is the opportunity brought upon the racing games.
Racing games were limited to terrains like tarmac and closed tracks; at best, the players could loiter around the urban jungle.
All this changed with the infusion of the open-world map in the racing genre. The prospect of exploring an open world in their favorite automobile was suddenly possible and a lucrative option for sports racing gamers.
Is An Open-World Game Really “Open World”?
‘Open-world game’ is a term that’s thrown around the gaming industry quite generously. The hype and demand around it are such that many studios are willing to bank on making an open-world racing game without fully grasping what the player really wants from an open-world game.
Games like Forza, the new Need for Speed series, and recently the Crew series offered players enhanced terrain exploration, a basic, and fundamental aspect for an open world racing game in this day and time. The expectations for the future are only going to be higher.
Even a relatively old game franchise like the Test Drive Unlimited Series got the exploration part right, making it a sleeper hit that attained cult status amongst fans. Players were allowed to explore multiple terrains on the map, which was relatively unique to its time.
But the open-world phenomenon has brought in many games that are open world for the sake of it. Sure, oodles of unexplored terrain are fascinating, and ups the probability of player exploration.
But what happens once the players have explored?
A Good Racing Game is Powered by a Rich Map
With off-road vehicles becoming a standard in racing games, terrain diversity is now accessible to players. Acres of open-world space that is dull, can get old real soon once the players come across it.
Racing games have recreated cities like Tokyo, Paris, and even the whole United States, which is phenomenal, but let’s look a little deeper.
Creating such mammoth open-world games requires an astronomical budget and hundreds of developers working at full capacity.
Even after all this, there are caveats.
Acres of open-world space may be visually exhilarating but, can get old real soon once the players explore it.
Area is one; density of the map is another aspect critical to the gameplay value.
At this point, it may seem there is an insane level of expectations from the studios to keep players happy.
Striking the Right Balance Between the Map and the Density
We’ve seen poorly designed open-world games that were bashed by gamers and critics for being monotonous and sparsely populated, just a massive open world with nothing to do.
In the meanwhile, we’ve also seen some games that had truly magical open worlds. Densely filled with a ton of activities and uniquely populated that brings life to the user’s gameplay experience. Such games were financially successful and also lauded by players for a wholesome gaming experience.
Striking a balance is not as complex as it may seem. What’s imperative here is the value addition to gameplay. Increasing the in-game time of the player is the keyword.
But can every player be won over?
A Diverse Player Base Requires a Personalized Touch
There are racing games for every type of player in the market today. Rally is a prime example for someone who likes the gymkhana set-up and more of an off-tarmac race game.
Games like Driver and even Euro Truck Simulator (and American Truck Simulator) have a significant base, which has given birth to a sub-genre in racing — exploration. These may be driving simulators, but with the amount of userbase it’s racking up, businesses can’t ignore them.
So, these games may have a lot of differences in their DNA and pedigree, but one thing is for sure. They attract a diverse crowd that looks to achieve something out of these games.
Finding out what works for every player may sound like mission impossible, but it’s quite the contrary.
Players want certain aspects in racing maps. It is extremely challenging to create one map that fits all the requirements of every single player of a particular game.
We’ve seen leaps and bounds in the advancement of Artificial Intelligence in games. From pixel art, simple levels, and predictable enemies to AI-based in-game graphical enhancements to complex multilayered levels and dynamic boss levels and NPCs (non-playable characters); the industry has evolved and moved on to greener pastures.
Non-hardcore racing games like Fortnite have understood map terrain technology and executed them quite effectively. Popular maps like the Ultimate Smash arena were created by users, which is good news for developers and studios.
What if they don’t have to worry so much?
Track/Terrain Optimization is the Key to Player Engagement and Retention
Race games have a large player base, so selling a good race game is never an issue, per se. But how long do players spend in a game once they’ve beaten the story?
Studios can capture in-game player statistics and analyze them to understand how they can provide something for every type of player.
For example, Forza gets regular DLC map updates that get hype from the player base, getting more mileage out of the game. They take feedback from active users and then pump out post-game release content to keep players engaged, which increases player retention.
This is nothing but the use of track/terrain optimization to provide personalized in-game map activities to the players. By using real-time data, studios can paint a picture of their userbase, differentiate types of users, and provide something for everyone by optimizing the map terrain.
Rocket League has been successfully bringing new challenges and events for players. They’ve been successful in keeping a healthy player base and are still soaring high in concurrent users 6 years after release.
Racing games have a diverse user base. Unlike yesteryear race games, players expect longevity and gameplay value from maps. Some are track dwellers, looking to set lap records and leave tire marks on every corner. Then, there are wanderlusts that go off-road and do some dune-bashing. Some just want to drive around and aren’t interested in competition, but are still up for a time challenge.
There is a penchant for user-created maps in games, and the trend is only going to go up. The freedom to create in-game events that matter to specific users, be it challenging hairpin bends, booster pickups, or napalm for pure unadulterated fun is a gameplay aspect that adds significant value to the game and increases its shelf life.
Players value the shared gameplay experience with their friends and have loads of fun in the maps they’ve created. But there’s something for companies to learn from this, a value proposition that can redefine studios’ approach towards creating maps.
Companies can leverage data from the user-created maps to understand what certain groups of players want and create maps that are not just ‘open worlds’ for bragging rights. These maps will have a lot of value in terms of playability and user retention.
Environmental aspects like weather changes, track damage, off-road terrain conditions, and dynamic difficulty levels will keep players engaged for hundreds of hours of gameplay. Businesses can optimize budget and yet create such rich maps both in terms of density and area with a ton of fun activities, with good returns from players in terms of in-game hours.
Being able to predict player engagement is an ace in the hole and with the right arsenal, gaming studios have much to look forward to. Creating an AAA level map with events, and activities for a diverse set of players is not impossible. Even a ludicrous budget is not necessary if the right pain points can be addressed.
The data is ready to be churned out, analyzed, and used for critical additions like updates. There are analytics and AI gurus with gaming pedigree and skills to take on these challenges with cutting-edge tech. A co-op session between studios and these gurus can lay the groundwork to successfully completing the mission of player retention in sports games via track/terrain optimization.