Sunday, February 17, 2013

Racing games are dying? (part 1)

For my first 'proper' entry I decided to select a subject that's a bit open to debate and in which I'm particularly interested in. I like playing racing games and love working on them. They have a mix of technical and design challenges I find particularly interesting. Well, that and I love cars, particularly fast sport supercars, not that I've ever even driven one of those. That's one of the reasons why our first game as Eclipse Games was a racing game (Toy Cars) and why we're currently working on a sequel (Super Toy Cars).

Split/Second, the last game from Black Rock Studios

I worked at Black Rock Studio for 4 years. It was a company based in Brighton (UK) full of some of the most talented and enthusiast people I've had the pleasure of working with. It was specialized in developing racing games. It started in 1998 and went through various names while developing quite a few games, most of them racing games, for PS2, Xbox, PC, GameCube, Xbox 360 and PS3. Disney closed its doors in the Summer of 2011 after the lack of sales success with Pure and, particularly, Split/Second. One of the reasons that was given for that was that "racing games are dead". Not long before Bizarre Creations had been shut by Activision after having similar problems with Blur and James Bond 007: Blood Stone. More recently Sony has closed the Wipeout studio in Liverpool. It looks like there's a trend here. Racing studios seem to be in trouble. But, is it because racing games are really dead (or dying)?

Blur was a fun game

Racing games used to be a very popular genre. It has survived from almost the beginnings of this industry and through a number of different consoles and tech improvements. Some franchises are stuck in our collective memories, so that almost anyone that has played games has heard about Outrun, MicroMachines, Wipeout, Need for Speed, Mario Kart, Gran Turismo, Burnout or Forza. During early 2000s you could find a few racing games amongst the top sellers for any given year. Nowadays it's almost impossible and when it happens it's only for a few very recognisable franchises. And even some of those franchises like Need for Speed or Forza are seeing how their sales sore significantly - according to VGChartz, Forza: Horizon has sold considerably less than previous entries and I've heard the last Need for Speed is selling around a 20% less than previous entries too. If those giants are stumbling something's going wrong right?

The problem here is defining what 'dead' means. In this context, I understand it wants to say that AAA racing games are no longer economically viable. Spending $50M in a racing game is definitely a big gamble in today's market and it's proving to be too risky for publishers, as the studio closures suggest. Anyway, I think we should divide the discussion between simulators and arcade racing titles.

Forza Horizon, looking slick


 The subgenre of simulators seems to be faring better than arcade titles while still showing signs of weariness. There's a 'but' here none the less. Big titles like Gran Turismo or Forza are still doing quite well. If we leave that last Forza: Horizon game to one side, all these games are selling 3+ million copies. VGChartz reckons that Gran Turismo 5 sold nigh 9M copies. What's starting to become obvious, in my opinion, is that releasing a Forza title every year is not a good idea. There really aren't that many differences between the different Forza games and, even though the latest installment has this 'open world' feature to boast for, I'm afraid that's something most simulator player are not that interested in. . Still, the overall numbers of the Forza games are really impressive, including Forza 4 which was released in 2011, after both Blur and Split/Second.

The problem with simulators is that there's not much room for other games that can compete at that level. Both GT and Forza sport an impressive rooster of cars (both in the hundreds), both have a very realistic physics simulation that please fans and have them fighting over which game is better and both have very impressive graphics that could very well be used in car adverts and that certainly please the  'car porn adicts' that love these games so much. So, why should they buy other games? They provide hundreds of hours of gameplay thanks to multiplayer, although single player can easily provide several tens of hours so these target audience don't really need many of that kind of games every year.

Hiperrealistic graphics from Gran Turismo

Sure, there are simulators for some of the most important events in the motorsports: F1, MotoGP (or SBK), Dirt (rallies), etc. But their sales are nowhere near what the big guys manage, where F1 may be a bit of an exception here, which is understandable since it's a sport with a lot of fans that may be happy to get a new game every year with the latest additions of the game. These sort of games appeal to a niche market. They can't certainly justify $50M budgets that most probably games like GT or Forza justify. And even with that, these titles are mostly tied up to licenses from the owners of the motorsport event, so there's little room for entering there.

On the other hand, in the PC there's a bunch of titles in the simulator space, and it looks like there's a trend now for free-to-play games there too. So you can find games like Auto Club Revolution, RaceRoom Racing Experience or Project CARS which are offering you the game for free while asking you to pay for cars, progression, tracks, etc. It's an interesting battle, and I believe that many of these will eventually close, leaving a winner, but who that one will be, I don't know. I can't say if that's a profitable business either. I've got no idea of the sales these guys are working with, but I still doubt they'll reach by far the numbers Forza or GT do. That said, I think they look just as good, but still, I don't believe there's much room for a AAA free to play PC racing simulator. Not yet, at least.

Free to play racing games are looking really slick on PC

All in all, I think simulator titles are still doing well. I believe they have a wide audience and some niche markets which provide relatively secure work for a few companies. Anyway, and here is the big 'but' of this, entering this market is really hard. There are already 2 main franchises grabbing most of the sales for the typical racing simulator, and there are a bunch of linceses that make money, but you need to get that license which is not cheap. There's the PC market which is looking to have tough competition and not much room to innovate anyway. These simulations are reaching a point where they are really realistic, really good, great graphical fidelity, not only in the exteriors of the cars, but also on the interiors, huge selection of cars. Trying to create a new simulator game seems to be ever more difficult now. At least in consoles. It requires a significant investment in technology and licenses (for the real cars when not for a motorsport) and there's already stablished franchises. The genre is far from dead there, but a few companies are eating most of the pie already.

I'll continue with part 2 of this article in my next post: Arcade racing games


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