Monday, February 25, 2013

Racing games are dying? (Part 2)

In this second post we will go on analyzing the current situation of the racing genre and what possibilities there are. In the first part we did an overview of the genre and talked mostly on simulators. You can find it here.

Arcade Racing Games

As Wikipedia describes it here, "Arcade style racing games put fun and fast-paced experience above all else, as cars usually compete in unique ways. A key feature of arcade racers that specifically distiguishes them from simulation racers is their far more liberal physics. [...] For the most part, arcade racers simply remove the precision and rigor required from the simulation experience and focus strictly on the racing element itself".

OutRun. I wasted so much money on this game...

I think anyone with a bit of interest for racing games and 30 or older will remember classics such as Out Run, Virtua Racing, Micro Machines or, of course, Mario Kart. Those are great games that provided, at least me, with lots of hours of fun and entertainment. They are focused on the racing experience, providing very forgiving driving models and allowing for extra gameplay mechanics in some cases. Actually, Mario Kart is probably the paradigm of this subgenre and the most successful game in it. It's the only racing game that has been in the top 10 best selling games during this console generation (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii). Its concept is simple: put well known and beloved Nintendo characters on karts, let them race together, add some 'power-ups' to spice up the race and make sure, both with AI and gameplay mechanics, that the race stays tight and undecided until the very end. Some of its gameplay mechanics, like the blue shell, have been widely criticised. Still, it's been a huge success and probably the best selling racing series in history.

Mario Kart the king of arcade racers

In spite of that, I believe AAA arcade racing games are an endangered species. I believe that Mario Kart is more an exception to the rule. So, why do I believe so? Let's take a look at the list of AAA arcade racing games released for this console generation for Xox 360 and PS3:
  • Juiced 2
  • Flatout: Ultimate Carnage
  • Driver: San Francisco
  • Midnight Club: Los Angeles
  • Fuel
  • Pure
  • Blur
  • Split/Second
  • GRiD
  • ModNation racers
  • Burnout series
  • Ridge Racer series
  • Need for Speed series
  • Motor Storm series
  • Sonic kart racing series
These are definitely not all of them, but it's a fairly representative amount of the AAA arcade racing games released for Xbox 360 and PS3. These are all AAA games with great graphics, lots content and production values and big teams behind them. Yet many of these are 1 title games (there were no sequels) and I know for a fact that the team behind some of them wanted to do a second one. Maybe we'll see a second title to some of them (like ModNation racers) but there's nothing announced that I know of. There's one exception here: GRiD has an announced second game coming out in 2013 (and I'm looking forward to it). I hope it does really well and becomes something like the Need for Speed franchise.

GRiD 2 is looking good and I can't wait to play it!

So we have 6 games that have no second part (5 if we ignore GRiD) and there's 4 more that are the last game in a series (the first 4 in the list). The Driver series, for instance, has a long pedigree, with 7 titles in the franchise, but only 1 for 360 and PS3.

The last 5 games are all series, with more than one game released for this generation of consoles. The Burnout series, with 8 games under their belt released Burnout: Paradise in 2008 and that was the last we heard of the series. You could argue that Criterion, the company behind it, is now working on Need for Speed games, yet it's kind of troubling that they left a highly acclaimed and successful franchise such as Burnout. I believe it wasn't making money. Burnout: Paradise was a great game, but a very expensive one, and I'm not sure it managed to break even. The Ridge Racer series is a weird one too. They had 2 titles released at the start of the generation (Ridge Racer 6 and 7 were both launch titles of Xbox 360 and PS3 respectively) yet they didn't release anything until last year when they released Ridge Racer: Unbounded. It received average critics (72 in metacritic) and VGChartz seem to think it didn't sell very well either.

Ridge Racer: Unbounded received some good critics and had some innovative gameplay mechanics

SEGA has released 2 titles to compete directly with Mario Kart, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed. Both have received relatively good critic appraisal (the last one stands at 82 in Metacritic) but I'm not sure about the sales. It probably wasn't that bad when they released the second one 2 years after the first. Still this game follows the formula of pitching highly recognizable game characters from series owned by the publisher in karts to compete against each other. That's not something that can anyone do so easily (maybe Disney could but can't think of many others).

Finally, there are the 2 series I believe have remained quite strong during this console generation: Need for Speed and MotorStorm. As said before, the Need for Speed series has seen some decline in the sales of their latest game (around a 20% for what I've heard). That still means selling several million copies, but it's not a good sign. MotorStorm was a launch title for PS3. The second one was launched in 2008 and MotorStorm: Apocalypse was launched in 2011. Anyway, the sales of the series seem to have gone down considerably, particularly for the last title. It's hard to compare the first one (which was bundled with the PS3) with the others, but if the numbers in VGChartz are even remotely accurate, the last one didn't do well. I hope they do something for the new generation, I think they deserve it, yet they were not present in the PS4 announcement in New York the other day. Maybe in the E3 we'll hear of them? I certainly hope so.

The first Motorstorm was used to showcase the PS3 power, the second one was even more impressive

One curious detail is that critics reviews seem to be relatively good overall. Many of the games in this list have a Metacritic score over 80. Even those that didn't grant a second part: Pure, Blur, Split/Second, ModNation Racers all had a Metacritic score over 80. It doesn't seem to be a problem with the quality of the product, it looks like good games are simply not selling enough to justify the investment.

The picture doesn't look that good: many games failed to make a splash big enough to grant a second game, many series that thrilled in the previous generation failed to survive in the current one. Only a few series with big names still remain strong: Need for Speed, Mario Kart, Sonic. Most of the product is good, but it can't just sell enough. People are not buying it. Many of the teams behind some of these great products have been shut (Black Rock, Bizarre), reduced (Codemasters) or moved on to something else (Rockstar San Diego, Ubisoft Reflections). There seems to be a clear trend here and it's not looking good. But, why? What has changed in the past few years? And, does this mean the death of arcade racing games?

Other platforms

So, we've been talking about AAA $60 games so far. But I believe that would be missing an important part of the cake. Something that exists now, that didn't exist in the last console generation and something that has changed the rules incredibly: the digitally distributed $10-15 games, particularly for consoles (XBLA and PSN). Some racing games have got to the top of the charts in these platforms: Trials HD, Trials: Evolution, Joe Danger, Out Run, Crazy Taxi, WipeOut HD,... Still, those charts are dominated normally by other genres, but it's good to see some good racing games among these too.

Joe Danger one of those self sacrifice, believe-in-yourself stories I love so much behind

Another platform that's new to the games landscape is mobiles and tablets. There are new franchises that have been born to the iOS and Android platforms that didn't exist before, on top of versions of console games that are now almost a must-have. The graphics that some of these games are starting to show are becoming too close to what consoles can do now: Real Racing, GT: Racing Academy, Asphalt, Need for Speed, CSR: Racing,... they all showcase incredible graphics and they are fun and are making lots of money and, although I don't know how much it took to build them, I bet they are profitable.
Asphalt 7 is looking slick in the iPad 3


So, why are arcade racing games on decline? Well, I must confess I don't know. I believe there's a number of factors that took a part in it. For once, the fact that other types of games are now incorporating driving parts may be one of them. Many action-adventure games now have parts where you have to drive (and normally do something else) and sometimes even race. I believe this genre hasn't showed much innovation either, but considering the fate of those who tried to innovate it's not hard to guess why is that. I believe Split/Second, Blur, Pure or ModNation Racers tried to innovate yet their sales didn't thrive.

I believe they are also victim of the same problems other games suffer this generation. With the increased development costs the bets have gone higher. A game needs to sell really good to be profitable. In the previous generation there was more margin to make games, they didn't need to sell 2M copies to break even, maybe 200-400K could suffice, so it was relatively easier easier to try out new gameplay mechanics, to do new things, to be bold. Now, the stakes are too high and, I believe, that's why only the most well known franchises are surviving. Other genres are diping into the racing one, and there's little innovation due to the little margin of error, which is leaving the genre stagnated and thus people are looking somewhere else to get their thrills. It's a vicious circle, but it's hard to break.

Split/Second tried to innovate but ended up crashing Black Rock

Not all is grim though, simulators are doing well and I believe will go on doing well, although it's a tough market. The simulator players are usually loyal ones. They love their games and stick to them for a long time and they are likely to buy a new one when it's out. People still love cars and fantasize with super sport cars. That's hardly going to change anytime soon. Arcade racing games that have a big name may survive and still do well (Need for Speed, Mario Kart,...) and I hope that the new generation may bring new names to the table, but I'm not sure there'll be many new players. As I said before, the stakes are too high. The cost of producing a AAA arcade racing title is too high... and I believe that's the main issue.

I think the main problem resides in the cost. I think we need to lower the costs of producing that type of videogames so they become profitable again. I think it's no different to many other genres, but I believe racing games have some advantages. I know how hard it is to produce content for racing games, but I believe there's room for improvement there, and easier than in other genres, particularly those where animation plays a big role. For most racing games animation plays a minor role in their games, so it's all about car (or other vehicles), environments and those extra gameplay elements you want to add. Sure it's technically challenging due to the physics simulation, camera work, AI, etc., but that's part of the fun ;o).

TrackMania provides fun ways of building and sharing tracks with the community

It also gives us some room to try to innovate to reduce the costs. For instance, an important chunk of the art resources in a racing game are spent doing the environments, maybe we could try to use procedural techniques to fill those environments with interesting stuff. I'm not suggesting doing 'procedural tracks', which may be a good idea too but I believe that a handcrafted track will be better 99% of the time, but to fill them with procedural stuff: buildings, foliage, deserts, mountains, etc. Maybe we can develop impressive track building tools that can be shared with the community to help them be the ones that help us fill with content our game. And the same goes for the vehicles, although I see it's harder to do there, particularly the procedural part.

We surely don't need to go into the detail that the guys from Drive Club explained in the PS4 presentation (that guy looked like he could touch himself with car magazines!) most people don't need that. They want fast paced, tight and crazy races. They want fancy cars but don't need to appreciate the leather seats, you don't do that while driving at 150mph!

I believe there's room for doing great racing games, but maybe AAA games are too risky for that, and that's why I think it's going to be in this middle price games ($10-$15 XBLA/PSN) where we may see the most innovative and crazy experiences, where people are really going to try to innovate and get really creative. I believe there's room to do a lot and there's lots of things yet to be tried and done with the racing genre, as well as any other genre, and I hope to see a lot of new ideas tried out soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment