EA’s Firemonkeys' Need for Speed: No Limits (NFSNL) is truly an impressive car game. What makes NFSNL great is the combination of stunningly beautiful graphics, well-designed levels, and intuitive driving controls. The game simply makes traditional one-tap drag race games feel instantly outdated.
NFSNL is currently a top three grossing racing game, at just a few months apart from its launch. The game’s downloads have peaked although the number of new installs is still very high, due to both the strong IP and EA’s publishing power. A quick comparison of downloads and revenue, as seen in AppAnnie, implies that the retention and thus monetization are not where they should be, as NFSNL is stuck in its low spot on the top 100 grossing chart, with only occasional bumps to top 50, which are driven by in-game events and sales.
NFSNL’s stunning 3D graphics come at a cost of long loading times, large app size and overheated battery, but these are not the only issues keeping the game from the top position. In my mind the true problem for NFSNL’s, and other so called racing games, is that they don't deliver when it comes to actual racing choosing to put all their effort in creating complex meta-game.
In my mind, the foundation of a racing game is mastering the different racetracks with different cars that act as a variable of the driving experience. Players love racing games because they're about perfecting every corner and knowing each track like the back of your hand. Need for Speed: No Limits, just like it's main competitors CSR Racing and Racing Rivals, isn’t a racing game even though it's sold to players as one. And that's why it, and it's competitors, will never win.
There's no denying that when it comes to the actual driving experience in NFSNL. Most of the races start from the perfect timing of gas to tachometer, just like in CSR Racing and other legacy titles. Being too light on the gas pedal will result in a slow start while pushing too aggressively will lead to spin out. After making the motor roar with a press on the gas pedal and hitting that perfect launch as the countdown goes to zero the true fun begins.
Once the car is on the move player steers it to the left and right without having to worry about gas or breaks. The steering is extremely simple yet surprisingly accurate. Short tap on the left or right side of the screen will result in a light nudge of the car to that direction while a long hold will have the steering wheel turning all the way. It's easy for new players to fail with the steering but then again failure is what makes racing games so enjoyable as it makes you want to race again.
Tapping on the gas pedal on the right side of the screen will start the countdown. Player keeps tapping on the gas pedal to keep that tachometer in the green, which will reward with a perfect launch instead of a spin off or a slow launch.
After the perfect launch player starts avoiding the traffic and making subtle turns to shave time or catch up to the other racers. To make things more fund NFSNL introduces drifting and the turbo. Drifting, which is initiated by swiping down, is helpful in steep turns but that's not why players drift. The reason for drifting, in addition to being fun, is that in accumulates the turbo and turbo is essential for winning races.
Drifting is initiated by swiping down and steering. Once car is drifting the turbo meter starts accumulating. To initiate turbo player simply swipes up.
The combination of simple controls, stunning graphics, drifting and turbo makes racing very enjoyable in NFSNL. The racing experience is further improved with damage sustained by crashing and a large variety of levels and level objectives. Playing CSR Racing, Racing Rivals or Real Racing after Need for Speed: No Limit is close to impossible. That's how much this game has improved the its driving experience compared to its competitors.
Just like in most freemium racing games, the game loop of NFSNL is very straightforward. Winning races earns player currency. Earned currency is used to improve existing cars and to unlock and purchase new and better cars. This loop is enforced by gradually toughening races.
Traditionally, this straightforward core loop of a racing game has been accompanied with an equally simple core loop, where a player earns soft currency for winning races and uses this currency to purchase gradual upgrades for their cars. These games monetize as a player’s garage expands with more cars. You see, the more cars a player has, the larger the demand for soft currency becomes, as there are several cars in need of upgrading. The way to successfully drive retention, and monetization of a racing game is to increasing the player’s need for soft currency and adding an energy mechanic, which limits the amount of races a player can play per session.
The core loop of NFSNL has all the same elements as we've experienced in racing games before, with one key difference in the form of car parts. In NFSNL a player is rewarded for winning races with, not only soft currency and experience points, but also with a chance to unlock a part or a blueprint for a car. Parts are used to upgrade individual elements of each car, such as engines and gearboxes. The rare blueprints are used to upgrade entire cars, which in return allow a player to install better elements into the vehicle.
The reason for the change in the core loop was in theory simple: a random drop of needed parts encourages a player to replay specific races that have a chance of rewarding them. The increased value of replaying levels, accompanied with an energy mechanic that restricts the number of races a player can complete per session, results in slower player progression, which again tends to lead to monetization (deconstructor of fun: primed to spend). Not to mention that the loot drop mechanic of parts and blueprints leads to gacha mechanic, which in the minds of many game executives tends to be the magical mechanic to endless profits.
No matter how great a core loop may look on a whiteboard or in a presentation, the true test for the core loop comes only when the game is actually playable. In the case of NFSNL the addition of parts and gacha has resulted in significantly increased complexity in combination with a reduced feeling of control over progress.
After each highly enjoyable race in NFSNL, a player is presented with two reward windows. The first window shows how much soft-currency a player has earned, based on how the race went in terms of time, distance drifted and air time. The second window has the player flip a card, which rewards him/her with either a small amount of soft currency or a part.
After every successfully completed race player has to plow through four window. First the basic race completed window, then a window showing players position in the race, followed by a window of flipping cards and window where the cards are flipped.
Once the player collects the part, there’s a call-to-action on top of the garage icon (see image) inviting the player to install the part. The player enters the garage window, locates the car with a call-to-action on top of it, enters the car window, looks for a car element that has a call-to-action on top of it, opens up the element window and installs the newly earned part. Installation is instant and consumes a small amount of soft currency while increasing the car’s performance rating.
Each car element such as gearbox, ECU, engine and nitro has its own star level. To increase the star level of each element, the player needs to collect a specific set of parts. Once all the parts are collected and installed, the star rating of the element increases. But there’s an additional rule here. Each element has a max star level. For example, a common tire can only reach two stars. Replacing a common tire with an uncommon one allows the player to install parts until three stars have been reached while a rare gearbox takes it up to four, and so forth.
The upgrade flow in Need for Speed: No Limits quite complex. First player find the call to action icon on top of the hud that takes him into the garage. Then in garage player taps on a car that has call to action icon. This opens that car view with parts that again have call to action buttons. Player taps on one of the parts, sees part details, taps on install and finally upgrades a part. I've done this flow numerous times and it just feels more and more tedious and frustrating.
The already complex flow of parts into element upgrades is made even more frustrating with the car levels. You see, just like the individual elements, each car has a star level of it’s own. This star level determines how many stars each element can be upgraded to. For example, my VW GTI has an uncommon gearbox that can be upgraded to three stars. After I’ve acquired and installed all the needed parts into the gearbox I can’t upgrade it to level three as long as the star level of my VW GTI is two. To increase the star level of my car I need to now play and hope to receive a specific VW GTI blueprint. And it takes several of those VW GTI blueprints to upgrade the star level from two to three.
Upgrading cars is essential in Need for Speed: No Limits as it allows player to further upgrade elements with parts. Upgrading cars requires ever increasing amount of car blueprints. There's no visual change as player upgrades his car, which is quite anticlimactic compared to the amount of steps needed to achieve this milestone.
I’ve done my best to keep the description of NFSNL’s core loop as simple as possible. If you feel lost in the midst of parts, elements, blueprints and star levels don’t worry: it’s not you, it’s the game. Playing the metagame of NFSNL can be quite confusing, very unrewarding, grindy and simply frustrating. You see, there’s no visual progression for upgrading elements or car levels. Improving a car’s performance rating also doesn’t feel any different when racing. It just unlocks new races, which reward with more rare parts. And you need those rare parts at an increasing pace as better gearboxes and nitros require more and more of rare parts that you have to endlessly grind for.
As mentioned before, the core loop of NFSNL encourages a player to infinitely replay old races, which is sadly very boring. By the time the player is forced to replay a race, there’s absolutely no challenge left as the player is now driving a far better car against the same AI opponents on the same level over and over again. The lack of mastery goals around race time, air time and drifting distance for each level is almost insulting. In the end, the goal of the game is to collect cars through racing. The way the core loop is implemented makes to just too hard, unclear and grindy.
The worst thing about NFSNL’s meta-game of parts is that it significantly hampers the player’s control of progress. As I’m playing the game, I don’t really have any meaningful choices I can make. This makes the game feel mechanical and a bit soulless, despite the amazing graphics, the excellent level design, and really great controls.
The player’s races are divided into a core story mode called the Underground and Car Series. The story mode levels are unlocked as the player levels up, which is based on earning XP from finished races. After racing a few levels in the Underground mode, a player is locked from progress (as the player needs more XP), and hence pushed to play the Car Series. The Car Series are sets of levels for each car in the player’s garage. Once the player owns a car, they can enter the respective Car Series. Each level in the Car Series is locked with the performance rating of the car.
In other words, in order to race a level with my best car I often need to upgrade the parts of that car to increase its performance rating. This progression wall forces me to either race other car series with my far worse cars or to start re-racing some old levels from the story mode in order to find missing parts for my best car. Finding and installing these missing parts will increase the performance rating of my favorite car and unlock more levels for it.
There are four types of races player can play at any given moment: 1) Underground, which is the story mode 2) Car Series, which is a specific set of races for specific cars in players garage 3) Tuner Trials, which was added lately as source of parts 4) and Timed Events, which give unique rewards and require Tickets as energy
In other freemium mobile racing games like CSR Racing, Racing Rivals and Real Racing progression is much more simple for a player to understand and also plan for. Because all of the car upgrades require the same currency, I have to make decisions, which car(s) I want to concentrate on. It is also worth to notice that in other racing games a player is allowed to fail races, which leads them to seek for ways to improve their car. In NFSNL races are generally artificially locked till the player’s car has a sufficient performance rating.
In my mind, sense of progress is the key driver for retention and monetization. Creating a goal in the game and allowing players to easily guestimate how long it takes to reach that goal is crucial when a player is making purchase decisions. In NFSNL it is really hard to understand how long it will take to reach certain milestones, like earning a new car. Because of the endless artificial progress walls and random part drops I’m just following call-to-actions on the HUD, opening windows and installing parts on cars that I don’t really even want to have let alone improve.
In all fairness, I think it’s great that EA has made an attempt to spice up the racing game genre with a more robust meta-game than we have seen before. At the same time, I believe that they have used the wrong benchmark, relying on an art-heavy card collecting meta-game, which is far too complex and poorly implemented in NFSNL.
In addition to complexity, NFSNL fails in allowing players to feel control over their progress, as players are forced to race specific cars in a specific order. These two elements are beautifully solved in World of Tanks Blitz, which in my mind would have served as a far better benchmark for NFSNL.
World of Tanks offers clear progression through a tech tree. This approach is visually clear, offers player choice and incentivizes player to player with different tanks through the use of tank specific experience points as currency.
Each tank in World of Tanks needs to be upgraded before the next tier can be unlocked.
In World of Tanks Blitz (WOTB) a player unlocks new tanks and improves existing ones by consuming tank-specific experience points and soft-currency, which are both earned by battling. In practice this means that in order to improve a specific tank in the player’s garage, they need to play several battles with that exact tank to upgrade it. And if they want a new higher-level tank, they need to first fully upgrade their existing one and collect a significant amount of tank-specific experience points to unlock the new one.
The best part about WOTB’s meta-game is how very clear it is for players, while at the same time it offers plenty of choice. The visual research tree allows a player to set goals for themselves. Once a goal of acquiring a certain tank is set, a player plunges back into the highly entertaining core gameplay.
In my mind the meta-game of WOTB would have been far more suited for NFSNL. It would make much more sense to me if in order to unlock Toyota GT I need to first fully upgrade my Toyota Celica while unlocking BMW M3 requires a fully upgraded BMW 1. It would also make a lot of sense that upgrading a car requires me to race with that specific car. Not to mention that upgrades to a car should be visual, just like in WOTB. If I’m upgrading the nitro of my car I’d like to see a change of a spoiler on the roof of that car.
for more, please see Deconstructor of Fun: World of Tanks Blitz
Overall, I just think it is very important to review these loops and ask important game specific questions like: Does this make sense? What does it take to make a car better? How will a better car look like? How will it perform? How do I unlock new cars? If you fail to ask and answer these questions, your players will be puzzled and likely not retain. Games are fun and full of imagination, but they also have to make sense.
I’m a big fan of the gacha mechanic as it enables game economies to endlessly reward players. You see, in a good gacha mechanic, like say Hearthstone, the player is constantly rewarded with card packs (coins that purchase card packs), which is by far the best type of reward in the game. Hearthstone’s economy works because the player can disenchant extra cards or cards they don’t use into Dust and use Dust to craft the missing cards. This creates almost endless demand for card packs without actually forcing them on the players.
In Hearthstone player can disenchant cards to dust and use dust to craft missing cards they need. This is a simple and far more complete system for games that rely on gacha for progress.
The gacha infused meta-game of Need for Speed: No Limits fails because it’s confusing and forced. The parts and blueprints the player gets from racing are too random and often have only one point of consumption. Receiving a common spring or a rare fastener after a race means nothing for your average player and without a flow of call-to-actions through multiple windows, the player wouldn’t even know what to do with these random parts. The only point when a player is interested in a fastener or a spring is when the game forces him/her to replay an overly simple level many times in a row just to get the part.
Need for Speed: No Limits offers one of the best racing (but definitely not car collecting) experience on mobile. It is incredibly beautiful. The controls are simple yet they give a real feeling of speed. Not to mention drifting and nitro, which make the races so much more fun. But the game is slowed down by an overly complicated and very rigid meta-game that surrounds the beautifully crafted racing experience.
In my opinion, keeping things simple and polished often lead to better results. Need for Speed: No Limits success at the moment is driven by a massive amount of installs, solid gameplay, beautiful graphics and strong IP. Yet despite its current position in the grossing charts for racing games, it’s hard to see this game breaking to the top 10 of the overall grossing charts due to its overly complicated meta-game and the fact that it's not really a racing game.
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