[In this design article, veteran EA, Radical and THQ designer (and design director) Mike Lopez looks at the make-up of the racing game genre, asking what factors truly differentiate one title from another, and how we can communicate them effectively to players.]
Back in the early 1990s, the racing genre was quickly becoming a major sector of the gaming market. In the early days of the console racing genre, there emerged some real-world emulating racing simulations like Super Monaco GP, Indy Car Racing and Formula One.
On the other end of the spectrum there were games that focused more on non-traditional racing environments (i.e. OutRun, Test Drive, etc.).
For several years this division was very clear, in that everything that was simulating real-world sports was a "simulation" (or "sim") and everything else was an "arcade" racer.
This division held all racing titles quite nicely, because those games that fell into the sim category were obvious and most everything in the arcade category (everything not-sim) played quite similarly -- due to the relative infancy of racing development and the technical limitations on the consoles.
Then -- lucky for me -- along came Road Rash which sort of broke out of the clear division. While Road Rash was clearly focused on non-traditional environments and mostly fit into the arcade category, it also added a large and distinct layer of fighting -- and so EA begin to market it as "Motorcycle Racing Combat".
A few years later, with the emergence of Twisted Metal, the industry created a new sub-genre called racing combat.
Cue 15+ years of racing game evolution. Now it's 2009 and the simplistic and archaic arcade/sim categorization struggles inadequately to describe modern racing games that have evolved in many different directions, and that no longer have such clear-cut differences.
The racing games of today have truly blurred the lines between arcade and sim descriptors, with executions that vary wildly in physics model (deep vs. simple), racing style focus (technical vs. non-technical) and track type (circuit, point-to-point or open-world).
Because the industry marketing and press have not kept up with advances in gameplay variations and provided more granular descriptions, many racing products of today suffer from an acute identify crisis and are poorly differentiated from their competition.
In fact, this market confusion presents a serious need to better define the racing experience of each game and to educate the industry and consumers about where racing has come. This will also help game developers and designers who are looking to properly understand and identify the experience they are seeking in their racing game.
My overall intention here is to identify three separate gameplay categories that should be communicated by marketers and press to clearly communicate a racing game's identity profile given the racing products of today.