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A Rational Approach To Racing Game Track Design
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A Rational Approach To Racing Game Track Design

September 6, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

Asymmetric Balance: Initial D  

The combination of multiple types of vehicle dynamics used within Initial D means that track design is of the utmost importance when trying to provide a balanced and empowering experience for the player. No track epitomizes this mantra more than Mt. Akina, an embellished version of the real world Mt. Akina road in Gunma Prefecture, Japan. Figure 22 is a planar map of the circuit. Although the track can played in either direction, the normal start line in sector one is the highest point of elevation and moves downhill progressively towards sector ten.

Figure 22

The type of vehicle that the player chooses at the start of the game will have a large impact on what types of track it will be best suited to.

A heavy car like the Nissan GTR will be balanced in such a way that it is usually more capable on an up-hill circuit where having more power is advantageous. A smaller car like the Toyota AE86 will have more of an advantage in down-hill circuits due to its lower mass and ability to over-steer on corner exits.

The Mt. Akina circuit uses a clever combination of corners to balance the gameplay and yield close rivalries, even without significant rubber-banding. Mt. Akina uses a unique leveling section in sector eight. If you are familiar with the Initial D franchise, then you will know the three consecutive corners as shown in Figure 23.

As the road markings play such an important role in the sensation of speed, they have been left in the diagram to demonstrate the sense of urgency that is conveyed to the player.

Figure 23

There are a number of metrics that need to be considered before the importance of this particular corner can be explained. In Initial D (and most other racing games) a compound corner which becomes progressively tighter will be advantageous for a lighter vehicle, whilst a compound corner which becomes progressively more obtuse will benefit a heavier, more powerful vehicle (Figure 24 & Figure 25).

Figure 24

Figure 25

There is also an additional component of compound corners which needs to be considered, and that is the correction distance between clipping points. To a large extent, this metric of difficulty can be explained by the angle extrapolation method covered in the clipping point metric. However, Figure 26 demonstrates the difficulty metrics associated with the distance between clipping points.

Figure 26

The reason the distance between these correction points is so critical is due to vehicle dynamics and Newton's first law -- an object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied. Figure 27 combines vehicle dynamics, distance between clipping points, and Newton's first law. The point of critical weight transfer is used in Initial D to either advantage or disadvantage certain vehicles.

Figure 27

The Use of Straightaways: ID4 vs. MT3 vs. GT5

One thing that has not been covered is the use of straightaway sections in tracks. Straightaways are necessary in all forms of racing games, however if a straightaway is too long, then this will adversely affect the sense of empowerment for non-drivers.

Straightaways may seem fun on first glance: a section of road where the player can apply as much throttle as they want. However there is a significant problem if they are used incorrectly, especially in an arcade driving title. To understand the difference between more realistic straightaway use and use with arcade titles it is necessary to take a basic statistical overview of three titles: Initial D, Maximum Tune, and Gran Turismo.

Figure 28

Figure 28 compares speed telemetry data from experienced players in powerful cars within Maximum Tune 3's Hanshin Line, Initial D Arcade Stage 4's Mt. Akina and Gran Turismo 5's Trial Mountain. Both Maximum Tune 3 and Initial D have the lowest standard deviation, whilst Gran Turismo has the highest deviation from the car's slowest speed to its fastest speed.

The graph plots the vehicles' speed telemetry at five second intervals and compares the current speed sample to the last previous sample. A value of 1 indicates that the vehicle has not changed speed since the last sample. Positive values denote an increase in speed and negative values denote a decrease in speed.

The graph demonstrates that in more realistic driving titles such as Gran Turismo, straightaways allow the vehicle to significantly overshoot the ideal corner entry speed, requiring the player to brake for extended periods prior to corner entry. This necessitates the player needing to learn the course, and takes away an aspect of forgiveness in the track design.

Console and computer games have the privilege of being far less forgiving. On a console, amateur players are not paying per play, hence allowing more time for practice and memorization. And most importantly, the home is a safe environment, away from the eyes of other gamers -- it is safe to make mistakes, and the player can pick and choose the time when they take their skills public via online play or tournaments.

Arcade titles though need to pander to the ego. Players pay per-play and they do so under the watchful scrutiny of others. Although straightaways are used in all forms of track design, to empower the non-driver, it is essential that straightaways do not allow the vehicle to reach an excessively high speed prior to corner entry. If the straightaway does lead to a tight corner, then there should be a number of easier corners prior to this, allowing the player to shed sufficient speed before attempting corner entry.

Concluding Thoughts

The initial aim of this article was to examine ways in which non-drivers could feel empowered within racing games. Initial D and Maximum Tune are both excellent examples of creating an empowering experience and via the analysis applied to each, we can come up with a set of design heuristics, based on the five metrics of track design:

  • The use of straightaways needs to be implemented in such a way that the player is never able to significantly overshoot the ideal corner entry speed. Any braking should be kept to a minimum.
  • Corners need to be progressively tighter to ensure that players are able to have close to ideal corner entries.
  • The standard deviation in vehicle speed should be quite narrow, ideally within a plus or minus 30 percent region.
  • Road markings are essential to creating a sense of speed.
  • Needle threading corners should be used to provide a sense of awe for the player and embellish their skills.
  • All corners in an arcade racing game should be on-camber.
  • Height variations should always be used in track design to create emotionally diversity. Rapid changes in height should be avoided though.
  • Use straights to create "punctuation" for the player. Separate corners using landmarks or iconic features to aid this.

There are other elements of best practice which are beyond the scope of this article. There needs to be a clear distinction between actual difficulty and perceived difficulty. The best example of this is the comparison made between speed changes in Initial D and Gran Turismo. Initial D is very good at giving the player the perception of difficulty, when in fact they are doing very little in comparison to what they would need to do given the same track in Gran Turismo.

As such, the next big area to address is vehicle dynamics. It is important to note that different vehicle dynamics do not downplay the significance of the five metrics, rather it the vehicle will provide a significantly different experience for the player, especially in regards to these different approaches to building difficulty.

Special Thanks to Cliff Kamarga, Katie Murphy and Natasha Lewin for the images.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

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