[As auto racing games try to one-up one another with better graphics and bigger thrills, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit's new Facebook-lite Autolog feature points to the genre's real future -- one based on real competition, says Gamasutra senior news editor Kris Graft
The racing genre has been in a weird place for the past several years. It's a category that is easily comprehensible by a mainstream audience and relatable to a wide demographic, but with all the technological advances in the past dozen years like powerful hardware, fancy physics engines and photo-realistic graphics, the genre has been speeding along like a car on cruise control with no driver.
That's because the assumed path to improving a racing franchise year after year has been to make the newest iteration bigger and prettier than its predecessor.
It's a cycle that the Gran Turismo
series helped propagate, as it was really the first console racing game to place increasing realism and massive amounts of vehicles above pretty much any other aspect.
I'm not taking away from any of the accomplishments from racing game studios like Sony Liverpool, Codemasters, Polyphony Digital, Black Rock, Eden, Bizarre, Turn 10, Criterion, etc.
There are recently-released, high quality racing games out there that have very strong foundations in terms of presentation, online multiplayer and gameplay. Quality isn't really the problem, if you think about it.
But there still has been a profound sense of stagnation for the most part in the genre, as one analyst put it, "the console racing genre appears dislocated
from consumer interest at the moment aside from Gran Turismo
fever." While game companies can count on ardent racing game fans to show up sequel after sequel, what are game makers doing to bring in new players, and what incentive are they giving them to keep playing a given racing game?
Electronic Arts is pointing us towards a solution with Autolog in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
, developed by Burnout
developer Criterion in conjunction with fellow EA studio DICE. It's essentially a suite of connected features that automatically picks out what your Hot Pursuit
friends have been up to -- latest track times on the “Speed Wall,” new photos and comments -- and encourages you to immediately one-up your buddies.
From a gameplay perspective, Hot Pursuit
doesn't really do anything massively revolutionary -- it's all about going fast, pitting cops against speeders, something that previous Hot Pursuit
entries did years before, although this latest entry does have the high level of polish that Criterion is becoming known for.
But what Autolog does is give the game some semblance of socially-driven stickiness by giving players constantly-changing goals that are set by online friends that own Hot Pursuit
, and even lets players suggest to online buddies who don't own the game to go and buy the game so they can compete. And it's all done without a lost cow.
Autolog is a convenient tool -- just as we value discovery engines for different forms of digital entertainment, it's welcoming to have Autolog's “Comparison Engine” pick out events from a huge amount of content and online friend activity, and recommend you to try to beat a buddy's track or high speed chase time on a given course. You can play a whole gaming session without actually entering the game's single player career menu, as players can launch right into a course from Autolog.
With racing games there are naturally very few objectives other than beat the clock, or beat other players on a very linear course. Game developers have tried to make up for the inherent lack of variation in the act of racing by adding the ability to tweak car setups, setting race courses in an open world, adding RPG-like systems, offering hundreds of different cars, weapons and creating other objectives for gamers outside of “get to the finish line ASAP.”
But while “more things to do” is a welcome development, maybe the lack of variety hasn't been the racing genre's core problem. At the center of the real-life racing experience is the spirit of competition, and it seems like in racing games, that spirit has taken a backseat to other features like car acquisition, a larger number of tracks and a supreme dedication to realism or other factors. Simulation games in particular value car porn over the thrill of the race.
Autolog reinvigorates that sense of competition that is inherent in racing games and makes rivalry more accessible and obvious to players. After using something like Autolog and being repeatedly tempted to have another go at a course so that you can top a track's Speed Wall and post a nasty trash-talking comment egging on the losers, you realize that head-to-head multiplayer and basic leaderboards so prevalent in racing games today are pretty archaic as we enter the sixth year of the current console generation. EA is even launching an Autolog mobile app so you can keep up to date wherever you are.
Not one element can reinvigorate the racing genre singlehandedly, but Autolog is a step in the right direction. Hopefully it will be mercilessly be copied and iterated upon by other racing developers (Slightly Mad Studios recently confirmed that Autolog would be used in EA's upcoming Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed
). Whatever new developments happen in the category, it seems that a purer focus on friends and true back-and-forth competition is the answer here.