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The Scientific Secrets To Designing The Perfect Racing Video Game

How racing-game designers tweak the road to make you feel like Mario Andretti, not the Keystone Kops.

The Scientific Secrets To Designing The Perfect Racing Video Game

Car-racing games are just about the only modern video games my 33-year-old hand-eye-coordination system can deal with anymore. Gears of War? Forget it, too complicated. Even Portal taxes my pathetic thumb control. But driving–that’s just steer, brake, and gas. Of course, an enormous amount of design thinking goes into getting the user experience of a racing game just right–after all, I may kick ass in Need for Speed, but I’d be useless behind the wheel of an actual race car. What’s the difference, exactly?

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If you’ve ever wondered, gaming site Gamasutra recently published an exhaustively researched reverse-engineering of racing-game track design, complete with case studies, scientific graphs, and academic-sounding terms like “race line punishment.” It’s heavy reading, but the basic insights are fascinating to anyone curious about how “fun” is designed into complex video games.

The article begins by stating what sounds like the obvious, but is actually not: the funnest racing games are ones where you never (or rarely) have to stop accelerating. (This applies especially to arcade games, where players are paying cash for an individual experience, as opposed to console games, which can be played unlimited times.) Some of the simpler ways of encouraging this state are building in straightaways at key intervals and making the track environment about one-third bigger than “real life”–this is more forgiving to the driver but also allows screen space for the camera to change perspectives when necessary and still offer a pleasing wide-angle view of the road and its scenery.

But there are much subtler design strategies at play, too. Wider tracks can offer more forgiving “clipping points” and “race lines,” which are technical terms for the ideal paths a player must hew to through curves in order to avoid braking. “Needle threading” describes a kind of clever corner design that pulls a bit of “psy-ops” on the player to make them feel more competent: The corner offers a wide entry point into the curve that funnels the driver down to one ideal clipping point (so that when you nail it, you feel it), and an outlet that looks harder than it actually is to navigate. “Just like anything in game design, it is all about making the player look better than they actually are,” the author explains. “As the player corrects towards the ideal corner exit point, the vehicle is still sideways whilst passing through this ‘needle thread’ point, making the track walls closer to the vehicle. The positioning of the camera is purposeful and captures this impossibly accurate near-miss which would more often than not lead to disaster in real life–especially at the speeds cars are traveling at within the game.” Ah, so that’s why!

The article concludes by making recommendations for game designers to tweak their track designs for maximum fun–for example, “road markings are essential to creating a sense of speed,” so if you want to make the blacktop feel like it’s whipping by, make sure to put a lot of digital paint down. If you can make it through the whole article, it’ll definitely make you appreciate the experience of playing Initial D much more than you did before. But even skimming it reveals a treasure trove of fascinating, and all too hidden, insight into how “fun” is manufactured with nanoscopic precision.

[Read more at Gamasutra]

[Photo by Craigyc]

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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