Fixing the Race: When Winning is Too Much

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of racing games.

I know, I'm often typecast into this role of being the car guy or the hardcore racing weirdo, but it's not without merit. Give me a racing game with decent car physics and a reasonable amount of variety and I will play it in its entirety, usually for dozens of hours. In the last few years, I've spent at least one thousand hours playing various driving games, if not much more. Five percent of my life since October 11th, 2011 has been devoted to driving in Forza Motorsport 4.

I'm serious about that last part. It actually frightened me a little when I calculated it out.

When I hear Whiskey Media staff refer to my Race Night crew as frighteningly hardcore, it's a little hurtful and inaccurate. We just enjoy driving a lot, and anyone who enjoys playing these games would find hanging with us to be quite fun, even if they're not the most skilled or competitive. However, when Jeff stated during the Forza 4 quick look that he didn't think games like Forza could improve much beyond adding new cars and tracks, I could only hope that developers like Turn 10 were laughing in disagreement.

Jeff's wrong. At least, he needs to be if the sim racing genre's going to thrive.

Over a series of blog entries here on Giant Bomb, I'm hoping to not only dissect many of the weaknesses in a game like Forza 4, but ways in which sim racers in general could improve and better entertain gamers. Failing that, hopefully you'll come to agree with me that there's a lot more to do before games like Forza 4 can simply fall back on yearly car and track updates.

Let's start with something simple like the act of winning, and how it can over-complicate and dull a game.

Fixing the Race: When Winning is Too Much

1,103 races. 38 passing challenges. 28 autocross trials. Ten bowling events.

Finishing Forza 4's singleplayer mode to 100% involves winning everything mentioned above. Turn 10 even attached an achievement to this task, which means they fully expect a number of players to take on this challenge.

Granted, there are ways for players to ease through this challenge. Car restrictions can be turned off, the AI difficulty can be toned down, and a hired driver can be selected in the event a person doesn't feel like completing every lap on their own.

This man made Formula 1 hard to watch while winning 91 races. Imagine how hard it would be to watch a driver winning 13 times as often.
This man made Formula 1 hard to watch while winning 91 races. Imagine how hard it would be to watch a driver winning 13 times as often.

That's still 1,179 events to win, though. Isn't that a bit much?

Take this into consideration. Michael Schumacher, during his overly dominant Formula 1 career, racked up 91 wins. Richard Petty's 200 NASCAR wins are a well-known and unattainable record. Even when you get down to the short dirt tracks of the World of Outlaws, the legendary Steve Kinser only has about 570 wins in the main feature races of that series.

In this day and age, if you dominated any form of racing with over a thousand wins…well, you would either be considered an inhuman racing deity, or your competitors would stab you to death before reaching the record. Even for a video game, it's an unrealistic number, regardless of the length of the races (which I'll cover another time).

Yet, it's understandable why Forza has so many events. With hundreds of cars to choose from, every car needs to have an event where it can partake; otherwise, it's hard to justify adding it into the game.

Still, no matter how you tackle 1,179 events, it's time-consuming. It's even harder to defend as fun, especially when any result less than a win does nothing to help a player closer to their goal of completion. That leads to gamers turning down the difficulty to easy levels, rewinding after every single mistake, and in the end, you typically end up with a race in which the player blasts away from the AI pack in the first turn and races alone for the duration of the race, because that's what they need to do to win and ensure their time isn't wasted. Funny or ironically enough, the steps taken to avoid losing and wasted time only end up wasting time in a different manner. Leaving AI competition in the dust turns these so-called races into time trials, and I doubt that's the intent when Turn 10 decided to reward completionists.

There has to be a better way to encourage gamers to fully complete a singleplayer mode, while allowing a variety of cars to be used and keeping a decent sense of accomplishment. I have a few ideas in this regard.

First, though, let's briefly consider why racing is different than most sports.

The Art of Losing

Most sports, at their most basic level, have one winner and one loser, be it a person or a full team of players. Sure, you'll have close games or lopsided defeats, but there's two sides, and barring the occasional draw, one side will walk away victorious and the other side will taste defeat.

Most forms of racing aren't anything like this. Instead, you'll have many people or teams on the track at once competing for the win. That's not to say there aren't other similar sports: much like auto racing is a sport where drivers attempt to conquer the track and each other, golf is a bunch of players competing against the course and fellow players, poker tournaments are centered around surviving and taking out other players, and fishing is…well, getting better fish from a lake than your competitors.

I should have probably researched how fishing works as a sport before dragging it into this.
I should have probably researched how fishing works as a sport before dragging it into this.

Let's not bring judged sports like ice skating into this. That only further complicates what I'm trying to get at here.

My point is this: In racing, unlike most sports, there's at least one winner, and many more losers. Talk to second or third place, though, and they might not act like they lost. In a NASCAR or Formula 1 race, a financially-strapped team that can't typically compete with the top tier of competition might consider finishing in the top ten a great success. On the other hand, Hendrick Motorsports or Ferrari would consider such a finish rather ordinary, as they expect wins much more readily.

In the grand scheme of things, yes, not winning the race means you lost. That much is obvious. In racing, though, you cannot expect to win every time. There's too many factors that could alter a driver's fate, and too many other teams working hard for that victory. You have to find some degree of success in lesser finishes.

Plus, if you won every time, like I said earlier, I think you'd get shanked. Seriously. Sportsmanship only goes so far.

Sure, you'll find these varying conditions of success in leagues or tournaments for other sports. In auto racing, this happens in every single race.

So how can losing become acceptable to a gamer? Admittedly, this isn't so easy.

Lowering Expectations

I have a few basic ideas for improving the singleplayer aspect of sim racers, and unsurprisingly, my first suggestion is one of the reasons real drivers can easily find a degree of success when they don't win.

  • Combine single races into championship series scored by points, and consider finishing first in the points a victory, rather than winning every race.

This isn't anything new to racing games, as anyone who's played an F-Zero game would tell you. Heck, Forza 2 had a couple of series just like this. I think Gran Turismo still uses this to some extent, as well! However, this shouldn't just be used for the sake of connecting races together or making a game drag on longer. Rather, it should give the player the impression that it's OK to lose a race every now and then. As long as the player finishes well, they'll earn enough points and win the series championship. That's a far more realistic and satisfying goal, especially if it allows the player to increase the difficulty to a more satisfactory level. If this helps bundle what would otherwise be a thousand races into a handful of series, all the better!

…of course, if the player can be allowed to slip up every now and then, the AI can't be allowed to take over the "win every race" mantle.

  • Make AI more dynamic so that they can't be expected to finish in the same order every time.
Racing games need to figure out how to inject personality into AI for situations like this.
Racing games need to figure out how to inject personality into AI for situations like this.

Far too often, the only discernible difference between AI drivers in Forza is how aggressive they are when attempting to pass. They need to have different driving styles, tracks they specialize in, and tracks they're not so good at. That way, if I lose a race, the same AI driver won't be guaranteed to beat me, making this whole point of allowable loss moot as I compete with the AI for most victories instead. Codemasters seems to do a pretty good job with this in a lot of their games, from my experience. At the very least, they make their AI look like it's racing each other pretty hard, even if the finishing order doesn't always reflect that.

There's a lot more I could discuss about AI, but I feel that's best saved for another time, as...well, there's a lot wrong with sim racing AI on a couple of fronts. While making a series championship more important than individual race wins would help make losing acceptable, there's a much more obvious answer that I've been dodging.

  • Don't put any bloody emphasis on winning every race in your achievements or goals! Instead, focus on completion and success through other means.

If Forza 4 didn't have an achievement for winning every race, I'd be writing about other issues here. It simply does not have to be encouraged in such a manner.

Take, for example, money. You gain a lot more money for winning, and this is increased further by removing assists and increasing AI difficulty. If you implement achievements either for earning set amounts of money or buying a certain group of cars, you put more emphasis on difficulty level and ease the absolute necessity of winning. Sure, winning is still ideal, but finishing in a lesser position isn't a complete waste of time like it would be for a "win everything" achievement.

In fact, Forza 4 has an achievement that fits this situation perfectly called Ferrari Collector, awarded for buying a specific group of 22 costly Ferraris. For the average gamer, this could take quite some time, but for those willing to bump up the difficulty that drive well, this achievement's less painful.

I wouldn't lean too heavily on achievements based on purchasing cars – Forza Motorsport 2 made quite the nightmare out of that by encouraging the purchase of almost every car – but it's a start in the right direction. If Turn 10 is dead-set on having gamers experience every race they created, then why not instead make an achievement for completing every race in the game, rather than winning? That way, no time is wasted in regards to this accomplishment, and the player can decide how much they want to be challenged when racing.

That's the key in all of this: Don't waste the player's time by disregarding anything less than a win. Reward them for participation, but reward them more for performing well without making it seem like a requirement.

After all, 1,179 events is a lot if you're expecting perfection.

What about World Tour?

In the midst of discussing this winning-only achievement for singleplayer racing, you might have noticed I didn't actually mention anything about World Tour, Forza Motorsport 4's true career mode. Although it does a lot right, it has its share of flaws, and I'll discuss that the next time I pick this topic up.