Friday, January 4, 2013

The Need For The Sense Of Speed

And a happy 2013 to you...when everyone else was shooting fireworks, I was shooting a Remington 12 Gauge and an AR-15 (at nobody, don't worry kids).  Tell me that those things aren't more impressive (and louder) than sparklers & Roman candles.

When we talk about racing games, I hear this term thrown around a lot--"sense of speed."  Well, what exactly is it?  "It's the feeling that you're going fast."  Well duh, that's what everyone wants.  But other than that, people really don't know what it is.  They just want something that feels good.  Well how do you make that good sense of speed?  I'm going to try to define it the best I can.

First of all, notice the term--sense of speed.  It's the human body's five senses.  It's like trying to explain what and why does certain art is pleasing to look at, why certain food is delicious, why certain scents elicits positive moods.  It just "does" somehow.  Like try to explain what constitutes "good" art or something.  "It's pretty and detailed."  Okay, well what's "pretty" or "detailed."  Besides, there's abstract art which is neither of these and is hugely popular.  You could consult a biologist, anthropologist, or psychiatrist for the answers to these things, but I'm going to explain this sense of speed nonsense as best as I can:

Go back to when you were in a fast vehicle, be it a car, truck, motorcycle, airplane, boat, or roller coaster.  You're sitting there then it takes off.  You start moving, but you're moving faster than usual.  It's "foreign" to you as your body begins to experience weird sensations.  G-forces pull you back.  Then you start turning as this heavy contraption leans in and out of turns, pulling you along with it.  You experience the dopamine rush as your stomach starts to turn and your hair stands on edge.  You rest in-between a state of hopelessness to complete control--you can't predict what'll happen next as you attempt to will the car to your bidding.  You're doing something super-human--the human body was never meant to go faster than, say, 25 mph.  And accompanied with the g-forces are some rumbling as the vehicle trades blows with the road and the engine lets out a hollow roar.  Maybe you're in a cool piece of machinery like a Ferrari or an F1 car.  Maybe there's some token fast-paced music similar to AC/DC or Metallica.  In other words, you're experiencing something out-of-this-world and sense of speed just takes you to that seemingly foreign world.

F1 car of speeds over 200 mph.

Suspension cam of stock car at Daytona.

Mindblowing rally racing!!!  So kinetic you can feel it!!!  Skip to 1:22.

Go to 2:50, man that's some serious horsepower. do you get sense of speed in a video game?  Well, I'm sure if you were actually in the cockpit of those cars, yeah, the sense of speed would be really easy to pick up.  But you're actually not there (shocker).  Looking at racing sims like GT and Forza, they do a good job of transmitting real-life imagery on the screen, but if you're sitting on your couch looking at a regular TV/speaker combo playing a racing game with a regular video game controller, it's not the same thing--you don't feel the same rush as a real life driver.  So what do we do?  We have to embellish the video game.  Obviously, this is one huge advantage that video games have over real life but often, for the sake of "authenticity," racing games (particularly simulations) don't add anything new and thus the games become boring and people lose interest.

"Hello everybody, we're here in the boring world driving a boring car around a boring track at a boring speed using a boring video game controller.  You're gonna love this game."

So what should we do to improve the sense of speed?  Here, let me throw some suggestions out there, another Top 10 (err, 12) of things:

1. There needs to be some "tactile" feel of the car.  The suspension is a great thing since as the car is flung in certain direction, so do you.  Sometimes, the car trembles at a high speed, which isn't realistic, but the faster you go, the more you shake, the more you "feel" you're moving.  And when the car does some sort of hard cornering, it leans and you can feel yourself being pulled along with it.  And not just cornering to the left or right--elevation changes (going up and down hills) is great too since the car is rocking in all directions (track design is crucial).  If the car doesn't react to steering, then it might as well be a curling puck on ice--no emotion, no feeling at all.

2. Tire smoke, tire tracks, just other parts of the car that react to physics of the car (car damage, perhaps?).  I really cannot think of a good racing game that doesn't have tire smoke/tracks at all--it's mandatory.  Exhaust fumes and car damage can be a plus as long as it isn't too distracting for the player.  When it comes to Burnout, I'm not "anti-wreck" but I want it to be about fast cars, not smashing them to pieces.

Tire smoke on display as the car's rear bumper starts to kick up from excessive rear-wheel torque.

3. There needs to be a lot of easily-identifiable stuff flying by the car.  They give us scale that we've gone from point A to B in X amount of time.  Sparse environments with nothing to drive by is boring and doesn't feel like you're really passing anything.  The original OutRun does this well--there's tons of crowds, palm trees, dotted lines, overpasses, buildings, signs, even stripes in the road that just whip right past you.  Small objects are generally better than large ones since you pass those quicker.  Seriously, I talked about this in June 2011, this is a video game not a real life world.  We want stuff in our worlds.  We want to pass that stuff really quickly.

Colorful, easy to identify objects like clouds, palm trees, traffic, and white lines.

4. Camera angles.  There is no such thing as the "best" camera angle, but typically, you want the camera to hover close to the pavement and get a good view of both your car and environment you're passing by.  It really helps too if the camera doesn't just stay fixed on the car's rear bumper but rather captures the sides of the car as it is cornering to further emphasize that the car is hauling ass in a certain direction.  Ridge Racer violated this rule many years ago and I call it out today.

Should be staring at the driver-side door!  Here, I feel like the camera is fixed in place--it's weak.

5. What about the actual speed of the car?  There really is no recommended limit but going by what my Sega racers say, a good range would be between 180 to 20 mph (290 to 385 kph).  You can get away with going slower or faster if you abide by the rest of the rules...sort of, anyway.  F-Zero goes up to 500+ mph but going too fast can get really nauseating.  People can only intake so much stimuli before they get profusely ill, even if it's just a projected image and not real life.  EDIT: As for going slow (like Mario Kart slow, oooo burn), then you can't have that "sense of speed" if there is no speed in the first place.

Two radically different racing games.

If you DO go outside the speed range, then your game will have to compensate for it.  Like F-Zero GX (made by Nagoshi-San, one of the only few people who can actually handle such a beast), has huge environments with wide, gaping turns.  On the other hand, you look at something like Club Kart at its low speeds and you have to think "put the camera way close to the ground and make really tight, compact courses."  You have to play into the hand of your game's speed range and scale the "size" of the world up/down from there to make sure each is equally difficult yet still playable by the demographic you're aiming at (racing diehards?).

6. 60 Frames Per Second.  I don't care what anyone says--60 FPS is better than 30.  The best analogy is the log in the fireplace--you're gonna go with the smooth, rounded one or the rough one?  The more surface area the log puts on, the faster it will burn (in other words, the smooth log will not burn as quickly).  If you're playing a racing game at a lower FPS, then you're not catching as much of the action as you want to--you're only getting, say, 50-60% of what your brain can actually absorb.  However, with a 60 fps game (the "rough" log), you get to experience more frames of the action and it just caters to your visual senses better.  But if you MUST have 30 FPS or less, then make the frame speed consistent.  Inconsistent FPS just f***s your brain all up and isn't fun to play in any genre of action video game.

7. Control response time is paramount.  You talk about "fast" games nowadays like Super Mario Bros. or Call of Duty and when you turn, jump, or shoot, you do it INSTANTLY.  It makes you feel like you're in charge of your own destiny.  When making a racing game, if the car just slowly flops around or you have no real control over where you go, not only will you get pissed off at it, it feels more like the game is trying to usurp control over the car from you.  That's why I chew out "slow" games like Need for Speed and (now) Forza because I don't get that feeling like I'm 100% in control of the car if it's so sluggish to do anything.  This doesn't mean "make the game piss easy to cater to casuals," but I believe responsive controls are a must.

8. HUD stuff.  You don't need to stray away from HUD pieces.  As a matter of fact, they can top off the sense of speed.  For instance, Daytona USA 2.  The "slot machine" position counter, the tach needle which has a motion trail, the track map which rotates to match your car orientation, how everything shakes when you collide with something.  It blends in with the rest of the gameplay and at the same time stays out of the way of the action so no complaints.

A decent HUD interface, providing meaningful information and giving a clear shot of the car and what lies ahead.

You don't necessarily need fewer HUD pieces to be "immersive."  Split/Second is a great example of this as they chose to include very limited pieces of info in select parts of the screen.  Great.  But taking away the speedometer (only to replace it with that stupid burnt "border" that blocks parts of the screen) doesn't make the game any faster IMO and can be really annoying for racing "diehards" like me who want simple information like "where am I on the track" and "what's my current lap time?"  Is it that hard to ask?  Did Split/Second (and Ridge Racer Unbounded as well) need to reinvent what a racing game HUD needs to look like?

Oh Split/Second, how I missed thee...

EDIT: I should mention that I really do love that lap counter.  Just the flickering numbers, it's great.  Times should be down to the milliseconds (if possible...I know Daytona 1 or Scud Race didn't have three digits).

9. Motion blur is something that isn't necessary bad but I tend to frown upon.  THIS IS DEBATABLE but IMO, the more effects you introduce to the game, the worse it gets.  Some games feel the need to obfuscate part of the screen when going fast to make it seem "edgy."  Yet I don't think that is necessary.  Particle effects and whatnot that "prevent" you from absorbing the environment (and possibly cause the game to lag) just piss me off.  If you're running at 60 FPS as it is, cruising down the road at 200+ mph, you're going to have a hard enough time trying to understand your environment as it is so motion blur will come automatically.  Don't need to force these things on the user.

I searched for "motion blur" and all I got was this scrambled mess.  Don't do this.

10. Sound is phenomenally important.  After all, visuals are only 1/5th of the human senses so you have to cater to the other ones (hearing is another 1/5th).  If you're playing a racing game for about 20 hours and you have to listen to some whiny piece of crap sound effect for that entire 20 hours, it'll suck.  Get some deep, hollow engine sounds so you can "feel" the horsepower.  Makes it feel like you're situated in a tin can with that loud motor.  Get great tire, transmission, suspension, collision, EDIT: and wind sound effects.  See NASCAR suspension clip for heavenly "air tunnel audio."  You can add "contrast" to pictures to make them more colorful so do the same with sound.  Get some stereo speakers to surround you.  Easier said than done since not everyone can afford that setup.

11. Now about how you physically feel the game.  That's another 1/5th right there.  You play a racing game and there needs to be some tactile feedback like a real race car driver would.  Here's where Sega's state-of-the-art arcade cabinets come in to play.  The force feedback of trying to fight against an aggressive car (much like a cowboy tries to ride a bull) is something you really have to play into.  Not as relevant on home consoles (just make the controller shake) but something you can't discount if you're going for 100% perfection.

12. Last but not least--a racing game NEEDS great music.  It needs to be exciting and fit the tone of the game.  Sega does a great job at creating their own tunes as I've mentioned here.  Great lyrics to accompany fast-paced beats.  But if you can't create your own music, then use licensed music!  Problem is many producers (not just in games but TV & movies too) pick pretty lame "racing" music.  Like I think Coldplay is alright but it sure as hell doesn't inspire me to get up and race cars.  I can think of 100 better bands--AC/DC, Metallica, Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynard, Powerman 5000, freakin Papa Roach (releases an album for racing game tracks), you get the picture.  But this is a pretty heavy conversation I will probably discuss in a future post.  It'll be great.

TLDR version, here's five bullet points:

1. Work on making the car display "emotion" as it drives. Stoic cars = bad, dynamic cars = good.
2. Use camera angles and track environments to catch as much detail as possible.
3. 60 FPS. Don't get too fancy with the HUD and avoid hindrances to the driving.
4. Go for solid, responsive gameplay that errs on the side of arcade physics.
5. Iterate upon sound & music until it is rich in expression.

That's my list.  You think about these things and say...which racing games are fast and which ones are not?  Do they follow these rules?  Even "bad" racing games (IMO) like Burnout and Need for Speed do some of these things properly but the ultimate ones have to be Sega racers.  Now you know about putting better sense of speed in your video games.  Click on the games on the right panel bar to look at fast game footage.  Now to go to sleep and dream about cars!


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