Saturday, January 22, 2011

Catch-up or "How a game mechanic killed the racing game"

Before we begin I'd like to make one thing clear: I am not a native English speaker, I am Dutch. This should come as no surprise to you, since my English might come off a bit odd. I must admit it's rather embarrassing if you go public with your ramblings, only to hear from a friend that your English is blatantly infested with Dutch grammar. I hereby promise to do better by typing all my posts in Linux. I currently using Ubuntu 10.10, which uses a spell-check on every window you type in. It won't take care of the grammar, but it's a start nonetheless.

This pun is so bad, it doesn't
deserve a caption.
Today I want to discuss a game-mechanic that is not so well known, yet overly present in more games than we'd like: catch-up, more specifically catch-up in racing games. The idea behind catch-up is that when a player is reaching a goal or has the upper hand, the game does something to be harder to beat and when the player isn't the one in PWN-status, the game gets easier. In racing-games this means that cars slow down when you are in last place and speed up when you are first. While using catch-up, the game has a variable difficulty curve that adapts to the player's skill. This way the game is supposed to stay exciting.

I first saw the use of catch-up in my favourite racing game of all time, Motorhead. It was all very innovative back then, it had a kind of wow factor and the designers were nice enough to give you the option to turn it off. In motorhead it was not as forgiving as you might expect. If you crashed too often, you still finished stone dead last. Yet, if you were able to let your competitors really eat your dust, you were still the racing champion.

Then things got ugly when Electronic Arts got their hands on the catch-up mechanic. I haven't researched the exact time when EA implemented catch-up in their Need for Speed and Burnout series, but it wasn't in NFS 3, yet it was implemented in NFS Hot pursuit 2, Burnout 3 and NFS: most wanted. You can tell by the way the cars react to you, but more on that later.

Ofcourse, sometimes it IS your fault
As always with EA, they used the dark-side-straight-from-hell version of this mechanic. In championship mode they first give you a catch-up set to let you win, just slowing down cars when you are behind and doing nothing when you are up front. Then, when you get to the later stages, the mechanic is thrown around with a bias to let you lose, just speeding up cars when you are first and let you rot when you are last. This was especially apparent when I played Burnout 3. So apparent even, that I noticed I only played for the skinner box factor, that my personal life suffered from it and I instantly sold it to save myself. I don't know if this bordered to addiction, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

The catch-up mechanic combined with the Skinner box principle made me genuinely afraid to play any racing game after that, especially EA's. That's also the reason why it took me a couple of years to try NFS: most wanted. I saw people having fun with it and I wanted too, but Burnout 3 was still too fresh in my memory. When I finally got the courage to play it, I tried the following test to see how strong catch-up was implemented in the game:

- Find a race you have a hard time winning
- Wait for the start-signal
- Wait 30 to 60 seconds while your opponents race away like hell
- Start racing
- Be the first to cross the finish line.

I succeeded the first time and I didn't even try. Then I tried some other things that let me to these conclusions:

- There should be no need to upgrade your car. If you lose, you are just having a bad day. Somewhere along the line the catch-up is altered by the upgrades to your car. This showed when I had a fast not-upgraded car and a slower tweaked one. The specs favoured the other car, but I won with flying colours with the slow tweaked one.
- Your performance throughout the race doesn't matter until the last part of the last lap. Your opponents are constantly fiddling between racing in front of you and racing behind you. It doesn't matter how skilled you are, if you slightly screw up near the end, you lose. This morphs a race from exciting to merely waiting for the end.
He might look bad-ass, but it's all in the script
- Some races are scripted. You read that right: scripted! There was this boss/opponent (Earl, number 9 on the black list, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer) I had difficulty with beating. He overtook me every time I came near the finish-line. It didn't matter how long it took me to get there, if I was in front, he would overtake me. The scripting in NFS: most wanted got my attention when I crashed the opponent into a wall 3 times and he would stay there until he went off the radar. When he was off the radar (or on the edge of it, to be precise) the arrow depicting him instantly changed directions and started to move as if he was on the road again.

I felt like I fell for the same trick again and dealt with it the same as last time: I sold NFS: most wanted. The store didn't want it. I gave it to them for free.

Today, I don't really hear people a lot about racing games and to be honest, I can't really find them anymore. There is Need for Speed, Gran-Turismo and some single titles like Blur or Split/Second, but none of them seem to scratch the particular itch for anyone. There is also no racing title the industry wants us to look forward to. In my opinion the racing genre is practically dead. There are more reasons to it ofcourse, but the abuse of catch-up is definitely one of them.

And you can always play RR4 for her.
I won't end on a sour note though. If you want to play a racing game that doesn't use catch-up and also doesn't cluster the opponents (a bad trait usually seen when catch-up is omitted), try Ridge Racer type 4 for the playstation. The series are still being developed, but I haven't gotten around to play the other titles from the Ridge Racer series. Knowing the industry, the mechanics are probably the same every title. Ridge Racer tends to put the player in a race where s/he keeps overtaking opponents one by one. The physics are fun to race and it doesn't give you the oh-no-I'm-losing feeling you usually get from NFS or Burnout. Thanks for reading, see you next week!

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