NASCAR In Game Design Terms
April 5, 2009 · Print This Article
I was having a great dinner at GDC last week when the conversation drifted to NASCAR. As is often the case, I was the only fan, and I invariably found myself explaining my interest in the sport. My answer to this topic is usually two-tiered: for one, the NASCAR garage is one big dysfunctional family. There’s 43 guys with different personalities who are shoving, pushing and banging on each other 36 races per season. You know that tempers are bound to flare, and that rivalries aplenty are bound to spring up – on and off the racetrack. Having an opinion on NASCAR is easy, and it’s fun! Just start watching for a bit and you’ll catch on.
The other reason to watch NASCAR are the actual races, which, believe it or not, are very entertaining. That part is harder to explain without reference. But since I was at the Game Developers Conference, it occurred to me to describe the appeal in game development terms:
NASCAR is the Mario Kart of real-life racing.
There’s a reason why Mario Kart is so successful: even first-time players quickly feel that they can win a race, while seasoned professionals always feel in control of the outcome. Staying in front of the pack relies on skill, but no matter how well you drive, it’s almost impossible to pull away from the field. The game designers have included a few mechanisms to keep the field close, some of which are obvious, some of which are not. Players in the back of the field have a much higher chance of collecting speed power-ups like the rocket, which they can use to get back into the action. An invisible rubberbanding system ensures a bunched-up field, helping drivers who have fallen to the back to stay in contention. Those small but all-important touches create the world’s most successful racing game, enjoyed by occasional and hardcore players alike. Mario Kart never punishes players for driving well, but it does help the guys in the back to get back on track.
Now compare this to NASCAR. Where drivers, yes, are simply going around in circles at 190mph for the entire year (with the exception of the two road races, one of which is at Infineon Raceway). But what makes NASCAR so successful is not its perceived simplicity. NASCAR exemplifies many of the virtues that make Mario Kart so entertaining: there’s a lot of shoving, banging and passing. You can never be sure of the winner until the end of the race. And even people in the back of the field maintain a chance of winning the race. Long race distances let teams make improvements to badly handling cars. Caution flags regularly bunch up the field, ensuring that nobody can race away from the field (in fact, restrictor plate tracks like Daytona and Taladega put the driver who gets too far ahead of the field at a disadvantage, because his car loses the draft). NASCAR doesn’t have power-ups that are quite as spectacular as Mario Kart’s banana peels and rockets, but whenever a caution flag flies, the first car a lap down gets the “lucky dog”, which puts the driver back on the tail end of the lead lap. Which can make a marked difference on the race outcome! A couple of years back, Kyle Busch came back from 5(!) laps down to win the race. It’s not common, but it certainly has happened.
Love it or hate it… when it comes to the entertainment factor, NASCAR is doing a lot of things right. It’s easy to get into! Just gather some friends, pick a couple of drivers starting up front and follow the race. Go through the emotional rollercoaster ride as the race unfolds. “My driver is 1st! 20th! 5th! A lap down! OMG, he’s back on the lead lap and might actually win the race!” Good cars rarely fall off dramatically, but cars in the back of the field always maintain a chance of driving back to the front.
Sure, NASCAR might not have the sophisticated air of Formula 1 or IndyCar (which Victoria and I often watch, as well). But it’s certainly more eventful than any F1 race I ever remember watching, where the only passing would happen during pit stops and cars would break when lightly rubbing tires. And that’s simply not as fun to watch.
P.S.: Reason #3 to love NASCAR: Go to a race and feel the cars going by. You’ll know