Where can racing games go? How can they push boundaries and the same time provide us with the speed and competition we crave? The genre is already offering some clues about what it might be able to do, aside from improving graphics, realism, or going online, or doing anything else purely technical. The future of racing games is going to depend on designers doing interesting things, and fortunately for us some studios are doing just that.
Let's take a look...
Here are some of the trends and the games that are the best instances of them. Certainly not an exhaustive list, but it's a taste of where we might go in the future. A combine them all at the end to create a game that can never exist, but should.
WE'VE GOT YOUR RPG ELEMENTS, RIGHT HERE
There isn't really a racing game around that doesn't offer some elements of stat fiddling and progression for your character over time. Blur was a good example of directly lifting XP systems from RPGs, with you earning fans to unlock your new abilities and cars.
Codemasters' games since GRID have arguably benefited from this sort of approach, too, with their attempting to introducing NPC characters in the other drivers, to give you a sense of building up your own racing driver, unlocking new "abilities" in the form of new vehicles, as well as underwriting the whole thing with a story of your quest to become a master driver.
Of course the "tinkering" that we love in RPGs, where we set up our characters stats and equipment, is already available to most racing games, because the car itself lends itself to endless tweakery, and the games that allow us to do that are widespread, but there are plenty of other layers that racing games can steal from our multifarious RPG heritage.
What I haven't seen, or at least I am not aware of in racing game so far, is pushing the plot thing a bit further, and perhaps allowing you to talk with managers, other drivers, and so on. Choose whether to be the "bad" driver, or the noble, honest guy. Perhaps we could get the Dragon Age equivalent of a racing team from Codemasters one day, where you take a whole team of drivers on tour, dealing with their sidequests and dramas as you go. All of which needs racing games to try and tell stories...
STORY AND HYBRID ACTION
I have to admit I'm fairly intrigued by Need For Speed: The Run, because it's attempting to do something with a racing game that we've not seen before. While we've had story in games for a while, this one is blending character action with racing, and in a manner closer to linear third-person action than we've seen before. While we've seen a bunch of hybrid vehicular approaches now, from the GTA games to Rage, The Run is an attempt to keep racing at the forefront of the action, and scaffold the story with some on-foot action sequences.
Of course it's the choices the team make that will decide whether this approach works. This Gamasutra interview threw up a bunch of detail about what the team are having to do to create a game that is about racing across North America by using DICE's Frostbite engine:
"We have over 300 kilometers of track in the game, which is more than three times you've seen in any previous Need For Speed. Because we can just iterate so quickly on the content and get to quality very quickly and make those drives incredibly fun very quickly, it allowed us to just provide this epic race across the country, but in a believable way."
I love the idea of racing games doing what the big linear shooters are doing, and creating these huge explosive, scripted narrative arcs that can compete in the "blockbuster" arena of selling us cinematic stories. I'm a bit jaded with the "triple-AAA" circus generally, but I think attacking this topics from other angles, such as racing, is exactly the strength that games have.
Of course what happens in mainstream dev often ends up delivering tools to everyone else later on. And that's where the PC's other strengths might come to play in the future of racing games...
MAKE YOUR OWN DAMN GAME
There's no Minecraft of racing games, yet, but we do have Trackmania and, now, Trackmania 2. Allowing people to make their own racing games is the frontier of racing that the PC has really made its own. I don't expect this to ever really change the world, because I think the appeal of endless fiddling to make racing tracks work is fairly limited. But there's no denying how powerful it can be in the right hands, or how sticky it is for the communities that get involved in it. The Trackmania community is not only large, but enormously committed, and I think that's because the reward of making stuff for yourself and giving it to others always outweighs the satisfaction of simply goofing off with a game on your own.
This is the area of all games, not just racing games, that remains under-explored, and has some of the richest potential. The scope for player-driven creation of racing games is huge, and might just be beginning to be tapped, if people like Slightly Mad Studios are to be believed.
Perhaps if we really had the tools, we could make something truly different...
NO SUCH THING AS TRACKS OR CIRCUITS, JUST THE OPEN ROAD
Hey, its me writing this. There's not going to be a way around mentioning my eight-hour drive around FUEL. While it was, as a racing game, pretty poor, FUEL offered a startling vision of something more substantial: driving in gigantic open areas. FUEL was the size of Wales, and you could drive all day if you wanted to. Even with no goal or destination, the game is a fascinating experience. It's my hope that another studio will see the value of this, and give us another truly giant racing world to play in.
I know that the response to open-world racing games such as FUEL, or even Burnout Paradise, has been mixed. But I think that's just because they simply weren't the very best racing games in terms of actual racing. What can't be lost sight of in the future of racing games is how important the very basic elements of racing are: a sense of speed, and a genuine competition with other drivers, be they AI or human. That always has to be at the heart of this thing, with everything else resting on it. Perhaps, however, if someone manages to do a FUEL2, we'll be able to combine genuinely satisfying racing with an interesting, wide-open environment. That would make me quite happy, indeed.
THE FUTURE OF RACING GAMES IS THIS
The future of racing games is, therefore, a non-linear race across an entire planet, with some scripted on-foot action sequences, which tell the story of a heart-breaking existential romance between a car and its driver, produced with user-generated terrain, where you manage a party full of racing experts, a team assembled via careful negotiation, some of whom are aliens you can have sex with in your trailer. I call this game NEED FOR THE SKID-MARKED ONE: THE ULTIMATE ORIGIN OF RACECRAFT, or perhaps we might throw in enemy Nazi drivers and call it THE MASTER RACE. Either way it will be out Q1 2017. I can't wait.