Game Developer Explains Why New Racing Games Suck at Car Damage
Gran Turismo 5 (2010) was the first game in the series to feature visual damage, but only World Rally Championship class racing cars received the full level of damage, losing doors, hoods and other body panels. Screenshot: Sony Interactive Entertainment
“We all know that racing games pretend to be real,” former NASCAR driver Jason Jarrett once said in an ad for the PlayStation game that bears his name. The 2000 Jarrett & Labonte Stock Car Racing TV commercial featured two Audi A4 touring cars side-by-side — one representing how the cars hit in Jarrett’s game and the other showing how they decidedly don’t in “games of others” that will not be. with the name (read: Gran Turismo). As Jarrett, Justin Labonte, and their nameless, defenseless co-conspirators screw up their helpless German cars, the announcer puts in the words for the folks at home: “Now that’s real damage.”
Credit: RGTV via YouTube
For years, marketers and critics alike fostered a sense that the most important aspect of any game involving cars was the player’s ability to destroy them. By the early 2000s, gaming hardware had finally matured to the point where realistic rendering of wrecks in real time was possible, and even tanks like Gran Turismo eventually appeared. But if you’ve been paying attention — as some of our commenters have — you may have noticed that the rate of damage done to licensed cars in racing games has regressed, not advanced, over the past decade.
I wanted to know why. So I asked a developer at a major game studio, with decades of experience building racing games, for some answers. I’ll just refer to this person as Anonymous Game Developer, because companies – gaming and automotive alike – usually don’t appreciate it when people talk about these things. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Adam Ismail: Some games today are better than others, but in general, why aren’t the cars as beat up as they used to be in racing games?
Anonymous Game Developer: I think because many companies have different rules about what can and can’t be done on their machines. You get a situation where you have two different vehicles from two different car manufacturers in the same game, and they need to have different damage levels. Say “Car A” can be hit and destroyed, while “Car B” can only be slightly damaged. I’ve worked on games where you have that situation and it seems inconsistent. So what happens now is, I think everyone is reduced to the “B” level, where the damage is less spread across the cars.
And I think racing games are now in a situation where you have open-world racing games or you have simulation racing games, like Gran Turismo or Assetto Corsa Competizione or whatever. ACC has more damage because that’s more about the simulation level of things – it’s more a part of the game. Whereas open world racing games – I think, say Forza Horizon for example – are not that important in that game. Not much is put into it, I don’t think, because it’s not that important to the game.
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AI: I think about the games, say, 15 years ago. In the 2000s, you saw prioritized damage in games like Dirt and Grid. Even the original Forza Motorsport damage, if you look back, was much more severe at the time than it has been in recent years. Do you think this is due to the changing attitudes of the car manufacturers? Are they more restrictive about these things than they were before?
GD: I think they are, because the games are so much bigger than they were back then. So there are more eyes on cars and more people see them. Also, I think since the fidelity of the games has increased a lot, the cars look much more realistic, so [damage] it is easier to recognize. That’s definitely part of it too.
Check out this GamesRadar interview conducted with DiRT producer Alex Grimbley back in 2007. That was 16 years ago, and the modern racing game tab doesn’t really compare when it comes to vehicle damage. Credit: gamesradararchive via YouTube
AI: Obviously, the sentiments of the automakers have a lot to do with it. But is there anything holding things back on the development side? Is harm considered less of a priority now than it was before? I remember Gran Turismo used to be mocked by everyone for being the most realistic car game out there, but it didn’t hurt. You don’t hear it anymore. So is it challenging from a development perspective as well, or is it just, these are the realities of the industry and publishers are just trying to steer the conversation away from harm?
GD: It’s a lot of work to do the damage – it’s a huge amount of work. And there are additional approval processes because you have to send the manufacturer what the damage model looks like in order for them to approve it. So everything goes through this. And I think [publishers] maybe look at games like Gran Turismo and say “hey, they’ve never had damage and it hasn’t affected their sales.” I think that’s definitely part of it too – the GT’s lack of damage over the years. Obviously they have a little bit of it now, but that was definitely part of it becoming less important.
AI: In your experience, what specific types of damage have automakers drawn the line at? I feel like I don’t see much glass breaking in racing games anymore.
DG: [T]hey you are very, very specific that the roof can never be damaged. This is the main thing, the driver’s cell should always be completely safe. This can never be part of it. But the rest of it, some companies are absolutely fine with, like, wheels coming off. Although the angle of the wheels can be interesting and detaching the wheels from the car can be a no-no for some manufacturers as well.
This video from Formula Digital compares the damage models of 11 different racing sims. It is no coincidence that titles without licensed cars depict much more dire conditions. Credit: Formula Digital via YouTube
AI: You mentioned earlier how you almost have to play the weakest link – that you can have seven producers who are okay with a certain level of damage, and then one or two come in and don’t leave. Is that often a problem, taking what could be this great high-tech damage model and limiting it to please some of the licensees?
GD: I’ve worked on a few games where we’ve had feedback where people noticed it wasn’t consistent [cars]. Of course we balanced it so that […] mechanically, an impact still causes [the same] mechanical damage. But visually it looks different. And this causes problems, because you may notice that some cars just don’t take as much damage as others. And it just seems weird that you have this car, you’re driving around, and it generally seems okay. But another vehicle with the same impact looks completely destroyed, as you’d expect it to be.
It was when we started getting feedback from the community that things seemed inconsistent [that it became an issue]. And they question it and you can’t tell them why!
AI: You also don’t see terminal damage happening much. Is this more about game design decisions? Isn’t it so much fun for the player if the cars immobilize too easily?
GD: I’ve only ever known one manufacturer to have a terminal damage condition problem in a vehicle, where the car is basically no longer drivable. But overall this is probably a game design thing [….] It’s a disappointment in a game when that happens. So the car will be damaged to a certain point, but it is still moveable around the track and you can complete the event.
Gran Turismo 5 (2010). Screenshot: Sony Interactive Entertainment
AI: Do you have any stories about working on a game where a producer had a very strange complaint or request?
GD: Not with damage. Even more so with customization, to be perfectly honest. Like a vibrant design, where you had companies that didn’t like certain designs or shapes on the side of the car. Not specifically damage, actually. Only the rules, somehow, we knew from the beginning.
We found ourselves scaling the damage up to the same level [between makes] or, I think in some games, it doesn’t exist, because it’s less [important]. Like you’re saying, you don’t see players talk about it like this before. It used to be critical, wasn’t it, in racing games? Unless it’s something like Wreckfest, where it’s all about soft body stuff, which is very different.
AI: And of course they can get away with it because they’re not using vehicles licensed by real car companies.
GD: They can do whatever they want, yes.
HE: That’s why I was thinking. We know car manufacturers play a big part in this – it’s an open secret – but I have to think it also helps developers. It’s like “okay, if the producers don’t let us do it, then we don’t have to invest so much time in it and we can focus on other things.” And so over time, it just becomes less important.
GD: That’s right, I guess. It just becomes less important and they can spend more time making the paint look better and the headlights look nice. Such things, in their perfect condition.
Scratches and dirt will be more detailed in the new Forza Motorsport, respecting the context of impacts and car body shapes. Screenshot: Xbox Game Studios
Last week, Turn 10 Studios showed off new footage of the upcoming Forza Motorsport, focusing on the game’s more realistic handling of damage and dirt accumulation. It’s now “unique to each car,” according to the studio, and “contextually aware and more localized.” While it’s clear you’ll see more stain build-up in areas of the body that catch particles, it’s too early to tell if the effort will extend to replicating the results of more violent shunts, such as broken body panels and torn
Racing cars may even get special attention. Jalopnik’s anonymous developer told me that titles focused on real-world motorsport, such as Assetto Corsa Competizione or iRacing, often have more pronounced damage, not just because they’re simulations, but “because they’re almost exclusively race cars, so the damage is it’s not really a problem.” On the other hand, “a street car that you’ll see in Forza Horizon, etc. wants to look like [it does] in the brochure all the time.” Manufacturers seem to have slightly looser restrictions on non-consumer-facing vehicles, which is understandable from a marketing standpoint.
Overall, though, if automakers collectively miraculously decide to cool down about their products being presented in a less-than-desirable light, dirt and scratches might be the best players can hope for in most racing games. . Graphics hardware today is extremely powerful, but there are simply some scenarios that parties are unwilling to recreate in true detail.