I'm not quite sure how to initiate this discussion. I know that it was initiated for me by the recent release of the [Forza 3] racing sim, but it's something that has been on my mind for years. As someone who used to prefer the cheap thrills and pure raw adrenaline of arcade racers, I know what it's like to bemoan a game filled with cars that "won't turn."

The challenge of the racing sim is where the fun is. This can sound like a pretty obvious statement, but there are multiple facets to that challenge and a few reasons why they are fun rather than frustrating. The first step towards having fun is to admit to yourself that you can't make a hairpin turn with no tire grip at 80mph.

After you let that that go, the rest falls into place. Gran Turismo 4 is particularly excellent at imparting on the player the joys of getting a particular turn just right with its many licenses that range from a short maybe 10 second timed circuit to lessons in drifting. The techniques learned in these lessons are then used throughout the competitive races in the game.

There are multiple strategies you might want to take. Assuming you are attempting to maximize, say, a single line into a turn or a single lap time, you will probably want to be aggressive. Given that, do you attack a turn aggressively going into it, or do you break early and attempt to optimize your speed coming out of the turn? What line do you take going through the turn? Both of these decisions are related to each other and to the layout of the track.

Depending on your car, taking the right line could mean an extra 5-10mph even on top of a good line, and of course if your acceleration is low this could make a noticeable difference in your lap time. Throw in the affect that being aggressive with your turning, acceleration, and braking has on your tire wear and say the difference between pitting once per 8 or once per 9 laps in a 72 lap race, and you have a lot of decisions really playing off of each other.

With respect to the actual execution of these maneuvers, you gain in skill but there's always that time you took a perfect line through a turn and emerged doing 78 or when you previously only managed 75. On a long enough timeline, with the same car, you can start to hit a fairly predictable pattern of lap times over the course of your tire wear, which means you learn to attempt your best lap time on the laps that your tires are warm but not damaged.

This manifests itself in some extremely exciting ways; protracted moments of pure thrill in racing, in manifesting your well laid plans and in experiencing the joy of a close victory or the agony of a close defeat. I've experienced this most with GT4, since I put what felt like well over 200 hours into that game with my roommate at the time Erik. Two races particularly stand out, visceral races that I still remember very clearly.

The first was either the drafting mission itself, or a race we ran that mirrored it very closely. On a large test oval where breaking is seldom if ever necessary, the maximization of speed ends up coming from two places: from drafting behind other cars, and from taking your turns very deliberately and gradually such that you do not lose precious kmph in the red of your highest gear. In the drafting mission you start behind various cars with the same configuration as you and have to draft and slingshot from car to car, maintaining speeds that would be impossible to obtain were your car not shielded from the wind.

I recall a race we undertook in a very similar situation, where the whole car pack continually drafted past each other and attempted to box the cars behind them. Every turn and every passing move was made to under microscopic scrutiny, and despite having a car that would otherwise not be able to maintain the top speed of the rest of the pack, we managed to pull out the win on the last turn.

The other race I recall very distinctly is the [90's Fuji Speedway Endurance], which I believe we raced with the "Minolta" race car. Every pit was a change of turn, and we managed to cut the lap times down and down until it was clear we could only best them on one or two particular laps when our tires were in peak condition. From there, we shaved off tenths and then hundredths of seconds on our tries, carefully attacking the curves and even developing sophisticated techniques to attack and "skip" the chicane without spinning out.

At times, our speed lap would be foiled by other cars getting in our lines and interrupting us. In the end, we knew our best speeds coming out of every turn on that map; we knew that exiting some turn at 88 rather than 85 meant a good chance at shaving hundredths of seconds off the current best lap time, but exiting at 83 meant that achieving a new record would be impossible.

This amount of painstaking detail and execution is only possible when the detail that the game presents matches the effort of the player. The feeling of accomplishment you get when you execute a record lap, the rush of hurtling downhill on the convex road surface at Nurburgring Nordschliefe, or of flying down the pre-chicane Mulsanne straight, your car bumping around barely maintaining a straight trajectory on that flat surface, or pulling out from behind a car knowing you are travelling faster than the normal laws of aerodynamics would allow; these are deeply satisfying because of the depth of planning that went into them, the depth of skill that set them up, and the depth of the game that allowed them to happen.

Nov 3 2009