Black Rock Studioâ??s Serkan Hassan provides an invaluable glimpse into how the team behind the critically-praised MotoGP franchise recently aimed to please both casual and hardcore players with its latest releaseâ?¦

Casual and Effect

As a design manager at Black Rock Studio, I’ve been working in the driving and racing genre for seven years. However, one of the most significant challenges I’ve faced has been in the development of MotoGP’07, the latest in our award winning series of motorcycle racing games on the Xbox 360 and PC.

The rise of the casual gamer has led to a change of tactics by many publishers, as we all now look at ways in which to develop and market titles that appeal to the most rapidly growing demographic of games player. Naturally this is of interest to us but the challenge with MotoGP’07 was taking a series of games that are renowned for difficulty and making them appealing to new players.

But of course, things are never that simple. Our games are generally considered to cater for a niche market. Whilst this may seem like a disadvantage, the critical and commercial success of the MotoGP franchise suggests otherwise, with each new title in the series selling more than the last. This is largely down to our hardcore fans, gamers who have been playing our games since their original release on the Xbox – the kind of players who make us look like amateurs when we race them online.

This was the challenge that we at Black Rock Studio faced. How do you broaden the appeal of a series without betraying your existing audience? How do we take a motor sport that’s among the most exhilarating, dangerous and unforgiving in the world and make it a compelling game for both bike rookies and experts?

One of the first things I wanted to assess was the media’s perception of our games. This brought up a range of interesting issues. Read any review of one our titles and the word “simulation” is frequently used, with repeated reference to how the game is for the “hardcore” gamer.

It’s the use of phrase “simulation” that bothered me the most. Too often in my opinion, this term is incorrectly used, more often an indication of a game’s difficulty level than actual gameplay. In my opinion, our MotoGP titles have never been what I would call simulations. In many respects they are arcade in nature, albeit with plenty of challenge.

Let me explain my reasoning. In my opinion, simulations capture both the positives and negatives that come from racing. It’s because of this that I don’t consider our titles to be simulations. For example, licensing restrictions mean that should you crash; neither the rider nor bike will suffer any damage (terminal or cosmetic). In fact, as soon as the dust has settled you’ll be back on the road with a fresh bike and rider. Engines never fail and bones never break.

Without the consequences, players are free to race in a more aggressive, flamboyant, dare I say it arcade-like manner. For some people, it’s the skill required to control the bike that makes the game a simulation, a factor that in my opinion is regrettably being stripped away from games developed by many of our competitors.

So, in order to attract a wider audience, our efforts should be focused on adjusting the game’s difficulty level, rather than shifting its perceived focus on simulation. There were a number of ways in which we’ve achieved this, whilst simultaneously preserving the core values of the game that all our hardcore fans desire.

First of all, we looked at the role of the game’s Extreme Mode. For the uninitiated, this mode was introduced earlier in the series in an attempt to give newer, more casual players a more forgiving bike handling model and tracks that were simpler to learn. Set entirely on fictional tracks and with original bikes, this mode was intended to be the perfect accompaniment to the more challenging MotoGP modes.

However, in previous games in the series, the licensor always insisted on this mode taking a back seat to the MotoGP mode (as one would expect them to). This meant that in order to access the easier game mode, players would have to complete a championship in the harder, real life mode. For MotoGP’07, we managed to convince the licensor that allowing players to access Extreme mode from the start would be hugely beneficial to the enjoyment that new players would get.

The next challenge for us was tackling each of the game’s difficulty settings. In MotoGP’07, difficulty is measured purely by the AI rider’s capabilities. With four difficulty levels in the game, we have all the range required to make the game sympathetic to the novice whilst uncompromising for experts.

Using our in house tool, Nipple, the design team at Black Rock had the power to adjust a vast range of AI attributes in real time during gameplay. For the easier difficulty settings, limits could be applied to AI riders in order to prevent them rider at their best. Attributes like rider aggression, spatial awareness and riding form could be tweaked in order to get a range of effects.

At the lower difficulty levels, AI riders will be happier to follow in another bike’s wake, making little use of the track around them. At the higher difficulty levels, Nipple enabled us to completely change AI behaviour, the result seeing four or five AI riders all diving into a corner at the same time, missing each other by a fraction. The difference in AI behaviours achieved by our tools really is quite breathtaking.

Our focus on AI was because we have always believed that the handling model should not change as a result of changing a difficulty setting. MotoGP’07 is a racing game, plain and simple. If you dumb down the handling, what have you got left? Nothing irritates me more than when I play a racing game and find that there’s nothing beneath the surface. When that initial thrill from racing has passed, the lack of depth or challenge is something I always find a huge disappointment. Too many games substitute this for a more asset driven approach, bombarding the player with new vehicles and tracks to race. If the core gameplay is shallow, where is the motivation for repeat play?

In terms of judging our difficulty levels, we encouraged play testing, in particular from as wide a range of players as possible. We had complete newcomers to the series testing our ‘Rookie’ difficulty level, whilst the most experienced members of the team took on the challenge of our ‘Legend’ difficulty. The flexibility of our toolset was pushed as we found that difficulty had to be tweaked on a per track basis. Faster tracks are more challenging when racing AI whereas on slower tracks, players could make up more time under braking.

Having addressed the AI difficulty level, we looked at other aspects of the game, such as MotoGP’07’s unique controls and game settings. Many questions were asked. Was the default camera view ideal for new players? Was the default bike setup easy to ride?
As a result of this review, we made a range of changes designed to make things more accessible.

Most notably, we changed the default bike set up to be as easy to ride as possible. Tyres, brake balance, suspension settings and wheelbase were all setup to make for the most forgiving ride. It was obvious that new players were not going to be able (or willing) to tune a bike for more forgiving performance so we took the step of doing that for them.

In contrast, we knew that our existing audience were overwhelmingly familiar with the tuning options, so whatever default setup was available, expert players would tinker with it anyway.

We next looked at what we could do to give inexperienced players as much feedback as possible during racing. We designed a simple to use telemetry system that would break each track spline up into segments and time the player through each one. Each spline segment would then be colour coded and displayed on the HUD track map during gameplay. At a glance, players could see how their lap was shaping up, where they had made gains and where they had made mistakes. It’s a very simple system but one which is beneficial to players of all skill levels. It also acts as a good reward system for players, who can take positives from a race even if they don’t win it.

With the changes made to accommodate new players, we then turned our attention to our returning players.

One of the greatest things about having an online community is the wealth of feedback they are always willing to give you. We looked at every review, checked every community forum and message board and compiled a comprehensive list of feature requests.

A significant thing to come from this was the demand to make the game more challenging. With the structure of the game we knew we could achieve this without impacting on the game’s accessibility (once again, the benefit of player scalable difficulty settings). As a result, all new simulation settings were introduced, designed to compliment the existing handling model. Off track handling was made less forgiving, collisions more punishing and traction levels reduced, all designed to provide a greater challenge for the most experienced players.

Looking back now, I feel confident that our team at Black Rock Studios has achieved our objective. MotoGP’07 is without doubt the most accessible game in the series to date, whilst simultaneously enhancing its feature set for the benefit of the most experienced players. With motorcycle racing games so often being considered a niche market, we believe that our final game in the series is perfectly suited to all racing fans and gamers in general, casual or hardcore.

The MotoGP series will always be one that we look back on with great affection, as it has been synonymous with our studio for so many years. However there’s a bright new future at Black Rock Studios, with great excitement at the original games we are now busy at work on.

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