Friday, 23 March 2012

Ridge Racer Vita and altruism in gaming

What the PlayStation Vita version of Ridge Racer asks of the player is something that few videogames prioritise; it's a facet of human behaviour that any self-respecting entry in Namco’s racing series - a celebration of life’s pleasures - shouldn’t really be concerned with: altruism. Isn’t personal gratification (read: selfishness) a core tenant of gamers? That said, it’s not altruism as a concept that’s the problem when starting to pick apart the new Ridge Racer, but rather Namco’s fundamental misjudgement over player motivation. After all, many games encourage the player to behave in selfless ways, whether overtly or otherwise.

Useful contemporary examples (i.e. games I can think of from the top of my head) include I Am Alive, in which you can help the destitute citizens of Haventon by giving them useful items such as first aid kits that would otherwise have helped with your own adventure. Then there’s the forthcoming Planetside 2, a blend of MMO and FPS where your online battles will affect the wider, continuously-developing galactic war, as opposed to simply serving an individual, self-contained record of progression as in Call Of Duty.

Both I Am Alive and Planetside 2 soften these gameplay devices in ways that acknowledge the player; the former rewards your acts of generosity with additional retries, while Planetside 2 – according to previews – does still allow for the development of your own character through experience points in the midst of the large-scale conflict. Ridge Racer Vita, on the other hand, lacks anything approaching these sweeteners.

At the game’s outset you’re asked to select one of four teams to join. Your role then becomes that of an employee for this team, with Vision Points – earned through victory in races – being added to your team’s running total. The idea of these teams perpetually trading positions, each consisting of thousands of real-world participants from around the world is an attractive one, but its execution is broken.

With only three tracks in the basic game, Ridge Racer Vita quickly starts to feel familiar. This repetition poses a direct problem to the player’s motivation; it turns out that being given a task no greater than simply amassing as many points as possible for a faceless corporation by racing on the same tracks again and again (and again) just isn’t enough to maintain interest. Compared to the fantastic Ridge Racer 3D, which had an extensive structure of tournaments, the paucity of content here is embarrassing.

But it gets worse. Namco could argue that to alleviate the tedium there is still the chance of personal progression, as races give you credits, which in turn unlock upgrades for your car. But for a system of persistence to work, surely the gamer’s aims should be clear? Ridge Racer doesn’t show how many points away from the next level you are, while the system of upgrades is fixed and often forces you to spend hard-won credits on blocks that are empty, just to get closer to the next actual bonus.

So there are little in the way of personal rewards, while there’s no wider framework to keep the player engaged. Asking players to be altruistic and leave aside individual gratification for a wider cause (whether it be for the survivors in I Am Alive, an intergalactic battle or, as in our Ridge Racer Vita career, Circlite Racing) doesn’t mean you can ignore a gamer’s base concerns. Grinding in, for example, RPGs works because it’s supported by a reward system and a narrative that often overrides the repetition of the gameplay; Ridge Racer’s cause, then, is lost the moment just a few hours in when you hit this wall of repetition - lots of play that feels pretty thankless and, crucially, not very fun.

The irony of all this is perhaps the fact that, back in 2009, Namco themselves published a game whose combination of altruistic philosophy and freeform game mechanics worked beautifully – Keita Takahashi’s Noby Noby Boy. In Noby Noby Boy, as in Ridge Racer Vita, the aim was to add your individual efforts to a wider cause. In Noby Noby Boy this amounted to points, accumulated by how much your character stretched in game, being added to a global online total. NNB was such a success because its reward was the freedom afforded to the player – it didn’t need many trimmings, while the playground given to the player was suffused with such randomness and colour that no two games were ever the same. As unlikely as it may sound, the developers of Ridge Racer Vita could’ve learnt a lot from Namco’s own downloadable gem, about a character called GIRL stretching through space, while on the ground BOY plays with cows, crawling through toy houses.

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