Thursday, May 19, 2016

4.72. The Out Run Test

Sega's 1986 classic game,
Out Run


When Out Run was released in 1986, it was not the first racing game. It wasn't the first to set the precedent of a third-person driving perspective -- that honor went to Turbo, some five years earlier. It was not the first to offer force feedback through its steering wheel, nor was it the first to allow players the freedom to choose their route. It wasn't even the first to pseudo-scale sprites at high speeds, making the player feel like they were racing down a real speedway. In fact, the only new feature that Out Run brought to the table was to allow players to pick their own background music. Wikipedia lists at least a dozen racing games that were released before Out Run. In the halls of video game history, Out Run wasn't the first to do many things.

But it was the first to do them well.

To Yu Suzuki, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, so long as each part received special treatment. He carefully chose the right elements from previous racing games, polishing each as it was added to the mixture. When Suzuki's refinements came together in just the right mixture -- not too much of one or too little of another -- the result was a video game racing experience vastly different from anything seen before.

What's so special about Out Run, when compared to its competition at that time?
  • Humor was injected throughout. Racing games ended with a "Congratulations!" and not much else. Meanwhile, Out Run's five endings all featured a comedic skit played out by the driver and his girlfriend. When the player hit an obstacle at high speed, the Testarossa flipped out of control, launching its cartoonish passengers into the air.
  • Video Game music had yet to leave a memorable footprint among gamers - Out Run's three main selections (chosen on a virtual radio station) were written by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, one of the most prolific composers in Sega's history. Kawaguchi was a member of the "S.S.T. Band", Sega's in-house rock group, known to play at festivals and conferences during the late 80's and early 90's.
  • Although Out Run was unmistakably a 2D experience, Yu Suzuki conceptualized his entire game design process in a three-dimensional perspective, stating "I calculated the position, scale, and zoom rate in 3D and converted it backwards to 2D."
Out Run was memorable, not because of its innovation in any one area, but rather, through the combination of all the fine details that breathed life and character into a genre, which -- up until that point -- had been primarily about boxes of pixels driving a track, over and over and over. It was the best selling arcade game the year of its release, went on to win countless awards, and is permanently chiseled into a myriad of lists that recount the greatest video games of all time. Out Run raised the bar to which all future racing games would be measured against...

...including itself.

At the end of his career, nearly two decades after the launch of Out Run, Yu Suzuki returned to oversee the production of Out Run 2.

There is only one game this could be:
Out Run 2

Changing the Formula

The video game industry bears the weight of Moore's Law more than perhaps any other; technological advances that span eighteen years are better compared to the journeys of ancient civilizations. The mind-numbing power of twin Motroloa 68000 CPUs (in Out Run's 1986 arcade cabinet) is mere flint-and-sticks when compared to the CPU in an iPhone 6. You can't really compare the speeds of architectures so vastly different, but a flat clock comparison yields a difference of about 11,000%. It's like they came from an entirely different world of hieroglyphics and clay pots.

"Super-scaling" sprites gave way to polygons, shaders, and riggings. Arcades rose and fell as home consoles and PCs obsoleted the need for bulky, rigid cabinets and expensive real estate. Even the medium itself moved from the dead language of archaic taped chips to instant downloads on internet-ready consoles. Our network connections today boast such available bandwidth that entire games can be streamed, complete with real-time voice over IP -- the long road of arcade cabinet manufacturing must have been like building the pyramids, in comparison.

But it wasn't just the technology that changed. After two decades, the competition not only drove circles around Out Run, few even remembered its existence. Entrenched franchises battled each other for market dominance: Need for Speed, Gran Turismo, Burnout, and more. Out Run wasn't even on the map.

Yu Suzuki could've made significant changes to an already winning formula in order to compete. And there were changes: A new drift mechanic, multiplayer challenges, a time attack mode, to name a few. They were the sorts of changes that, if done incorrectly, risked taking away the identity that made Out Run what it was.

Mr. Suzuki did not disappoint.

He took the features Out Run was known for, all those years ago -- the music, the humor, the candy apple red Ferrari Testarossa, the feel of all those outdoor zones, and simply made them better. The new maps felt like Out Run maps, kicking off with a contemporary version of the original Coconut Beach starting area. New cars were added, but true to Out Run form, it was a selection of only Ferraris. Even the casuals got a break: Out Run 2 allowed players to select automatic transmissions, if manual was too much to handle. He even tossed in a few new radio stations to choose from, but Out Run wouldn't be Out Run without remixes of its three original tunes: all three -- Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze, and Splash Wave -- were present.

When it came time to fold in some innovation, he did so with great care. Drifting wasn't nearly as complex as it was in those juggernaut franchises, and felt felt like Out Run. Multiplayer challenges didn't force the game into a traditional racing pigeonhole -- other racers were represented via ghost cars, keeping the original challenge of "best time" being the true opponent, not the drivers themselves.

Out Run 2 may not have sold millions and millions of units like its contemporary competition, but it is undeniably Out Run. Everything that made the original great is also true of its sequel. For everything that was added, and what tiny adjustments were made to the original formula, the result is conclusively a return to greatness for fans of '86 title. It. is. fun.

Out Run 2 feels like Out Run. Other sequels aren't as lucky.

"So for your next game, we're going to put you in a
three-dimensional city and see if players can have you
not collide with furniture for more than three seconds."

Sonic the Disappointment

A polygon article on the history of Sonic quotes developer Bob Rafei as considering Sega "brave" for all of its attempts to breathe life into the franchise, himself believing, "If you stay the same, you stagnate, and that's a slow death." The irony of such a statement is not lost on fans of the series. Rafei co-developed one of the worst iterations of Sonic the Hedgehog in the franchise's history: Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. The game's a mess: at the 2014 E3, GameCentral described it as "so unspeakably awful we couldn't force ourselves to play through the entire demo."

The blue hedgehog's glory days concluded at the end of the 16-bit era. No platformer could compete with Sonic's dizzying speed at the height of his popularity. But the advent of 3D rendering in consoles like Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, and Sega Dreamcast put the brakes on Sonic, hard. Fans of the series struggling with awkward controls and an overabundance of cute partners "helping" Sonic thwart Dr. Robotnik were themselves thwarted at every step Sonic took. A series that once defined itself as a hedgehog with attitude that blazed across Moebius had somehow gained too much attitude, sacrificing control in the process.

It was not fun. More accurately, it was not Sonic.

In an ironic turn, some of the greatest Sonic the Hedgehog games released since the end of his golden age weren't even made by Sega. The fan-based Sonic projects Before The Sequel and After The Sequel are extraordinary pieces of work (considering they were built by kids in basements rather than professional development teams). If you have an ounce of interest in Sonic, I urge you to try them: the levels, artwork, music, and game design are all new, built from the ground up. Yet, these home-brewed titles immediately invoke the feel of the original, early 90's games. They get it.

There are even indie games that have no relation to Sonic whatsoever that get it. Within seconds of playing them, you know exactly where they draw inspiration from and what they pay homage to. You see it. You hear it. You feel it.

It is telling that basement-bred Sonic games and no-name indies blow the pants off of officially sanctioned sequels -- they possess something that those Sega sequels lack.



If you're a game designer being pushed to innovate an existing title, the Out Run test is excruciatingly important to complete. Take your latest iteration and strip it of all identifiable assets that tie it to the franchise's brand: no more blue hedgehog, no more red Ferrari. With no celebrity to coast on, the game must now stand on its own. Put it in the hands of your current customer and let them play, then ask them, what does it remind you of? What game does it feel like? What game do you think inspires this unrecognizable mess?

Then, listen. What's the first title they name? Is it your game's origination? Does it take them back to where it all started? Do they nail it in mere seconds, and does identifying it come naturally?

Or are they puzzled? Do they rattle off titles you'd never expect to hear (or, worse, do they name the competition?) Are they hard-pressed to even identify it at all? Do they struggle?

And if it is this latter scenario that plays out, go back to your bloated feature list and your options now lying on the cutting room floor. Review. Figure out which one it was...what was the thing you added or removed...that allowed the magic to slip away. Restore it. Repeat. Continue until it feels as it should.

You can't have Out Run without the Magical Sound Shower.


Tjuhl said...

I have been grinding through this blog since your article on Polygon was released.

I've been a raid leader in Vanilla, sans guild (!), on an RP PvE server (!!!). Fun times when you are explaining the boss strategies before the pull and some participants complain I should do this more laid-back and give them some room for RPing... :D Still, we did manage to score kills on Ragnaros and Onyxia within 5 months after the first molten giants pull! :)

Accordingly, I can wholeheartedly relate to all the struggles and accomplishments you describe in this blog.

I returned to WoW for Burning Crusade as enhancement shaman on a PvP server, mainly focusing on PvP. Then some death knight dungeons tanking in Wrath. Then some prot warrior tanking in Cata and recently WoD, but never going beyond heroic 5-man dungeons. Raid management took its toll in Vanilla and I just couldn't cope with doing that again. Accordingly, all attempts to return to WoW ended after a few months of play.

I admire your tenacity of sticking to it for eight years.

oh and by the way, regarding this blog post here: well played, I have an idea where this is headed... :D

Anonymous said...

Did you just put Sonic Adventure and its sequel in the same bin as everything after them? Heretical scum! Also a lot of the latter handheld games were mostly pretty decent, considering they played like the originals. Then we started getting weird ones.