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Tap Brake to Drift: Exploring Racing Gameplay



I have put a lot of time into developing Tokyo Light Cycle's gameplay over the last year... possibly too much.¬†ūüėČ

I spent ages deciding how the controls should work, a tonne more tweaking specific values, and I'm still working on making sure its fun to play, while also serving the larger design goals of the game.

I thought I'd write a little about what this process was like and how starting from a baseline of "typical" arcade racing gameplay has evolved into what I have today.


What is typical arcade racing gameplay?

I would define the gameplay mechanics of a basic arcade racing game as follows:

  • Accelerate: One input to go
  • Brake: One input to stop
  • Steering: Two inputs (or a single axis) to steer left and right

Almost every arcade racing game will have these basic gameplay elements and most will build on or tweak them in various ways depending on their own unique mechanics: Forza adds a handbrake, Wipeout has a separate brake for each direction, Mario Kart has a jump button which turns into a drift, etc. etc.


Case Study: Burnout Series

Burnout is probably my favourite ever racing series. I haven't spent as much time with any other racing game and I took some inspiration from it when I started thinking about how I wanted TLC to play.

Burnout expands upon those three core elements of an arcade racing game:

  • Accelerate: One input to go¬†
  • Brake: One input to stop¬†
  • Steering: Two inputs (or a single axis) to steer left and right
  • Steering + Brake: Tapping brake and steering changes the physics on the car's wheels, reducing traction to¬†make the car drift.
  • Boost Meter: Performing certain actions¬†fills a meter which can be spent to temporarily boost the player's top speed.

Burnout evolved into a very specific type of racing game, focusing more on car on car combat as the series went along. While I didn't mind this, it wasn't actually what I enjoyed most. I loved the super simple "tap to drift" gameplay. I enjoyed getting to the front of the pack and then it was just me vs the road, weaving in and out of obstacles and drifting at insane speeds was a very zen experience for me.

It was that element of Burnout that I wanted to distil to something pure and simple with TLC and so I started with Burnout's "tap brake to drift" mechanics as a reference point.


Game Design Overview: What is Gameplay in service of

At it's core, TLC is just a linear racing game taking you from A to B through a series of levels, but along the way the player can access shorter and more difficult routes off the main path with the goal of getting a better completion time. These shortcuts are either gated behind a barrier that requires the player to be going at a certain speed to break through, or are time sensitive, so the player has to arrive at that point in the course before access expires. Like a rail crossing which becomes blocked by a train for example.

From that base "tap brake to drift" idea, the gameplay in TLC has evolved in small ways to help enable the above design and along the way created a slightly more nuanced and involved control scheme.


How Game Design Influenced Gameplay

To serve this design, the gameplay has essentially becoming about earning and losing and re-earning speed while of course staying alert to the twists and turns of the track. This lead to me thinking of speed as the game's currency. 


Earning Speed
The player starts the game with only speed level 1 available. Speed is earned by drifting around corners and performing a wheelie, which fills a meter that when full is "cashed in", unlocking speed level 2. They repeat this process twice more up to speed level 4.

Losing Speed
Mistakes remove the player's top speed level, slowing them down and making it so that they cannot access shortcuts until they have re-earned the necessary speed level. They also lose a chunk of health proportionate to the severity of impact.

Speed is lost through colliding with the environment. Collisions happen because of mistakes or accessing a blocked off shortcut.

Spending Speed
Speed is automatically "spent" when the player bashes through a barrier to access a shortcut in the same way as it is through a collision, except that they lose speed but do not lose health.

Because the player's health is also lost very quickly (3 - 4 collisions will kill you), speed can also be spent to recover it. Sacrificing a speed level recovers roughly one collision's worth of health.


Moment to moment gameplay

The resulting moment to moment experience is pretty fun. It's not revolutionary or anything but the earn/lose/spend mechanic adds an extra layer of interest to the core racing. The player has to be alert to the shape of the course like any racing game, reacting to the corners and learning how to take them without hitting a wall or losing too much speed. They also naturally want to keep their eyes open for shortcuts and hidden paths. 

The player will always be managing their speed as they earn it, spend it, lose it and re-earn it. Once earned, the player can switch up and down through the four speed levels at will, using these to quickly reduce or increase speed in addition to their brakes or set their top speed to be lower if they're going through a tight section. Dropping a speed level and then jumping up one again can be turned into a wheelie at any time, meaning if the player goes through a tricky section and comes onto a straight section having lost some or all of their speed, they can start to re-earn it immediately.

But the gameplay is also quite flexible and the player can play the game without necessarily knowing all the quirks or mechanics. A new player can enjoy the game just knowing how to accelerate, brake and cash in their meter once it's full without worrying about much else.


Quick Note: Advice for beginners who want to make a racing game

Designing and building this game has been a long and often difficult process (mostly because of my lack of experience), but while there are a lot of get you started tutorials out there for other genres like platformers or first person shooters, I didn't find much dedicated resources to help make a racing game.

For that reason I thought I would share a couple of things I found useful early on:

Quill18 ran a livestream a couple of years ago where he created a simple top-down arcade racer which I found a really nice start point to get used to a few of the concepts that are useful to know for racing games. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Quv9U9_a8c

Unity's manual (which I don't think normally contains much tutorial) has a good article on the build-in wheel collider. I didn't use this but if you're looking to make a more realistic racing game, you can get a vehicle controller up and running very quickly with this. https://docs.unity3d.com/Manual/WheelColliderTutorial.html


Hope this has been interesting. 



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Thanks for sharing some of your thought process, that was actually quite interesting! :)

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