Let’s Talk about Realism in Video games, Arcade vs Simulation gameplay

Hello, I’m Kinglink and today we’re going to talk about Realism in Video games, or more simply Arcade Vs Simulation gameplay.

This is a new series I’m starting, where I take a topic and just discuss it with you. If you don’t know anything about this, that’s fine the goal is to inform and consider a topic. It’s intended to make you think, and hopefully, will enlighten you to something new.

Before we dive deeper I wanted to remind people of one thing that should make this more interesting. I’ve been a video game programmer for 12 years, done a good job with it, so I’m hoping to not only look at this topic as a fan, but as a developer too, and tell you at least a little of what goes on behind the scenes of these concepts.

In addition, because I hate when I see something cool and don’t know where it’s from. We’ll be featuring four video games today. Sonic & All-stars Racing Transformed Collection, I’m just going to call that Sonic Racing for the purposes of this video essay, Project Cars 2, Pinball Arcade, and Pinball FX 3. I have reviewed three of these, so you can look for my opinions on them. We’ll talk about a number of other games that I have reviewed, and if you check the written review I’ll also link the reviews in the article.

So what is realism in video games? Now I don’t like the term realism in video games because it gives the incorrect opinion of a binary idea. Something is real or not, and in video games, we only try to approach reality in a number of ways. So the more realistic a game is, the better, right? Simple topic?

Except that’s not the case, there’s a spectrum of realism in video games. Think of something as either Realistic vs. Arcade games. Think of the last game that you played, was there something that could make the game more realistic, or less realistic? Of course there was, probably in both directions.

However, “realism” is a bigger consideration. Everything from how the game plays, to what you do in it, to the look of the world, and even the dialogue affects realism. We have many different types of games. Everything from unrealistic video games like A Story about my Uncle, Slime Rancher, and more, to very hyper-realistic games like Farming Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2. But I I don’t really think we need to dive into all of that here. I really want to talk about a specific idea.

Now allow me to take a step back and talk about something else. Racing games. I’m sure most people have heard of Arcade, or kart racers, versus simulation racers. On one end we talk about Forza, Gran Turismo or Project Cars, we call them simulation racing games. Whereas Mario Kart, Sonic All-Stars Transformed Magic Bus Edition, and most racing games are “arcade racers”. The odd thing is I really only hear about this idea or concept when talking about racing games.

Rather than talk about Realistic vs Arcade gameplay, I’m going to stick with this idea of Arcade vs simulation gameplay when I can for this video because it’s easier to think about the topic in that way, at least for me. Again the problem is Realism has the idea of totality, and a lot more involved. Something is realistic or not realistic.

However, arcade versus simulation is considered more of a spectrum. Mario Kart is bonkers, you throw shells at your opponent and spin them out. Blur, a little-known racer, was similar, gamers would race the track and shoot weapons at each other. There was also Split/Second where you could trigger huge explosions. Now, these all have attacks, but arcade racers don’t require attacks. Burnout is considered an arcade racer, especially Burnout Paradise which was just great. Ridge Racer, Need for speed (all of them), and almost any racing game you see in the arcade, Outrun, Crusi’n, even the Daytona racing games are pretty arcadey.

On the other hand for simulations, we have the three games mentioned before, Forza, Gran Turismo and Project Cars, but there are also Asetto Corsa, iRacing, rFactor, the entire F1 line of games and more.

What’s important though is this isn’t a binary option. Mario Kart and Split/Second aren’t one thing, and Project Cars and Asetto Corsa aren’t a different thing. There are different goals for each game of course, but as I said this is a spectrum.

Mario Kart is at one end of this spectrum, a very fun and exciting racing game, which is built to be the easiest to learn and the most fun racer, and it succeeds. Burnout Paradise, on the other hand, tries to get people to feel like they’re driving cars, of course, they can ram other players and destroy their cars, and recover from massive damage, even magically appearing back on the road and tries to be the most fun driving game, and it succeeds. Project Cars allows players to experience very realistic driving experiences where they’re trying to turn in lap times, and contact with other cars is very damaging and to be avoided, except how I play, it tries to realistically recreate racing and produce a fun experience, and it succeeds. And while I haven’t played Asetto Corsa, it takes an extremely realistic view of the car and engine and tries to emulate it on current hardware, so it’s super realistic and tries to be fun, and from what I hear it succeeds too. All these games are trying to find different ways to be fun, and they all work.

Let’s break this down a little further. I have four games I’m showing off. Allow me to discuss them further.

Sonic All Star Racing is completely off the wall. We have a game where Sonic races against the team from Team Fortress 2, Ryo from Shenmue, Danica Patrick a real race car driver, and Ulala from Space Channel 5. WTF? It goes far deeper, the roads are so outlandish that almost none would exist in real life, there are weapons like ice balls, fireworks and more, that are collected and slung at each other. Carts slam into each other with no damage, transform on the race course (in the TF2 case characters change out) and you have Danica Patricks’ Indy car, versus a tank, versus Outrun the video game? What is going on here? And you know what? It’s fun.

But Project Cars 2, is all about real cars, on real courses, with realistic drivers, racing the course as fast as they can, turning in great laps, having realistic driving and amazing wetness systems that feel… well real. And it’s a lot of fun.

What’s important here is that neither of these games are bad. They’re just different interpretations of what racing is, and that’s ok. Sonic can go blow up each other, and Project Cars can accurately replicate Laguna Seca, and let me drive my car around it, and players can like both. Neither is necessarily a better game because of the realism, or rather the arcade gameplay vs simulation gameplay. They’re different games. But it’s a spectrum that’s only discussed in racing. Allow me to use a different example.

If you’ve ever played Smash Brothers, you know you have a very fast action and silly fighting game. The game is very good, but the whole premise makes no sense. Mario and Link run into a battle area and smack each other around knocking the opponent off the screen or down off a floating platform and then suddenly reappear. This isn’t a very realistic game of course, but it’s entertaining.

Now moving down the spectrum again we start to see games like Injustice, Street Fighter or even Mortal Kombat where we’re still in arcade territory but we have players ripping off each other’s limbs, or throwing fireballs but it is getting a little more technical, and at least the beating is semi-realistic. We can get more realism with games like Tekken. This part of the spectrum is where most fighting games tend to stay, this pseudo-reality where you can shoot each other with guns, or throw your robot’s head at an opponent.

The thing is, I wouldn’t say that we are even at the halfway mark. Tekken, while a very technical fighter and admittedly one of my favorites is more realistic than most fighting games, but there’s a whole area beyond this point. UFC, boxing games, wrestling, and more can be more realistic. That doesn’t mean they’re better or worse than popular fighting games, but there’s a more simulation style fighting game out there that doesn’t have a lot of popularity. The point though is this is the spectrum of Arcade vs Simulation, Realism vs non-realistic game play.

There’s a similar spectrum for shooters, with Arma, Counter-Strike, and America’s Army on one realistic arm, and Doom, Farcry, and Halo on the other. This becomes a question of how many bullets or even weapons can a player carry, how many injuries players can sustain, how to heal injuries or how health is handled, and more. The point though again, spectrum and style.

I’m going to play two tables, one on Pinball FX 3, and then one on Pinball Arcade in that order… Pinball Arcade tries VERY hard to be a simulation of pinball and gives the player the experience they’ll get in the arcade, whereas Pinball FX 3’s tables are more off the wall and zany. We have characters walking around and more. We’ll be playing Guardians of the Galaxy and watch the characters run around, the balls move around and more. Real pinball doesn’t look like that, but it’s ok, that’s just what Pinball FX 3 does.

On the other hand, Pinball Arcade has the Terminator 2 table, which was a real table and they accurately recreate that. Everything on that table feels like what actually would experience if you were playing on a real Terminator 2 table, and that’s really impressive.

So now that we have at least some understanding of this spectrum, we can talk about what this can mean.

Pinball Arcade actually pushes the simulation gameplay, the realism, but if you notice it’s hard to stay alive in Pinball Arcade and there’s really two reasons for that. First off, real tables are not made to be player friendly. They wanted your quarters and honestly are out to get them, so the accurate recreation will ultimately be leveled against the player. And that’s understandable.

But beyond that, when you play PInball Arcade, you’re looking for that realistic experience, you want to “simulate” playing Pinball, and in that case, it does a great job. It’s harder to play longer games, but very skilled play allows it.

On the other hand, PInball FX 3, creates a universe where anything can happen. Gravity can be reversed, controls can be reversed, balls teleport or disappear, and more. There’s a lot of really unique experiences in Pinball FX 3 that might occur in some Arcade games but are definitely not as common. In addition, the tables in Pinball FX 3 are a little easier. They give away ball saves, as well as free shots much easier, and it’s more about letting the player master the table than trying to steal quarters. That doesn’t make it a better Pinball game but it’s a different set of values that create a different game.

In fact, this difference is a reason I have some issue with Pinball FX 3 getting the Williams tables. They present a really good experience of them, but when I play both Pinball Arcade and PInball FX 3 with the same table on each, the PInball FX 3’s upgrade (unrealistic) graphics are great, and I have to say Pinball Arcade is a far better representation of those tables because the entire game feels built around “realistic simulation”. We’ll talk a bit more about this later.

Similarly, if you swapped the track or the way the controls handled between Sega and Project Cars 2, you’d have a similar moment of disconnection. Cars in Sonic Racing is all about fun racing, rubber band AI, and the ability to catch up and survive a few mistakes. You want to have fun in it.

Project Cars 2 is less forgiving of mistakes, but that’s the nature of real racing, and while “rubber band AI” is bad in simulation games, people complain about odd things when talking about simulation games such as AI racers all following the same line. That’s somewhat how the actual sport is done.

The point is these entire games exist on the spectrum, not just the gameplay but the experience and every part of the game has to be similar.

I wanted to talk a bit about how games get this way. I’ve worked on a number of games, from a very non-realistic, or arcadey open world game, known by the name of Saints Row 2, to a more realistic open world game of Red Faction Armageddon, to carnival games which were heavier simulations than expected, but with magical moments, and then to simulation sports games. Each of these games had different considerations when we worked on it.

Every game I’ve mentioned was designed. The fact is nothing in almost any game is done by random chance, at least not unless it’s a bug. Even when a game tries to do random chance, those systems have to be designed and programmed to allow that randomness.

Pretty much every game starts with a pitch. Someone has an idea. I might wake up one day and say “What if I could fight space aliens.” and let’s say I sell that idea. I can have any type of game from Doom, to Alien: Isolation from that pitch. In fact, most companies won’t accept that pitch because it’s not specific enough. Instead, most pitches tend to be very high-level presentation and design documents. There’s usually nothing specific or firm, usually because the companies want more of the idea, but rather than saying “What if I could fight space aliens” they’ll come up with a plan such as, “Mario Kart, meets Sonic Franchise, with a huge Smash brothers style roster of characters from Sega Properties”. They might not talk at lengths about realism here, but it probably is brought up at some level.

The point is eventually the company buying the idea (or the studio itself) decides what game to start working on, and there’s a lead designer, or producer who becomes in charge of the product. From there, every design decision starts to create the game of their vision. We can talk more about this whole process another time.

Ideally, the designer starts to create design documents. This doesn’t always happen and I have some horror stories about that, but the goal is, the lead designer should be distributing his idea to the team usually through an entire design team who all agree upon what the game should be and feel like. From there they work with artists and programmers, who help produce the final product.

All throughout this process, there are decisions being made. Now like I said there’s a guiding idea. Let’s say we’re trying to make Project cars, there are tons of decisions at every level that has to be made to make a simulation racing game, and every person will eventually get on board, most have signed on to make that specific game in some fashion.

This can be everything from car selection, to how tracks are represented in the game (laser scanning real tracks), to menu layout, and more. Think of the Sonic Racing’s Menu and the Project Cars’ menu. They’re very different designs but they reflect their games well, the same is true for the HUD, the control of the car, the gameplay elements (Sonic has weapons, Project cars wouldn’t dare think about it) the design of the course, and more. Even the style of driving is different. Sonic incentivizes drifting, whereas Project Cars will rarely reward that.

The fact is these two games are unique and the driving force behind each game is different. From a very early point, someone decided what Project Cars would be, and what Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed will be and went with it.

Now, this can change in development. When I worked on Saints Row 2, there was a point where the game was going to be similar to the original game, relatively serious gameplay and story, with some activities that were a touch outlandish, like insurance fraud in the original game to just throw yourself in traffic.

Then GTA 4 came along, and just from the trailer, everyone realized how serious GTA was taking itself. It’s a real-life simulator in some ways.

I’ll leave that full story for another time. However, there was a big meeting where we started to talk about what our game would be, and I’ll be honest, the Design team on Saints Row 2 handled it well. They pulled us into a room and said “They want to be the serious game? Fine, we’ll let them. We’re going to be the silliest, zaniest and craziest game we can be.” In the real version, there were more swears thrown in there, but you get the idea. I was working on activities at the time and the fact is every activity in the game was given another design pass. The idea was no longer “how can we make this feel part of everyday life.” but “How insane could we make it.”

Insurance fraud which was simply throwing yourself in traffic got the ability to launch yourself when you filled up a meter. Escort has outlandish goals and activities like killing people added, as well as a sex mini-game in multiplayer, you’re welcome America!, that was one of mine The story wasn’t able to be changed much due to a number of recordings and scenes that had already been created, with work that was already done and couldn’t easily be changed. In fact, the story definitely still has a serious tone to it, but everything else became as outlandish as we could make it.

I mean this is still the game where you drive a septic truck around and spray poop on buildings. There was a point where we couldn’t come up with a realistic scenario for our water physics, and it was almost cut before the switch to a sillier game. We were talking about hosing down bums or knocking down shanties. Neither was that entertaining, but spraying houses with poop? That’s still hilarious, it just wouldn’t have flown in the original style.

All of these changes happened when we stopped trying to be “realistic” and started to move towards a sillier, or arcadey game. We stopped caring why the player would do something and instead looked at what the player could do that was fun.

That doesn’t mean this solved the game, but the freedom to go towards more outlandish pursuits changed the entire game, and the franchise and I think anyone playing Saints Row 1 and Saints Row 2 should be able to see that. Saints Row 3 took the story along into that sillier realm, and while there’s stuff I have to say about that, again, not at this time.

I’ve worked on a number of more serious titles and you can even see the changes between Saints Row 2, and the Red Faction Series. Saints Row 2 allows the player to be knocked miles in the air, and scare people, surviving great damage, for the pursuit of fun. Whereas Red Faction tries to be more of a military third-person shooter, where there’s supposed to be relatively realistic experiences. Saints Row 2, you can be a bullet sponge. Red Faction Guerilla, diving into combat is very dangerous, and the player should use more Guerilla tactics.

What’s important is that none of this makes Saints Row 2 a better game, nor Red Faction Guerilla. I still love Saints Row 2, and I have opinions on both, but Saints Row 2 was my first game in the industry, and I’m proud of it. But the realism or lack of it doesn’t make it better or worse game, just different experiences.

There are other experiences when people wanted to go very unrealistic with our carnival game or a realistic sports game that I’m not ready to name yet, there was push back because design or agreements made, had made it clear they were more of a simulation than an arcade game. It’s sometimes sad when that happens, but ultimately the game is better for a unified experience.

Why does all of this matter, well, it’s an interesting concept that many people don’t think of. But let me show you why understanding what type of game you want matters. Imagine you played a game where the player wakes up and has to walk to the bathroom, and brush his teeth every time you start the game, then get dressed, have breakfast. Then the player jumps in the car and it’s like crazy taxi, able to check other cars wildly. However if a police officer sees the player, they are immediately stopped and given a ticket, and then have to spend 1 minute waiting in a jail cell. However when they get out they can go on a shooting rampage and almost nothing hurts them, however, they can jump back in the car and it’s crazy taxi time again.

That’s a hard game to think about, but there’s a reason, none of that game really makes internal sense. It’s a concept called Verisimilitude, shown on the screen to make it easier. This is where games need to have internal consistency. In my example, I’ve made a very realistic opening where you have to wake up normally. Then I’ve allowed the player to rampage around town but gave them a realistic consequence. Then allowed them to go on a shooting rampage without consequences. None of these concepts really mesh with each other and it breaks the verisimilitude of the game. That’s a long word but think of it as the internal consistency of a game.

It’s also the problem I have with those Pinball FX 3 tables. I’ve played close to 80 tables with very arcade style gameplay, and suddenly PInball FX 3 pauses and says “no these tables are real.” and for a game that has never been close to realism, it’s a major change. The internal game is a very unrealistic game, which is hard to compare to the realism of 6 tables, I believe. I’ve come around on those tables a bit, but it definitely takes a long time for me to get comfortable with them, whereas Archer table based on the tv show took me less than 30 seconds to get the feeling of because it’s so outlandish in the style of the game.

To avoid this video going on forever I will hold up there but hopefully, those examples give you some ideas of why Arcade vs Simulation games or gameplay is an important concept, or why having a consistent game is important both to the game and to the gamer.

The fact is games work when the design is firm about what type of game it is and drives to that point. It’s more that we as gamers who need to consider more what type of games are we playing, or what about these games are important to us. It’s why I might talk about realism in Project Cars, but then turn around and ignore it for Battle Chef Brigade, only to discuss it again in The Division (bullet sponge central for everyone but the player there).

So next time you pick up a game, think not only of how realistic a game is but also could there be a more or less realistic version of the game. Personally, I thought for a fast moment that Tekken was pretty realistic, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had forgotten about boxing, MMA, and even hockey games, that produced a more realistic fighting game. Realistic fighting games is honestly a category of our the industry that has been kind of heavily neglected. Even Punch out for all its cartoony graphics, is remarkably realistic compared to most fighting games now.

With all of this said I hope I’ve given you something to think about. This series isn’t about having a firm answer. I can’t tell you if Arcade or Simulation games are better, that’s up to you to decide which you prefer. It’s ok to have different opinions or even to prefer a realistic shooter, but an arcadey action game, but if you’re now thinking about those elements with the games you play, then I’ve done my job.

A parting thought, most people like Dark Souls because it’s hard, but honestly, I think people really like Dark Souls, not because of difficulty, but because it’s also very realistic, at least in its gameplay. The player dies in a few hits, if attacks hit they do damage, and rolling out of the way is a strategy. You’re not the hero who can have 1000 arrows buried in him, you’re the hero who has to face every enemy as if they can kill you because they can. That does change the difficulty, but it’s not difficult just to be difficult, it’s difficult because it’s more realistic.

I want to do more of these discussions in the future. There are a few other topics I already have in mind. Meaningful achievements, Microtransactions and what it does to design, and even a look at Kickstarter, and why fans or game developers get it so wrong. I’m sure there are other topics you can suggest down in the comments, so if any of those sound interesting or there’s something you’d like to hear more about, feel free to leave a comment.

And if you’ve enjoyed this, please let me know, it’s the first of its kind so it’s brand new, but maybe it’s something we’ll try again. In addition, as always, consider subscribing. I’m always working on something interesting, so join the group and ring the bell if you want to be notified of new videos. Thanks to everyone who have already joined the group and we’re well on our way to 200 subscribers, and we’ll keep working to bring you more interesting content.

Until next time, I’m Kinglink and thank you for watching.