Designing a Racing game for Esports
How to design, evolve, and retro-fit games for esport competition - By Dean Takahashi
In conjunction with Intel and FaceIt, the recently-held Intel Buzz Workshop: The Future of Esports in Los Angeles brought together the top 10 games and presented panels on the evolution of esports and designing for esports, the trade-offs for general consumers, and games can be retrofitted so that they can be used in esports competitions. Panelists included Rod Chong, COO at Slightly Mad Studios, Alessandro Avallone, co-founder of FaceIt, and Michal Blicharz, VP of pro gaming at ESL. Below is a transcript of the discussion...
Rod Chong: I’m from Slightly Mad Studios. We make Project CARS, a simulation game on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox. Our world is a bit different because it’s focused on sim racing. Some elements are unusual. Sim racers develop esports skill sets that can actually translate to professional car racing, which is a different pathway to what’s available, but we’ll get into that.
Alessandro Avallone: I’ve been in professional gaming for more than 15 years, playing many different titles. I’m one of the co-founders of Faceit. I’ve lived esports since back in 2000. I was very young back then, but I’m still here, 16 years later.
Michael Blicharz: I’m the VP for pro gaming at ESL. Chiefly responsible for the Intel Extreme Masters circuit, which is in its 11th year of running. We run stadium esports events around the world. ESL organizes competitions from casual online events all the way up to very large events with thousands of people in the stadium and large cash prizes.
GamesBeat: I interviewed Minh Le, who created Counter-Strike 18 years ago. He explained that the beauty of Counter-Strike is that it hasn’t changed. People who played it then know how to play it now. It’s had time to create people who have really refined skills. The challenge for a franchise like Call of Duty is that they’re trying to change the game every year, so fans keep playing it. Call of Duty could have a group of really talented esports players one year, but those players might fall behind and disappear the next year. You never develop the celebrities that are out there. What do you think of that particular challenge?
Avallone: I think it’s correct to some degree and untrue to some degree. If you look at League of Legends, theoretically, it’s the same game, but it’s changed dramatically from what it was to what it is today. Multiple patches, multiple balance changes, multiple new champions, things like that.
It’s good for esports overall if the game is built to have longevity, certainly. It’s never good to have a brand new title that feels completely different. If you want to build a good game, it needs to change a little bit. It doesn’t need to change dramatically, but it needs to evolve. In Korea, in the first StarCraft: Brood War leagues, they’d constantly change the maps the game was played on. That changed the players’ strategies and approach to competition on those maps. The same thing is going on in Counter-Strike these days. Counter-Strike is tweaked a bit, with maps that are swapped out. That keeps the game fresh. It’s still the same physics, but the strategies have to develop all the time for new maps. That keeps it interesting.
Blicharz: When it comes to Counter-Strike, a game we’ve seen since early 2000 — in terms of mechanics and gameplay, yes, it’s almost the same. It’s changed a bit, but the changes have come over time. Players have been able to adapt. Some of the maps that came out in those days are still used today. They’ve had small changes. The graphics have changed and gotten better, but the mechanics are almost the same. That’s given longevity to the game, the ability to build stars.
Chong: At game studios, you have a lot of people in control of games, whether they’re creative directors or executive producers and so forth. They may think about games from a single-player perspective, career flow, and so forth, which is a traditional way of looking at game design. Then we have all this buzz around esports in the industry. Esports this and esports that is right up there with VR this and VR that. You have this wider trend where everyone’s interested. But within that you need a creative team developing your game that understands how to design a game from the ground up that’s going to work with the needs of esports.
With Project Cars, we started designing the game about three years ago. Our creative director is very bullish on esports. He made sure we had a reasonably good feature set, but still, when we launched the game last May, it was missing some features that we needed. The main thing we were missing were broadcast tools, so you could send an exciting feed out to Twitch and so forth that people would want to watch. The default setup was OK, but some major things were missing.
If we look at a higher level now, at game publishers and game developers and so forth, a lot of them know that they should do something with esports. I’d imagine every publisher and marketing team and creative team out there is racking their brains, thinking about how to make their game esports-friendly. But culturally, you need to design a game from the ground up. That may mean setting aside some traditional single-player thinking.
Right now, I see a lot of legacy thinking within marketing teams. We work with Bandai Namco. Some people in our publishers understand this stuff, and some people are thinking completely differently. It’s a moment of transition right now.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the beginning of the process, designing for esports?
Avallone: It does need to start from the beginning. Whenever you build a game, you need a vision of the gameplay you want. It’s very important to develop mechanics for players in a way such that you can make sure that whenever players compete at their best, they can show it off. But at the same time, it needs to be accessible for those who want to start. You have to look at a bigger picture there.
A big question related to mechanics is what skill set you’re going to require for a particular game. It doesn’t matter what the genre is. It could be FPS or racing or RTS. Whatever game you build, you need to understand the mechanics behind it and make sure that players can start from the bottom to become stars. And when they do, they need to be able to show that off. If you have a game that doesn’t let players improve, there’s something wrong with your mechanics.
At the top, esports is what you see in the stadiums and on the streams. But you need to make a competitive game first, a very competitive title. People need to be able to have fun playing solo or playing with friends. You need to think about an ecosystem. You need to build a strong competitive community that can follow the game, watch other players, learn the mechanics, play together, and work their way to the top.
Blicharz: Number one, before anything, you need to build a game that’s fun to play and fun to watch other people play. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fun for a complete outsider to watch. If you watch Dota for the first time, you’re not going to understand what’s going on, but that doesn’t make it a bad esports game. If you look at, say, BlizzCon as an example and the events there, the relationship between how understandable a game may be and the viewership for that game is quite random. One of the biggest games is Hearthstone, which isn’t enjoyable to watch at all if you don’t play it.
But the interesting thing right now about building a good esports game — all the game developers I’ve talked to, I’ve learned a lot from them that I didn’t know, but I’ve never met one that I didn’t think had something to learn from me as a player. I used to be a competitive player — not quite as good as Ale here, but I picked up a lot of knowledge and understanding. In the industry, the magical formula of how to build an amazing game title is still unknown, still somewhat random. To use Quake as an example, the earliest iteration was probably a better competitive game than the later ones. Publishers, developers, and players themselves still don’t necessarily know how to make that perfect competitive game. We still don’t have the perfect esports game out there yet.
Chong: We’re partnered with ESL for our weekly races. We spend a lot of time talking to our account manager at ESL, learning about what’s working and what’s not working, looking at the analytics with them. It’s definitely informing the design decisions we’re taking for Project Cars 2.
One other thing I’ll say, you have to set up your organization — not only the dev team but community management team, esports community team, and social media team. They all have to work together as a single unit. You have to put people in place who will run point with players. You have to have a very clear, professionally published set of rules, especially when disputes come up. This is a highly competitive environment.
You have to look seriously at anti-cheat systems. We run into that a fair amount with racing titles. Sometimes, people will pick up exploits to make their cars faster. Teams may have one driver that’s better than others, so they’ll do all the lap times in a time-trial event. A fair amount of policing has to go on. We have to update our esports rule set from season to season and change things as we go on. It’s an organic process.
The design team on the game should be reasonably humble. This is a growing area. The goalposts are continually moving and changing. You have to be able to take feedback from players, esports organizers, and everyone in the field that you work with.
GamesBeat: That’s another topic here for us. What about the notion of retrofitting a design for esports or taking feedback after you’re pretty far down the road and changing a game? Is that possible?
Chong: That’s a challenging one. When we were preparing for this, I spoke to our design team a bit further to find out their learnings in developing our esports features for the first Project Cars. We did the best we could with what we knew at the time, but once we launched the esports program, there were a lot of things that you just can’t take into account.
The same goes for when you’re developing software to do events. The feature set you need there is quite different to just doing multiplayer. Those are two separate threads completely with esports. Right now, our software works much better for multiplayer races. When we do large-scale events, there are still some challenges. We have to go back to the drawing board and redesign, for example, the server system, so we can slave all the different player sheets together, all the different factors and rule sets that the players have. There’s a lot you have to learn just by doing.
We’ve had big events where the entire game crashed in front of an audience. It’s very embarrassing, but you have to deal with it.
Blicharz: If you’re making a multiplayer-only game, you have to realize that if it’s successful, you’re going to have an esport, whether you like it or not. We’ve had companies that never thought about that. Retrofitting parts of the game in order to support enough spectator slots to observe a game was extremely challenging, very difficult for them.
Luckily, now everyone’s thinking about esports and trying to future-proof, so these features can be added down the line. But it was amusing sometimes to talk to developers and learn that certain things weren’t possible in their games. They just didn’t think that the game would take off as an esport, and then they had to retrofit features.
Now, in terms of gameplay, CS:GO is a phenomenal example of how a game was unsuccessful in the beginning. From my conversations with pro gamers, they didn’t enjoy the game at all in the beginning. Valve, through an iterative process, made the game better and better. They listened to feedback and brought the game to a state where top teams are now saying that it’s better than Counter-Strike 1.6. Changing the gameplay is definitely possible.
Avallone: Features like observer mode, spectator mode, coaches inside the game, all these features that make a game competitive are going to be key if your title becomes popular in esports. A lot more companies in the last three or four years are understanding and integrating these features out of the box.
GamesBeat: What about the business model for esports? If you’re starting from scratch, what business model do you have to think about? The usual decision is the question of whether to make a $60 boxed game or go free-to-play.
Blicharz: Hands down, the best model is free-to-play, simply because people don’t buy old games. That’s how it is. The business model itself — if I sell my $50 game to Ale, I’m going to go look for other customers after that. Ale’s dead to me at that point. How many copies of the same game can he buy from me?
With the free-to-play model, that retention is a driver for the company to take care of the existing player base. Of course, we have companies like Blizzard that, out of their company ethos, they take care of the player base regardless of the business model of a given game. But for the most part, free-to-play is the best because the barrier to entry for new players is extremely low, and the game can evolve all the time. There are reasons to put resources into the continued evolution of a game, whereas with a boxed game title — again, there’s a big release, you sell to a million people, and then those million people are no longer customers on the same level as people who might buy the game in the future. That’s not good for an esports title in the long run.
Chong: We’re a boxed product. We’re trying to balance having a triple-A racing title, which also has a healthy community around it, and a healthy esports sim racing scene attached to it, which is continuous and doesn’t erode. Typically, with sales of a console game, there’s a big spike, and then sales drop off. Sales stop pretty quickly.
We have to ask ourselves a question. Why are we doing this? Why do we spend money creating esports features when we could be doing something else? We could be putting more shiny Ferraris in the game or whatever.
Right now, we’ve said to everyone involved — to the publisher, to the development team — that we’re not in this to make any money at all. We don’t care about that. For us, it’s pushing boundaries. We also view pushing into the esports racing space as marketing. Someone earlier said that that’s a traditional way for publishers to look at it. We have buy-in from our publisher. They’re supporting our prize fund and all the partnerships with the different esports organizers.
It’s important for any developers here to — you have to have buy-in across the board from marketing teams, publishers, developers. Everyone needs to understand why they’re doing esports and what it’s for. If you’re doing it for pure marketing, trying to develop a vibrant online community or multiplayer scene for your game — if you get that big base, you can attach esports to it. But you need to know why you’re doing it.
If you don’t have that buy-in, if you don’t have the right organization — for example, if you say, “OK, we’re doing esports, and we’re gonna dump a million dollars in, and people will play it,” but have no community management tools or direct relationships with teams, it’s not going to work. You have to rebuild your organization from the ground up to make it function properly.
Avallone: We’ve seen a lot of competitive games in the past that also have a single-player campaign. Building that campaign is a lot of work. Some companies decide to go with a regular price. Some try to compete by going below a standard price and add microtransactions inside the game, mostly for multiplayer. It depends.
GamesBeat: What would you say about having different versions of a game for competitive players?
Blicharz: The key today is to have one experience across the board. When you play soccer, the ball weighs the same, same shape, same size on almost any level. For the design of a game, the key is that it discerns the difference between two good players well enough to consistently find the highest skill level and get the score correctly, but at the same time, it isn’t discouraging new players to come in.
If I go into a game and instantly get destroyed by something like 50 to -3, which is what happened in Quake, that’s not a good experience. It’s not helpful for building a big esports community. League of Legends, for all the criticism it gets from more hardcore communities like StarCraft players, is a fine example of a game where the best team consistently wins, but at the same time, it’s not discouraging at a lower level.
That’s much more important than changing the rule sets for anybody. If I’m inspired by somebody like Faker, who’s said to be the best League of Legends player in the world, I want to have the same tools and the same rules in the game that I play as he does. I don’t want to play a different game.
Avallone: Agreed. When you learn the fundamentals of a game, you have to do it from the start. When you start competing in a game, you’ll do that at a very low level. You do need to have some tools inside a game, platforms to help them get better. Tournaments need to match people at the same level, so everyone still has fun, but they can still learn and become more engaged with the game.
Chong: One thing that’s important, which you touched on, is that you must have a very clear, empirical scoring system, so the best players can rise up and be discovered. A lot of games don’t necessarily have this with their points systems or currencies. If you’re designing an esports title, that’s very important.
Question: How important is it that there’s a chance element in esports games or the absence of one?
Blicharz: Ale would probably say, I think, that he doesn’t want any randomness in a game whatsoever. I think a very, very small random element can create stories, something interesting. In the past, we’ve seen so many games, whether it’s Quake or Painkiller or Unreal Tournament, someone is in control of a game, one point ahead, and then they get telefragged. Suddenly, their opponent manages to get back into a game. Obviously, that’s not very cool for the player who was on track to win the game. But at the same time, something like that can still be pretty interesting, as long as the gameplay around it is largely skill based.
Avallone: One thing I’ve learned from Hearthstone specifically is that chance can generate new moments. Sometimes, it turns the game on its head. Perhaps this phrasing is a little too strong, but it creates new moments where, on the fly, you have to consider a completely new situation. Players who are robotic and just master the game mechanically, if there are elements of variance in the game that make them adapt on the fly to changed circumstances — a game like that will more likely have a champion who’s smarter than other players.
If you have zero chance in the game, you can learn everything there is to know and find a perfect response to every gameplay situation. Everything becomes very predictable, completely mechanical. I’ve played several games where chance forces you to adapt, and adaptation should be a big skill in an esports champion’s toolkit in my opinion. Just to give you a gauge, though, extremely high variance isn’t good at all.
Question: How would you think about that question from the audience’s point of view?
Avallone: Well, it’s the same thing. If you see a top player making an interesting decision because something crazy happened, what happens then? How do you adapt? How do you change your game plan? That’s exciting to watch. It’s fascinating to watch. It makes the show that much better.
Chong: The element of chance makes a more fun game. Within simulation racing, and the same goes for real professional race drivers, they’re always trying to develop this thing called “racecraft.” That’s your ability to respond to different situations as they arise. In our game, we can have night races. We have a complete dynamic weather system. Sometimes, at tournaments, we’ll have the race start at night. We won’t tell the players. They just have to deal with it. Or it may start raining halfway through an event, and the track gets slippery. Any good sim racer or real race driver will be able to deal with that.
Avallone: But in that case, everyone’s going to be on the same playing field. When you’re playing one-on-one or in a team game, some big random event happening at a particular time can completely change the course of the game in one side’s favor. As long as that chance is still slim and the game is very much skill-based, it can work. Some big event that happens once in a hundred games, that creates a storyline, a big wow moment, especially for the people watching. But from a player’s perspective, there shouldn’t be too much random chance, especially if the skill cap isn’t too high.
Question: Overwatch has a particular barrier to entry, costing $40 on PC and $60 on console. When developing an esports game, is there a concern moving forward about — if a new generation of consoles comes out, how will developers adapt that kind of game? Do you take the Call of Duty tack with making a new game every year or the League of Legends route and somehow find a technical solution?
Avallone: I still feel like Overwatch is very PC focused, even if it launched on console as well. The esports scene is very PC focused. I can’t say exactly what will happen when new consoles come out in two or three years, but one thing I can say is that usually, when someone pays $60 for a game and then one or two years pass, there’s a good chance that they might not touch the game anymore. One thing that Blizzard is doing right is keeping the community very entertained. A lot of things are going on around the game itself. Sombra, the new character they just introduced, is going to change the metagame completely. That kind of thing keeps people interested.
If they’re going to update the game or release a new version for new consoles, that could be a problem. But the strategy they’re taking right now seems to be that they want to keep the same game running for many years. They’re keeping the main game fresh with different content. It’s an interesting approach.
Question: When it comes to more realistic games, simulations, especially a racing game that involves a lot of people on the same track, how important is it to sharpen the realism to a point where players are immersed in the game? Sim games can be harder to get into depending on how deep you want to go. Things like wheels and pedals carry a price tag. Is that necessary for esports players?
Chong: It’s a tricky one. If you invest in equipment like a high-end steering wheel that costs you $5,000 or a VR setup that gives you the advantage of depth perception and presence over a flat screen — I can’t drive on monitors anymore. But that’s a challenge associated with sim racing. If you have a steering wheel, you will be faster. If you have an expensive steering wheel, you’ll feel a lot more of what’s happening than if you have an entry-level model.
The immersion is extremely important. For us, we’re always trying to push boundaries to develop that further. That’s why we have a lot of racing drivers working on our title. It’s a tricky one because you do need more equipment, and the better your equipment, the faster you are. We’re trying to make the game accessible and fun if you have a console and a controller, but for the really serious sim racers running in competitions, you do have to invest in gear.
I compare them to people who race R/C cars for a living. It’s a bit like a hobby, esports sim racing. It’s another way to look at any of these titles. You have to design a game that could potentially become a hobby for someone or even a profession. That’s a slightly different mindset from traditional game design.
Question: How do you feel about dealing with cheating and hacking? Counter-Strike has often been plagued with different software applications that help players cheat. Among developers and organizers and players, who needs to deal with that?
Blicharz: At ESL, we have anti-cheat software. Multiple companies have their own solutions for esports. Publishers also take care of that a lot of the time. We’ve seen many big ban stories over the years.
Obviously, this kind of software is like a virus. It’s always going to be one step ahead of your anti-cheat software. It’s inevitable. It’s definitely a big problem when it comes to how difficult it is to minimize. No one’s found an ideal response. It’s practically the same as the ongoing problem with malware in the larger computing world. You’re always a bit behind the cutting edge of cheating, as much as that sucks.
We track accounts at ESL. We have players who not only use hacks but sometimes trade accounts among each other. Even one of the top superstars in Counter-Strike, s1mple, was banned from ESL for a couple of years for trading accounts with another player and standing in, playing under someone else’s account. It’s a big issue, but it’s being fought very actively by the esports industry.