8th Oct 2020

Passion Project: Combining a love for cars with designing racing games

By Dale Strachan, Studio Design Director at Electric Square – a Keywords studio

I’ve always loved cars and motorsports.

That’ll be from my father. He was very knowledgeable and handy when it came to cars, and we restored his 1977 MGB together. It came to me when he passed away and I will keep it forever.

My kids are old enough now that I can put a booster in the front seat – bribe them with ice cream, take them out for a drive and the hope is that it develops that emotional attachment and it stays in the family, like it did with me.

I love go-karting and have always done track days whenever the opportunity has presented itself.

I’ve been working in games for more than 25 years, have published titles on most platforms across a range of genres including point and click adventures and third-person character action games.

Dale Strachan drives a Ferrari at a Silverstone track day

Some 12 years ago I was working on my first racing title at the now-defunct Black Rock Studio with some of the current Electric Square team; I was design director on Split/Second – an explosive arcade racing title.

It was at that point where my passion for cars and video games came together and my two loves combined into one.

Racing Games

Since then I’ve been involved with a number of racing titles, mostly mobile free-to-play (F2P) racing games including Forza Street, Rebel Racing, Race Kings, Hot Wheels: Race Off, MMX Hill Dash and Race Team Manager.  

When it comes to developing racing games I think it’s a requirement for a number of people on the team to be passionate about cars and motorsport; to have an inherent understanding of the lineage of cars and car design, and how cars behave when driven at speed.

Racing lines and the effect on vehicle dynamics when cars are driven on, and over, the limit.   

Whether you’re working on a simulator or arcade racing game you still need to be grounded in reality, and be close to real world car design to keeps things believable.

Inside Electric Square’s Brighton studio

When working with real world brands it’s imperative to respect their IP like it’s your own, and always represent it in the best possible light.

Aside from the physical characteristics of how the cars perform, it’s the job of the lead designer to create features that players find engaging, such as time limited events that push you around your car collection.

You slowly build up particular favourites, and a need to upgrade multiple cars provides significant depth to the experience and a reason to return. The ‘free-to-play’ games model is all about players coming back.

Designing in a regular cadence helps drive engagement and retention. You want players to value spending time in your ecosystem, and once they do, the limited time offers that fast track their progress become more and more appealing.

Managing the Team

I’m a champion of rapid prototyping and iterative design processes, validated with extensive user testing and data analysis.

While my role as lead designer sees me running that department, I think it’s important to give our designers the freedom to be creative. Yes, they have clear and concise goals so they understand the expectations, but not necessarily how to get there. Provide the destination, not the journey.

Electric Square believes in talent and trust, and empowers the team with ownership of features and aspects of the game.

The best situation is giving someone a brief and seeing what they come up with. Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised by the elegant solutions people find to the problems you already know about.

For any such scenario the key to success is early check-ins. It’s up to the leads to gauge early on how the work is progressing and to provide direction or course correction where it’s needed.

In an ideal world F2P is all about early validation with the target audience. Prototype, soft launch, validate rationale, iterate and then layer on monetisation mechanics.

There’s little point investing heavily in something that has yet to be proven.

When building games as a service (GaaS), you need to have constant understanding of your audience.

Rapid development and validation ensures that you’re building the right IP for the right players at the right time.

Dale Strachan is Studio Design Director at Electric Square in Brighton. He has 24 years’ experience in the video games industry, with 23 published titles under his belt.

For more information about Electric Square or any of our development studios, visit the Keywords Game Development page.

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