What Developers Choose to Simulate in a Simulation Game

Sybil T. Mann
Screenshot from F1:2020, two formula one cars race down a paved track, with a cityscape in the background

Image courtesy of Codemasters

Simulation games have been around for a while, and as technology has evolved their accuracy has hewed closer and closer to real life. Games like Microsoft Flight Simulator are being sold on being accurate enough to teach you how to actually fly. This accuracy is part of the appeal, but sometimes accuracy can mean taking out a few knobs and levers as technology changes. Is accuracy worth it in that case where it ends up removing interesting mechanics? We discuss this issue in F1: 2020 and more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode or read an excerpt below.

Rob: A big part of the [F1] 2019 edition was just adjusting the power settings on the car because they’re hybrid cars now so they recover energy from braking, and from the heat of their exhaust. They use that to charge a battery up that they can then discharge for extra horsepower. And you can adjust the balance to where you can have it in perfect balance, where as much energy as you were consuming each lap you are regaining it under braking and full tilt with the exhaust, or you can adjust it so that you are just burning through your battery and not really harvesting any energy because that slows the car down a little bit more because you’re basically engaging a dynamo, and that is creating more friction when the car is breaking because now you’re basically winding up a battery. If you turn that off the car doesn’t slow down quite as much, it’s just a little more efficient because you’re not trying to wind up a battery. There were six settings for that in the 2019 edition, and if you really wanted to lose your mind with it, which I 100% did, you would even start adjusting the settings at different points on the circuit. So that like you’d be thinking, there’s a lot of hard turns in this portion of the lab. So I’m going to go to maximum recovery, because I don’t need the extra power, but I’ll get a lot of a lot of juice off those off those turns. According to the developers drivers told them this was unrealistic, and that they don’t actually fuck with all these systems during a race. They just wait for their engineer to tell them on the radio when they have power they can spend and they push what’s called the overtake button, and that just activates the battery and it makes the car go fast. Brrr overtake makes the car go fast. That may be, but I do think manipulating those systems is still part of like what contributes to F1 strategy.

Patrick: It sounds like they’re rubbing up against where computerization, modern engineering techniques, and teamwork are changing the way the race occurs, but [they’re] running up against what is the headcanon of what fans want to do while they’re doing the race. [Sort of] the way that you think of X Wing vs TIE Fighter, when people talk about the arcade-ization of those types of games. Look, okay maybe when you’re actually flying a Tie Fighter you aren’t flipping all these knobs and dealing with shield management in a way that seems like would probably be automated to some fucking degree in dogfighting, but that’s part of the appeal. [It’s] flipping the knob, it’s managing the shield, and in this case it sounds like they may run into an issue where either a computer or someone in the headset is telling you when to do this, but I guess absent them making that part of it where you have someone that’s talking to you, maybe? I can imagine a mode where you have a teammate informing you of that stuff while you’re doing a race, that could be cool I guess, but I don’t know. It seems like you’re running into an issue where the belief of what the sim is for fans is maybe slightly different than the reality, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more fun for it to be “lockstep” with reality.

Rob: Yeah, I think almost the comparison I make is maybe drivers don’t mess with some of these settings directly, but I think the other element of this is in sports games, yeah you control the quarterback you control the running back or whatever in Madden, but you also still have to call the plays. And if there were a Madden that came out that’s like “you know, quarterbacks don’t really call plays–”

Patrick: And often aren’t picking who they’re throwing to either, if we’re being frank!

Gita: Yeah. I feel like the charm of any kind of simulation game is the ability to get into the nitty gritty and to fuck with tiny little settings that you might not even think about. So a game like F1 I feel like has more in common to its playership to a game like Dwarf Fortress than a game like Madden, where it’s less about the fantasy of being the super sports star, more about the fantasy of “I need to control every single part of this fucking car without it.

Rob: Yeah, yeah!

Gita: “I am the car” like pretty much. I can see that being less satisfying for you if they’re trying to make it more like the racing experience but the racing experience isn’t the “F1 2020 experience,”

Rob: Yeah, in their defense, I gotta say managing all that stuff could be like trying to play Dwarf Fortress while you’re in a car going 200 miles an hour, it’s a little much.

Gita: Yeah, don’t think I would love that!

Rob: There were times where F1 2019 was the ultimate texting and driving simulator because you’re just like “okay, there’s no cars around me I don’t think, I’m gonna go straight for a mile here. So this is a perfect time to just really get into these menus and start fucking with them.”

Patrick: “I’m going to switch my podcast now, I don’t want to listen to this.”

This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

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