Flash of Steel header image 2

Training Wheels: Learning to Race

June 24th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 16 Comments · Design, Me, Racing

After a few struggles with Games for Windows Live, that blight upon online PC gaming that still manages to linger, I managed to get Dirt 3 up and running. As part of my mission of self improvement and genre expansion, I’ve taken to try racing games because 1) I have lots of friends who play them, and 2) how hard can they be? You take a car and drive fast until you reach the end without hitting anything.

One thing I learned very quickly is that skills from the real world intrude on gaming faster than skills from gaming intrude on the real world. Real world? Hate driving and I’ve never been very good at it. Dirt 3? Give me a fast car and an open road and I’m fine, but as soon as there is traffic I freak out and hit a tree. Or do a barrel roll. Or drive into a lake. Not good.

And all of this, by the way, with super training wheels activated. The Casual setting on Dirt 3 brakes for you on turns for God’s sake, so you just floor it and steer. Apparently steering is my problem.

My question is how am I supposed to make the leap from Casual to Not A Child if the game doesn’t teach me the basics on how important braking is? Does my car setup even matter at this level? Are the other cars letting me win?

Finding the right level for you in a strategy game is not usually a struggle. Generally, we play until the Peter Principle kicks in. Then, once we have proven our incompetence for the job, we know that we have a choice to drop down to an easier level and stay there and practice (or never get better) or just tough it out. Or quit, I suppose. But even at these lower and easier levels you are learning the systems and practices that you need to know to get better. In Civ, the tech tree works the same no matter what level you are at; research just takes longer. In your typical RTS, the AI will harvest inefficiently and advance more slowly, but the rock/paper/scissors system of units and counter units still prevails.

Aside from learning that I should probably stay on the road, the default Casual setting on Dirt 3 isn’t teaching me much about how to play the game or how to play a racing game in general. I don’t know which driver’s aids to turn off since I don’t quite know how each will affect my lame driving skills. Even flight sims never defaulted to “Look, nothing can hurt you except the ground. Now go for it.” You needed to turn invulnerability on and then fly your Hurricane through a nest of Heinkels.

So this weekend I dabble with the settings and see how much damage I can do. I’ve already had some sweet air time that I wish I had captured on the Youtube thing, but knowing my driving ability, I will be taking off again soon.


16 Comments so far ↓

  • Shaun

    As someone who pays money to do the sim-racing at iRacing, allow me to suggest that you don’t use training wheels at all? Much like the various music games (Guitar Hero/Rock Band/etc.), assists in driving games will teach you very bad habits.

    Turn it all off, then try some of the time trials or a rally where there aren’t other cars around you. I’ve also found that the game’s idea of the “perfect” driving line is skewed. As for driving in traffic? That is a completely different, and far more difficult skill set to work on. Car control comes first, speed and overtaking are just by-products.

  • Anthony

    I am a pretty avid racing gamer, and have been for almost 8 years now. Once I transitioned to Sim-Racing, I cannot go back to arcade racers. Having all the assists on, like Shaun said, teaches all of the bad habits that arcade racers do.
    After disabling ALL assists*, I would suggest picking a controller and stick to it. I am used to Forza 3 on the 360 and occasionally I play GT5. I borrowed a LG G27 racing wheel for Dirt 3 on the PC and holy crap it isn’t quite a real car and definitely not a controller.
    Next, practice. Dirt is a hard starter because not a lot of people drive on dirt and/or snow everyday, so the physics behind it feel alien. With all of the assists off you can get a feel for faux-natural terrain and slowly improve. If you have a beater and a field, go drive the beater around the field and try not to die**. Once you have done it enough IRL, it transitions over to Sim-Racing fairly easily.
    *If the game has a clutch option, which Dirt3 does not, I leave that on auto-clutch with manual transmission.
    **Do so at your own risk…

  • Troy

    Oh yes, training wheels will be coming off. But one by one. Still very new to this.

  • Shaun

    Shift 2: Unleashed and F1 2010 also exist in that sort of pleasant not-a-sim-but-not-an-arcade-racer genre. Trackmania Nations Forever might even be a good way to hone your skills. The key element, more than anything, is finding games that reward good car control.

  • Troy

    Yep, have F1 2010. The penalties for nudging Schumacher in the ass are annoying, but I guess that’s the point.

    Been really getting into F1 this year because some people are terrible influences on me.

  • Tom Chick

    Unfortunately, the last two Dirt games, and Grid, are built around letting the player drive poorly. The rewind feature is pretty nifty in theory, but it takes away the sting of messing up when you can just rewind and retry.

    That said, Troy, don’t fuss with necessarily winning races. Think of it more as being a game about beating your own time. That won’t help you much in the career progression, but it will help you tap in to what’s cool in a good racing game: working your way up the skill curve.

  • MFToast

    Understanding the controls is crucial, just like in a real car. You NEED analogue control of the breaks, clutch, and steering in a realistic racer, otherwise you’re screwed.

  • Ginger Yellow

    This may sound strange, but I’d actually recommend Forza 3. The assists including a driving line with braking indicators, so you can get a sense of what sort of speed you should be going into different severities of corner. And because it’s not a drifting game, it will also teach you good habits like “brake, then turn, then accelerate” and proper angles of approach to hit the apex at max speed. It also has the Codemasters style rewind function, so things shouldn’t be too frustrating as you take off the training wheels.

  • Shaun

    I have to disagree. The problem with driving line indicators is the assumption that there is only one line around a racetrack, and that it is the same for every car and every driver. This is just another way to learn very bad habits.

  • James Allen

    Some day you can graduate to a real rally simulation. And that will be a glorious day.

  • Lepton

    First racing game I bought ever was the new Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. This served as an adequate introduction to controlling a car at all in a modern video game.

    After that, it was Shift 2 which I played from the first with all driver assists off except the racing line using an external view. From there, Dirt 3, driver assists off, racing line on through the single player campaign, external view and no racing line online.

    I did not find transition to unassisted driving too hard, but I would expect a lot of failure. I would recommend not using the rollback feature. It makes one’s mistakes too easy to dismiss. If I crashed or even performed sub-optimally, I merely started the race over. By doing that, one is practicing the racing controls in an increasingly well-known section of race and the learning there can be translated into later portions of the race.

    Also I would slightly disagree with Tom Chick with respect to winning races. I found that if I worked each race until I won or placed, it provided an opportunity to practice my skills in a consistent and known environment with a specific goal to meet, not just “good enough”.

    I assume this is the same way that a strategy game player might tackle a known scenario and/or tutorial and keep replaying it until he or she knows how the game works in that context and can be successful within it before moving on to the next scenario.

  • Ginger Yellow

    “I have to disagree. The problem with driving line indicators is the assumption that there is only one line around a racetrack, and that it is the same for every car and every driver. This is just another way to learn very bad habits.”

    It’s not so much the driving line as the braking indicator, which makes it much easier to get rid of the other training wheels. Indeed, I think Forza 3 has an option to only have the braking indicators without the driving line, but I might be wrong.

  • joe

    Things I’ve learned from Gran Tourismo on the ps1: Break before the turns, accelerate out of the turns, start on the outside and then cut inside with the turn. That’s about all there is to racing I think. Also: hit the e-brake if you want to power slide, and I found it was sometimes useful to just go full speed into a turn if there was another guy turning with me and I could bump him to turn more sharply at high speed. That probably wouldn’t work in any game that models car damage. I also learned that racing games are very boring, but you’ll pick that one up with time as well.

  • Phil

    Stick with it Troy. I know I love racing games, both lighter games like Dirt series but also rfactor, GTR2, some iracing, etc etc. Racing games allow me to get into a great flow state better than most games, except maybe a few standout strategy games.

    I liked your comments about how racing games apply to real life skills. I think other than maybe flight sims, racing games really do transfer skills to real life, and real life transfers skills to racing games. I know my racing has changed my driving habits, for example I do alot better job scanning and looking ahead, and always hold the wheel at 9 and 3. time at a HPDE and autocross school taught me things in a real car that I was able to take back to the racing games.

    But, as stated before, take off the training wheels. They help, but make the car responses less real. This blunts the learning curve. Drive with them off and just look for gradual improvement.

  • zipdrive

    In my experience a lot of RTS games don’t really teach you how to get better. Trial-and-error can be acceptable in a 3-minute race, but is extremely annoying in a 30-minute skirmish/level.

    Actually, Troy, could you write a piece about strategy games that teach strategy?

  • Racing Update

    […] I am improving, and a lot of the advice from the comments in the earlier blog post helped. I turned off most of the driving aids, focused on learning the braking lines and sticking to […]