I picked up a copy of Burnout Paradise last month, an open world racing game that’s over a year old now but is still commendably being supported by its developers. However, the timing of my purchase wasn’t by chance; I decided to take the plunge because the developers finally added the option to restart a race without having to drive back to the starting line. In my mind this was a major flaw, the one that made me initially lose interest and walk away from the demo. With that sorted out I could finally sit down and really enjoy the game.
However, after having played for a few dozen hours or so, I’ve realized that being able to restart a race goes against the entire design philosophy of Burnout Paradise. Not allowing restarts wasn’t an error or a mistake, but rather an extremely purposeful design decision. The developers at Criterion expressed it thusly:
The lack of retry really isn’t an issue. You may disagree, but we don’t feel it is and retry would have introduced loading into the game, which we didn’t want to do. In fact, we hate loading with a passion now. Games like Burnout Paradise and Uncharted Drake’s Fortune [...] keep you IN THE GAME rather than watching what is usually a very dull screen.
While wanting to avoid loading screens is a noble cause, I think the real reasons run much deeper than this. The game expects the player to wander, and thus is designed for downtime and variety.
Firstly, Burnout Paradise is as much about racing and wrecking cars as it is about exploring and experimenting. So much of the game’s content is actually expected to be enjoyed between races: destroying billboards, performing unique jumps, adding cars to your collection, etc. Marc Bell went as far as describing the game as “a platformer whose dude just happens to be a car”. By using the restart feature and constantly being in a race, the player ends up skipping all the neat between-race content that comes naturally when exploring.
Secondly, the game doesn’t stand up well to repeating the same course over and over. The Burnout series isn’t a highly technical racer like Gran Turismo or F-Zero. With its rubber band A.I. and slow-mo crash sequences, it was clearly designed for light-hearted (but still challenging) fun. This also means that there’s a certain amount of luck involved in any win, and this fact becomes painfully obvious when you can instantly restart a race. You begin to notice that you can win most races by brute force, not improving your driving skills but simply grinding until you happen to catch a lucky break and boost to the finish line. It’s the same reason that a Mario Kart cup has you playing four different races in a row: fun based racing games work best with variety.
The developers never intended for you to drive back to the starting line after losing a race. Instead, they wanted you to continue from where the last race left you, find the closest traffic light and start a new completely different event. In all likelihood it would even be in a different category; follow up a race with a stunt run or marked man event. Instant restarting destroys all the variety that the designers built right into the game.
I’m not saying that the restart patch was necessarily a bad thing. It’s a handy feature and one that I appreciate having. However, it’s an addition that clashes badly with the overall vision of what Burnout Paradise is about.
I also think this situation has interesting implications for game design. What if all games were patched by popular demand? What if Square released the “bring Aeris back to life” patch? What if the Bionic Commando developers released a “jump button” patch? Do players really know what they want?