Arcade vs Simulation – What does it all really mean?

Let’s start out with two points:-

For the basis of this discussion, defines ‘simulation’ as: –
The representation of the behaviour or characteristics of one system through the use of another system, especially a computer program designed for the purpose.

It defines ‘arcade’ as:-
An establishment, public area, etc., containing games of a mechanical and electronic type, as pinball and video games, that can be played by a customer for a fee.

I would say with a fair amount of certainty that the sim-racing community does not use these definitions when labelling racing games under one of these two categories. So how do sim-racers see the difference? Well you can only find out by asking, so I did. Here are only a few responses…

A simulation is a game with physics that only focuses on, and lets me do things, I could do in reality (within the margin of possibility). An arcade racer is the opposite. It focuses and lets me do things I could never do in the real world.”

“The correct term is real-time simulation. What this means for me is an environment where a computational loop is created with the user interacts without artificial delay with regards to inputs and outputs. For a racing simulation this means the driver gets visual, audible and tactile feedback as they would in the real world. It also means his inputs, manipulation of mechanical controls, are delivered to the simulation without artificial delay.
An arcade racer can be a real time simulation, but most people use it to mean how the inputs are derived and the computations used to create the outputs; visual, sound, forces and motions. Right now the depth of computation in the field of vehicle dynamics is such that it cannot all be used in real time.

As a result any real time simulation uses some approximation is “arcade”, therefore all products on the market are arcade. On the other hand since we know there must be some approximation, we can instead define arcade as the methods used to approximate the dynamics of the system. If these methods done bear any resemblance to their non-real time counterparts, then they are arcade.

This becomes more cosmetic. If we use a button to approximate an analogue device like a handbrake, the simulation may calculate the physical system and its effects on the tires its attached to, or it might prevent certain tires from rotating after a predefined delay.

The results to the reset of the system may be identical in nearly every case, but one sounds bogus, while the other sounds divine.

So it ends up coming down to ones tolerance for how in depth each physical system is modelled.”

“Both can be challenging and fun, but arcade games tend to have an easier learning curve. It can be challenging, but allows either a casual gamer or a novice to jump in and be quick while a true sim requires practice and has a steeper learning curve. A true sim is going be a game that you can’t just jump in and go fast and win. An arcade game is a bit of a level playing field.”

“As a huge car fan, I find what a simulation offers is as close to driving how a real car feels. Something I feel an arcade game just can’t do no matter how good they say it is. A simulation makes you feel everything you can and as you should. Say you’re getting ready for a race and you need to make a setup. You drive maybe 10-15 laps to see what the car is telling you. Then you have to change one thing at a time and go back out and see if it’s better and so on and so forth. Now in an arcade game you do not have to do this.
For example, say you are at Monaco and you already know that the game you’re playing has this track in it. The car will have default setups that load as the track does. So you end up with a car that will stick like glue when in real life no car ever does. This is what kills it for me. You only need to look on YouTube at the arcade games videos posted to see what I am saying.

So my point is that it’s all that info you feel as a sim racer that you just don’t get with an arcade game and, in my opinion, that’s the point of sim racing.

It’s the feeling that you are driving it. Not just pressing buttons. Knowing to look for the limit in the car and to try and push to that limit on every lap.
In an arcade game there never seems to be that limit.”

4 viewpoints there from 4 different sim-racers. I think we can say that the viewpoints, while they are varied, pretty much boil down to a simulation being more challenging and feeling more like the real world. I think that is a fair assessment. One of the sim-racers even goes so far as to say that, to an extent, all racing sims are arcade because you cannot simulate everything in real time and there has to be approximations. Which opinion do you agree with? Do you have one of your own? Post it! Let SimTorque know!

My own personal opinion is that a lot of games that follow the dictionary definition of ‘simulation’ are labelled ‘arcade’ by many people in the community.

So is an ‘arcade’ game simply one that has not lived up to your expectations of what the car should feel like? It hasn’t simulated it well enough? Or is it just because you don’t like the way it handles?

I don’t believe that racing games of today can be simply labelled one or the other. To that end, the term ‘simcade’ is now being flouted around. A term that I personally hate the sound of and even its implication. That a game can be a mixture of arcade and simulation. Well… that’s a bit vague isn’t it? Let’s take Shift 2 for example and let’s put that in the ‘simcade’ box. Does everyone agree on what parts are sim and what parts are arcade? Probably not. In which case, what value does the ‘simcade’ term really have?
I would argue that Shift 2, DIRT 3 and Test Drive Ferrari (to name but 3) are simulations. Why? Because they meet the dictionary definition of what a simulator is. They take something from the real world and represent that interpretation in a virtual format.

How WELL do they simulate? All 3 of those game titles simulate car racing. Of that I believe there can be no doubt. The issue is to what degree. What degree of accuracy or precision. Does Shift 2 simulate motor racing as well as iRacing or NetKar Pro? Does DIRT3 simulate rallying as well as Richard Burns Rally?

Another question when trying to label these titles is, are the terms ‘fun’ and ‘challenging’ mutually exclusive? Can you have both? Is the difference that arcade games are just fun while sims are challenging? But can an arcade game be challenging? Can a sim be fun? I think the answer to all those questions is yes. So where does that leave us now?

Let’s focus on ‘arcade’ for a moment. Where did this term come from? It has to stem from the games you would find in the games arcades of the 1970’s and 80’s. Video arcades where you would see the likes of Pac-Man, OutRun, Pole Position, Defenda, Galaga etc. etc.

Are we actually saying that games like Shift 2, DIRT 3, and some would say Project CARS would be something you would expect to see in a video game arcade? If so, take my money!!

Arcade seems such and archaic term. So old-fashioned. It stems from gaming that was decades ago.

If we look at other genres of gaming such as first person shooters, what labelling is given to COD:BO2, Battlefield 3, Far Cry 3, ARMA-II etc. Are they arcade or simulation? Neither? If neither then why does sim-racing have this labelling system?
I suspect sim-racers needed a say of sorting out the wheat from the chaff. The good from the bad. They either like it or dislike it and so the two labels are born. Oh they may not like certain sims too but sometimes when the majority is against you, you can’t just label it arcade because you don’t like the physics.

Project CARS is being labelled as all three right now from what I have read. But how can this be? It can’t be all three.

Well, it’s just down to preference and opinion again isn’t it? Sim-racers have a pre-defined conception of what they expect. When they try out a game, if those expectations aren’t met then they question of the games credibility as a sim is called into question.

Labelling Project CARS while it’s in a pre-alpha stage with around 1 year to go in development is a bit unfair. It’s almost as if it’s final judgement is being given now and forever shall it remain so. We can pass our opinion on the current state of car physics with the knowledge that it is still being developed.

Maybe as rFactor 2 has been released also in an unfinished form but with good physics, it is expected that Project CARS should be too. A sort of a “do the physics first then sort out the rest later” attitude. SMS may not work that way. Of course, as it is in a development stage, people want to air their opinions of it in the hope that enough voices will steer SMS into fixing any perceived flaws. Hopefully the airing of those opinions are done on the SMS forum where they will be heard.

Sim-racers are desperate for that perfect sim. One that delivers graphics, sounds, immersion and above all, accurate and real feeling physics.

They see the stunning screenshots from Project CARS and would love that to the ‘the one’. The general feeling seems to be that physics, at the moment at least, is falling short for them. Possibly that is mainly down to lack of communication from the road/tyres (which could be down to FFB) and some not so realistic behaviour on turn in, almost like a centre pivot point. The disappointment of the physics not yet being up to par as far as they need it to be results in Project CARS getting the amount of feedback that it does. Some just want to hate on it because they feel is has not delivered and never will. Others don’t like it how it is at the moment but are optimistic about it because there is another year of development to go.

They see rFactor with good physics and some great new features but lacking in graphics. At least compared to Project CARS. So rF2 gets slated for its graphics.

rF2 can’t just bolt on a new graphics engine any more than Project CARS can bolt on another physics engine (so to speak).

So is it just physics that determines ‘arcade’ or ‘sim’? NetKarPro is hailed as a sim, if not THE sim because of its physics. This is despite that its graphics aren’t as good as F1 2012 which is classed by the community as…well what is it? Not a hardcore simulation, that much is for sure.

On another top sim-racing site I have seen this point made… as rFactor is mod based and is classed as a simulator, what happens when a mod is released with really crappy physics. Is it still a simulator or is it now arcade?

Words to that effect. Well, that’s a very interesting point. But what is the answer? I’d be interested to hear your views on that one J

Maybe mods should be classified as ‘arcade’ or ‘sim’.

For me, I would like to see the end of this term ‘arcade’. We need something new, something more in line with the decade we’re living in. I would suggest something bland like ‘non-sim’, ‘semi-sim’ and ‘pure sim’ as the three categories. But that’s a little arrogant isn’t it? It assumes that every racing game ever made should be a simulator – for us – which, remember, according to the dictionary definition, it is. And you can’t really criticise a racing game for not being a pure simulation if it was never written as one (CM F1-2012).


Posted on January 22, 2013, in General, Other sims, Project CARS, rFactor, Talking point. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Great site. Good speculation of Sim / Psy of racing games.

    I know LFS is old game but Still best FFB. I think its Benchmark for others Sims

    And here is my Big Question 🙂 Why u talk about rFactor or iRacing and dont include this great sim in your comparison.

    Thx for Answer 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments tosposrals.
      FFB and even physics are good in LFS, yes. I would probably put NKPro as a benchmark in physics before LFS, but for FFB, maybe you’re right.
      rfactor and iracing are popular sims and I feel LFS has really fallen by the wayside. The updates are as rare as Halley’s comet and it with the pace of development today, I can only see LFS as the trendsetter that once was. However, this doesn’t mean the physics or FFB is out of date. After all the laws of physics never change.
      But maybe it does deserve a mention. Maybe soon I can do an article on LFS and I would be more motivated to do that if the LFS devs would grant me an interview.
      We shall see 😉

  2. I’ve generally heard the term “sim-cade” knocked around a lot in the simracing world. What it often comes down to for me is the way a product is marketed. All too often in the past (less so recently, arguably) sims have been sold as “the ultimate driving simulator” or a back-of-the-box blurb that says “ultra-realistic physics.”

    If they sell the product that way and yet it turns out to not be the case, then developers should be called on it. Conversely, if a dev sells a racing game and makes no suggestion that it is a hard core simulator, then it should not be analysed by the public and press in such a way.

    • I totally agree. But of course the words on the box are simply marketing hype that you see in many products including food, electronic goods, movies etc. I think it’s something we just accept but prefer to reserve our own judgement on. The same should be done of racing games.
      I think the general rule of thumb is, if the game is marketed for a mass market, such as F1-2012, DIRT etc, then it’s pretty much not going to be a pure sim. The audience for a pure sim isn’t big enough for big companies to get a return off.
      So we depend on companies like ISI, Simbin, Kunos and SMS to be in our corner. SMS is a funded game so the path that Project CARS takes should be in part down to how the ‘investors’ want to steer it. Or at least I would hope they have some influences.
      rFactor 2 to a much lesser degree. We have the ‘beta’ now, but I think ISI know where they want to take rF2 which most of is sim-racers are ok with.
      Kunos, well, he is doing his thing and that’s that. 🙂

      • Well, as I wrote here: – They are not necessarily just “doing their thing” (Kunos Sim is more than one man), they are trying to make the best driving simulator for the hard core and potentially casual simmer.

        I guess the last mass market product that went the hard-core (another term I dislike, as with arcade) was RBR. And that was a notable sales flop. That was 2003 though, and technology has moved on. I think CM could make an accurate sim that could allow driver aids and control aids to make it drivable across a wide range of player bases. Sadly, they just don’t want to, and don’t necessarily have the specialist skills to make a solid physics model. At the end of the day, pleasing the 90% will do for them. The hard core player base is not big enough to really care about for a mainstream product. Hence why any bitching about which sim is best is quite absurd. We’re spread so thinly that solidarity would make a lot more sense.

  3. Great article, I enjoyed reading it very much.

    I will just comment on one specific area: “as rFactor is mod based and is classed as a simulator, what happens when a mod is released with really crappy physics. Is it still a simulator or is it now arcade?” and “Maybe mods should be classified as ‘arcade’ or ‘sim’.”

    I believe question to that answer is easy: 1) of course it is still simulator, because what should matter is whether the physics engine is ABLE to produce realistic behavior and whether there are at least a few cars that do have the right parameters to utilise that engine. Not every car will be realistic because it all depends on the parameters. Which also basically answers the second question – yes, mods themselves have to be classified as ‘arcade’ or ‘sim’. No other sim in the world is as schizophrenic when it comes to realism of mods as rFactor (for now only rF1 but I’m afraid it will be the same with rF2), some mods are considered the most realistic handling virtual cars out there, while some other use so ridiculous parameters, whether on purpose or because of lack of knowledge of the modder, that I would have to call them pure arcade. Frankly I’m not sure what makes people produce and drive such mods because personally if I wanted to prefer easier fun over believable challenge I would just load Dirt or NFS. Why stick with outdated rF1 graphics if the cars handle like Dirt?

    To each his own of course, but I have noticed that more experienced rF drivers (4+ years of playing) only end up cycling 2-5 different mods, when there are thousands of mods for rF in total. I think it must because they simply don’t consider the rest of mods realistic enough, not that they prefer certain type of cars no matter how well the mod is made. For example I love group B cars (who doesn’t?) but I don’t find any mod for rF mod to offer remotely realistic physics for them so I don’t drive them…

    • Good post.
      I don’t really subscribe to this theory that easy=arcade and challenging=sim though.
      It doesn’t have to be hard to drive to be a sim. I think in general racing cars are easy to drive but hard to drive on the limit. That might not be true of all genres but I would think a lof of them.
      There is a VW Lupo mod for rF1 which the cars are slow and very easy to drive, but the racing between them is brilliant. It is as immersive and fun but I wouldn’t call it ‘arcade’. I really dislike that term anyway as you will have read.
      I think the top 3 mods for me in rF1 are (in no particular order), CTDP06 F1, DRM Revival 2.0b and HistorX mod. I think a lot of the cars in HistorX are a bit too slidey but I suppose that adds to the challenge. CTDP is just such a complete F1 package and has great physics. DRM mod hits the sweetspot between fun an challenging. It gives you a perfect mix with great FFB. If only this standard was maintained with more mods.
      I would like to do an article on rip-off mods and the double standards involved in that area. I think I can see that coming soon. 🙂

      • Oh yes I don’t subscribe to that theory that easy=arcade and challenging=sim. Somehow that slipped out of my mouth and from rest of my post it should be obvious that I didn’t mean it – as I said to have realistic car, you need good engine and *correct* parameters. If there are bad parameters, the car can either become too easy or too hard – either way it’s unrealistic – usually it’s not challenging but it can be. I do now a few such mods too where the car for example has LESS grip than it should -> it is challenging to drive but not realistic.
        I spend a lot of time on various sim boards and no other mod is mentioned as often as HistorX. I think there’s no discussion that most cars in that mod are brilliant…

      • Yes, it’s hard to argue against HistorX. Superb piece of work.

  4. After many years of “Sim-racing”, I (and others) have developed a simple second sense about what is a Sim and what is Arcade. And it isn’t any of the mathematical measurements most like to use. If it puts a big smile on my face. I know it’s delivering some form of realistic behavior. Behavior that models the things about driving and raving in the RL, that makes it fun. Now there are games with arcade physics, that offer more of that behavior then some games that are believed to have all the equations of physics just right. But once in the car, you can’t get drawn into the immersion, like the others. If you find yourself buying ever more hardware, monitors, buttkickers, etc. To help with the immersion. It might be because the Sims. you racing can’t make you forget your just setting in front of monitor, manipulating a image with some kind of control device. Bottom line. Give me a Sim that takes me into a world where I’m really racing others, and have a big smile on my face.

    • Indeed. Isn’t that big smile all you really need at the end of the day? 🙂
      Yes, it makes sense to say that a sim-racer will get a smile if the car is behaving like it should. Maybe that’s the way to test it. But will every sim-racer smile with the same sims ? Opinion is divided on iRacing, for example, but for those that don’t like it, do they quesion its status as a sim ?

      • “Opinion is divided on iracing, for example, but for those that don’t like it, do they question its status as a Sim ?” This maybe where the problem lays in these Sim/Arcade debates. The insistence by some, that a zenith has been reached in the past, that represents exactly what a Racing/Driving Sim should be! I don’t think such a goal has ever been reached. And using past Sims to judge more recent endeavors, only has limited value. Modern hardware can deliver so much more of a experience then what was available for “GPL”. There is no perfect Sim of driving and racing physics. Some deliver better in some areas then others, and fall short in still others. It’s all down to personal preference. And the whole, “my Sim of choice is the real thing, while your’s is just arcade” is childish. IMHO!

      • I agree with that. This idea that a users favourite sim is the only one thats good and others should be hated on is a very puerile and non-productive approach, not to mention shallow-minded.

  5. Good article there, could be opening a huge can of worms though 😉

    Personally I’ve grown incredibly tired of the “my sim is better than yours” bickering. It’s unbelievable what people call each other on certain forums over a bunch of computer games.

    This whole arcade-simcade-simulation ‘debate’ is so much drenched with subjective preferences, ideas and perceptions that any discussion about ‘realism’ is never settled with conclusive agreements. Heck, most people don’t even know how real-world race cars behave. Drawing lines to demarcate what is a simulation and what is not is a precarious affair already when you do have such knowledge, but without it it’s just a completely random notion in which physics model accuracy is subject to personal interpretation rather than objective criteria.

    On top of that, ‘simulation’ seems to be defined in a very narrow sense, i.e. only w.r.t. the physical behaviour of cars. For some strange reason, people can live with reasonably accurate car behaviour but vaccuum cleaner engine sounds, while a game with superb true-to-life surround sound but simplified car behaviour is NOT a simulation. Also graphics quality, lighting and other visual effects that can create a huge sense of ‘being there’ are not considered part of ‘simulation’ for some reason.

    I would propose to drop all of this, and start talking about ‘racing games’ again. Because that’s what they are. You can prefer one racing game over another because you like its representation of car behaviour or its force feedback or its graphics or its sounds better, but please let’s stop referring to ‘physics’ and ‘realism’ because those are objective terms used in such a subjective way that it makes no sense at all.

    Of course all just my $0.02 🙂

  6. On the easy vs hard subject, it’s worth noting that the message from real race drivers who involve themselves in sim racing, is generally that real race cars are ‘easy’ to drive. It’s not keeping the car on the road and constantly fight to avoid spinning off that is the challenge, but driving fast and consistently and coping with the racing situation.

    It stands to reason that real race cars are built specifically to be easy, or shall we say not hard, to drive, and optimized to be able to drive very fast.That’s would be the whole point of it. Race drivers have to cope with long and fatiguing stints, close traffic, avoiding accidents, variable track conditions, tyre wear etc. – this can’t be done if the car is constantly trying to kill you.

    I haven’t driven a real race car myself, but I have tried my hand at frisky driving in various sporty cars and a little bit of karting. Translating this experience to sims, I can definitely tell that the difficulty of just keeping cars on the road, as well as handling on the limit, is exaggerated in some of the highly acclaimed sims. I chalk this down to ‘early days’ for racing simulations – i.e. the technology just wasn’t highly developed enough to simulate the finer points of tyre/surface interaction and other aspects of the simulation. I hope and believe this will change with the new generations of racers.

    When driving a sim I basically judge it’s fidelity on how intuitively the car behaves. That would mean that those leaning towards exaggerated difficulty are just as bad as those leaning towards too easy handling (I would have said “arcade”, but I agree that the word is outdated and largely meaningless in the sim world). I.e. if the handling is believable, recognizable and manageable while demanding my utmost effort and concentration to set consistent good times, then we’re talking. The challenge then lies in pushing as hard as you dare and can realistically manage over many laps, keeping it on the right side of the edge – of course the bravery in the virtual world will always result in the odd off track excursion, but that should not constantly be about to happen, and be the main thing you have to concern yourself with. This is /fun/ to me, and racing being fun is realistic – racers race because it’s fun and challenging, not because it’s near impossible to keep from going off track and crashing the cars.

    To get that intuitive and believable (I might add exiting and enjoyable) handling across, a number of elements need to come together: physics, FFB, graphics, sound and even ambient factors (lighting, trackside references etc.). A simulation produces only these three things: graphics, sound and FFB. All of these must therefore be of the highest possible quality as they are what gives you the cues. Thus, this implies not only a good underlying physics engine, but also good modeling, graphics and audio.

    Sometimes, at worst, you will see self declared hard core racers use the argument that e.g. good graphics is bad for sims, because their current favourite doesn’t look so good. Anything that is unlike their favourite is bad. That is a stance which does nothing to progress the genre. It is understandable though, as we humans are creatures of habit, constantly having to ‘work on’ accepting changes.

    New sims should be judged against reality and try to simulate reality, as in the experience of racing, not trying to be the same as older, sometimes plainly outdated, sims. That doesn’t mean that we should shun comparisons between sims, but that we must not lock ourselves into habits that are results of older and less developed technology.

    • Some great points there Gassolini and very well thought out.
      I am glad to hear that I am not the only one who is finding the term ‘arcade’ an outdated one. I am not sure of its relevance in sim-racing games other than to show the divide between what a sim-racer thinks is a worthy simulation or not.
      I also agree that race cars are relatively easy to drive but harder to drive on the limit.
      It is possible that some mods slightly overcompensate for this in order to present a bit more of a challenge. I hold up one of my personal favourites, the HistorX mod as an example. While I accept that older cars on cross-ply tyres would have been not so grippy, I can’t help thinking it is very slightly overdone one some of the cars in that mod.

  7. On the HistoryX mod. There is a video on YouTube of a race driver showing how to drive a lap in that old Mercedes Sports car, street version, that’s in HistoryX/SportsCarLegends. He demonstrates how he can slide the car around the corners, and then in his own words. “the car rights itself”. With out any additional steering input! I pointed this video out in a physics debate. The “enemy” LOL, told me it was due to that fact. “That those old tires tended to do that???” All reason flees, when emotional attachments take over.

Torque to me..

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