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Arcade racing is dead

There seemed to be a lot of excitement for Need for Speed Unbound as it approached at the start of December. There is always talk on social media about the desire for Burnout to return, or for MotorStorm to make a comeback.

But the reality is that these series are dead, and as the sales for NFS Unbound have shown even that franchise is on life support.

The golden age of PS2 & PS3 arcade racing is now long gone, and it is never coming back. It's time we all accept it.

The good times never last

Gamers of a certain age will have incredibly fond memories of the PlayStation 2 era. From Gran Turismo 4 to NFS Most Wanted and Burnout 3: Takedown, it was a fantastic time to pick up a controller and go for a chaotic drive.

The journey and physics of GT4 is still unmatched by that franchise, and the thrills of NFS in that time are unequalled.

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If you are in your 30s now then you will have great memories of that Need for Speed golden time. From Underground's techno menu music and car showcases to Most Wanted's M3 that EA is still using to promote the series today, it was just an epic time to be a racing fan.

But the good times haven't lasted. They never really can.

Quite what killed the arcade racer is unclear. Maybe the explosion of the Fast & Furious franchise took the steam out of street racing titles. Maybe we all just grew up and discovered Assetto Corsa and iRacing instead.

What is clear though, is that arcade racing is not what it was. It's not even close.

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Sales for NFS Unbound have been remarkably slow. The game was almost immediately discounted by up to 30% by physical retailers, while player counts on Steam barely edged passed Assetto Corsa on release and have quickly faded away.

Even the success of the Forza Horizon series has eroded. While the series peaked for many at FH2 or FH3, the biggest success commercially was FH4, but 2021's FH5 release was immediately panned as a reskin and quickly faded from consciousness having left no trace.

EA's place in the story

While no one thing is to blame for the death of arcade racers, one of the obvious places to start is with EA.

As the publisher of Need for Speed, Burnout, and Road Rash they had a huge hand in the arcade racing scene and profited nicely from it.

The problem is that EA then discovered how to not just profit from games but to get obscenely rich. The creation of Ultimate Team within their sports franchises and loot boxes was a cash-generation machine like nothing else.

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But there was no way to successfully transfer that system to racing games. No one was going to buy a pack to get new shapes for their car customisation or a new exhaust.

As a result the racing genre became less important to EA. Burnout was wrapped up and mothballed. NFS became a hot potato franchise, chopping and changing studios and suffering from a lack of creativity.

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Even as new studios were created by those that used to work on the franchises, nothing could really grab a foothold without the EA publicity machine behind it. And as the generation that grew up on NFS Underground and classics like Daytona USA discovered that realism was more and more possible in racing games.

The growth of sim racing

Perhaps the biggest reason why arcade racers won't come back is that sim racing has eaten up that audience in a remarkable way.

Those that loved Gran Turismo in the early days moved into rFactor and iRacing as those titles arrived on the scene. The realistic handling and physics offered players the chance to experience new thrills when behind the wheel of virtual Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

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Console players eventually got access to Assetto Corsa, while the Codemasters Formula 1 series has always been a winner among console players that want accessibility as well as the thrill of driving.

As sim racing has flourished and shown off just what modern computing power can do, the draw of floaty arcade handling has dropped off a cliff.

Those that grew up on the golden era of arcade racers graduated to sim racing, and have by and large handed that on to the next generation.

Perhaps if the NFS franchise had continued to crank out winners in the late 2000s rather than duds it would have been different.

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Maybe if the Burnout franchise was independent rather than under EA it would have continued and the passion for wild arcade racing would have thrived.

But what we have right now is a world where you can go GT3 racing on console & PC in a spectacularly realistic way in multiple games and you can cause chaos in your car on GTA Online. So the draw for a NFS title or other arcade racer just isn't there.

The genre is dead, and it isn't coming back.

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