Street Rod: Game Design and Usability

Games and usability is one of my favourite topics and I would like to devote some posts to discuss it. In interface design, a quite important aspect of a user interface is usability. However, applying usability on games is problematic at least. One game that shows the problem quite clearly is Street Rod from California Dreams / Logical Design Works. It might give some insight on topic of breaking standarts, which has already been discussed in the controversal post about non-standart controls.

The Fast and the Furious of your grandparents.

The game is old, short and Polish, so you probably don’t know it, which is a pity. On the other hand, since it is so rare and old you can get it for free on notorious abandonware sites. I recomend you to do so. In many ways, Street Rod (and Street Rod 2) is an example of brilliant game design.

Street Rod is about american street racing in 1963. If you know the movie “Grease”, you know what it is about. Hip kids hanging out in front of burger bars while listening to rock’n'roll and risking their lifes doing stupid stunts in huge, american cruisers. The game can be compared to Need for Speed Underground but in 1963. In fact, the similarities are so obvious that I will take Need for Speed Underground as a reference to explain the revolutionary part of Street Rod.

Pimp up THIS ride for a change.

Both games consist of two different parts. First, you buy and tune up your car. Then, you take the car out and race it against opponents. By winning races, you get money and can afford better parts to tune up your car even more. Of course, because of Street Rod is an old game, you can’t compare the racing part to Need for Speed. However, the tuning part turns out to be ahead of its time.

In Need for Speed Underground, you tune up your car just the way you would expect it: First, you see the car in a garage. By pressing the right button, a menu appears where you can browse the avalible parts. If the parts change the apperience of you car, you can see a preview when you higlight them. You click on the part you want to install, you hear a sound effect and the part is installed. The avalible parts are even especially easy to understand: you have stuff like “Performance Kit 1″, “Performance Kit 2″, etc. It’s all very neat, fast and easy. It’s user friendly.

I’m installing “Performance Kit 1″ right now, that’s always quite important. I heard that “Performance Kit 2″ is better, though.

Here is how you do it in Street Rod. You see you car in a garage, just like in Need for Speed. You click on the newspaper to see the page with second hand newspaper adverts. Basicly, it is a menu like in Need for Speed but it looks like a newspaper. Also, just like in a real newspaper, not all parts are always avalible and some parts are in a bad condition. You can only buy what is there. Also, the parts are actual engine parts and you have to understand which one fits to your car and if it makes it faster or not. The game doesn’t help you with that. You click on an advert to buy the part, but it is not installed yet.

This newspaper is about the three important things in life: used cars, auto parts and the rest

The fun begins now. When you click on the hood of you car, you can see the engine. The mouse cursor turns into a wrench. You can then proceed to disassemble the engine by clicking a few times on the screws that hold the engine parts in place. After you unscrewed and removed the old part, you can put in the new part and screw it back on.

The screws are red so it is easier to find them. I guess you can call that usability.

My point is that from a standpoint of usability, this is a catastrophe. The whole process just takes time and doesn’t really do anything. You have to even needlessly click on each screw a few times while it would be much faster if you could click just once or at least hold the mouse button. The Need for Speed way is much more user friendly since it simplifies the process to just selecting parts from a menu.

Or is it? You see, usability is not the point here. A game doesn’t do anything specific. You don’t really have a task you can optimize the interface for. So instead of optimising the process of changing parts, Street Rod makes it very prominent part of the game. It adresses the senses and the emotions of the user. It tries at least to capture a bit of the how it is to be a mechanic and tune up a car. Yes, it takes more time and yes, you often buy the wrong part by accident. But all that makes the game more fun, exciting and challenging. When your finally manage to assemble a fast car, you feel as if you have overcome an obstacle. This is game design lightyears ahead of Need for Speed Underground.

Damn! Not again! Where can I buy that “Performance Kit 1″ again?

Street Rod shows one very important aspect. Usability is a nice concept to get you started to think about how a user interacts with your interface. However, a good game designer must have a much deeper understanding of interaction. He needs to see past the black and white model of usability and see interaction as an rich experience which comes in a variety of colours and flavors. Good game design is to understand how to use the elements of interface design to shape the user experience. But this conclusion can be applied on regular interface design as well. So before you start thinking of ways how to minimize the number of clicks on you website, why don’t you start up your brain for a change and think of the whole thing as an expierience? How should it feel like to use your website?

A racing legend is born: the badass “Ranger” is about to hit the streets.

On a side note, Need for Speed Underground is just like street racing today. The kids today don’t know how to drive, they don’t understand how cars work, they don’t even know how to change oil. All they do is pay somebody to mutilate their cars for them. They just want to show off. So, yes: from that Point of view, Need for Speed Underground conveys quite realisticly what a street racer feels like today.

Street Rod

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

6 responses to “Street Rod: Game Design and Usability”

  1. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    nice view on the newest need for speed installations, which i’m not a big fan of.

    and i think you got the point there in your last sentences, need for speed underground conveys quite realistically what a street racer feels like today.

    but i can tell you why need for speed is selling so got today, because everyone seems to want to do exactly that. teens have full lives: school, a lot of activities, friendships – and what they want is to race cars, they don’t want to repair nor build cars, they don’t want to tune the cars themselves – they want to be fast. and furious – not a car mechanic.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    You are adressing quite general clichés. “The Youth” can be dangerous generalisation because you cannot design something for the target group “everybody”. You see, it is not that simple. In fact, if you look at the time you spend working on your car and the time you race, both games I have described are quite similar. Need for Speed Underground offers even a mode where you have infinite money and can just pimp a ride as much as you want withouth being able to race it. The possibility tinker around with a car provides much satisfaction and is a big point of both games. People who play those game WANT to spend some time working on their cars, it is part of fatasy. If you just want to be “Fast and Furious” with no strings attached, there are other games, that might be more suitable. For example the “Burnout” series, which also offers customized cars but no possibilities to customize a car for yourself.
    On a sidenote, some toy car companys like Jada’s “garage worx” series offer toy cars that are being delivered with some simple tools and exchange parts. So now kids can pimp their cars for themselves.

    My point is that this fantasy (I have a new hammer) is better adressed if you adapt the user interface instead of using some standart and efficient solution. Street Rod is a good example, although I must admit that it goes quite far by expecting users to know what engine parts do and even offering no help. Still, I think NFS woud profit by adapting some of the ideas in Street Rod. Gran Turismo does a baby step there: every time you install a part in you car, you have to wait while you see a progress bar that tells you the part is being installed. It gives you some feeling that something has been done to your car.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    By the way. Recently, I showed the game to you, Daniel and you said something like: “I understand, it’s like a normal car racing game with tuning only they made a mini-game instead of a normal interface for the tuning”.

    I’ve been thinking about it because I have the impression you got it wrong. I understand a mini-game as something you could play on your own, without being in context of the real game. Examples are the Tripple Triad trading card game in Final Fantasy 8 or the slot machines in Super Mario Brothers 3. In case of Street Rod, it is more and less at the same time: it is less since it isn’t really a game – there are no winning/loosing conditions, no goals. On the other hand, it is more because it is an integral part of the game. You can imagine Super Mario Brothers 3 without the slot machine (or with a different game instead), but Street Rod would be something fundamentaly different without the tuning. It is similar to the geoscope part in X-Com, I wouldn’t call that a mini-game either.

  4. honda auto parts

    Geez, i must say, for an old game, its very good, i know the graphics are out dated but its an old game so the grpahics are not important, but the gameplay is great, i love how you can open the hood of your car and take the engine apart and put new parts in, same goes for the rest of the car, very sim like. i recommend everyone try it.

  5. Chris Goldie

    broken link: ‘non-standart controls’, should be:
    PS. Feel free to delete this comment after fixing link :-)

  6. William

    I’ve often recalled Street Rod, wondering why I played it so much. Your description of the game mechanics, the de-assembling, the seemingly needless clicking on imaginary bolts, captures completely how the game trancends gaming and becomes playing. It’s a bit like playing with Lego bricks; winning and/or losing are not the parameters. Thank you.


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