For those that do not know what rubber banding means in game design: It basically makes the losers go faster in racing games. I know it’s been used in other genres, but I’m going to focus on racing since it’s the genre where it is most prominent.
Now that we are all in the same page, let’s move on: The only excuse I’ve heard is that it hopefully makes races more interesting, putting constant pressure on the person that is currently winning the race. Now, the problem with this mechanic is more than obvious: it isn’t fair. If I’m winning and then suddenly get passed by a rival going at 1000mph, then I’m gonna feel more than a little bit cheated. Why is he going at such a speed? Well, because he made mistakes and was loosing, that’s why. Isn’t that the most wonderful feeling in the world? That mixture of anger, frustration, indignation and palpable hatred for all things living is surely what rainbows are made out of.
But let’s not exaggerate, let’s bring the example down to earth: Rubber banding alone isn’t going to be enough to compensate for a lack of skill, it just lets the worse racers keep up with the rest (that’s in the best case scenario, of course). Okay, that sounds not so horrible, and hey, if you are the one loosing then rubber banding is awesome. But what happens if you are the one in first place? Sure, if you don’t commit any mistakes you’ll win the race, so it isn’t impossible, but it narrows the error margin by a pretty significant amount.
Let’s say that you are the one winning, you haven’t committed any mistakes so far in the race and thanks to the rubber banding, the other competitors are somewhat close to you. In a normal race you’d have accumulated a considerable distance from everyone else, effectively rewarding you for not making any mistakes so far. But not here. There’s no reward for playing perfectly. Any mistake made nearing the end of the race might mean that you’ll lose and have to do the same race all over again.
How dare you make a mistake!
Curious isn’t it? Rubber banding punishes you for making only a few mistakes and rewards you for making many mistakes. It brings the difficulty down and up at the same time. It teaches that being in first place is undesirable. At least until the end where you must win although we just told for most of the race that winning is baaaad.
It’s a mechanic at odds with itself.
Mmmhhh, no, let’s change that to: It’s a mechanic at odds with the very concept of a racing competition.
Why the correction? Because it can actually work in any other context. That is if the goal is anything but, ending in first place. Let’s say that there are a few barrels, crates, pots and other unimaginative objects populating the race track and the winner is the one that breaks the most of these things. In that context, rubber banding actually makes sense since the designer might want the cars to stick together for most of the race.
And… that’s all I have to say about this subject. I’ve especially avoided talking about Mario Kart since the extensive use of rubber banding mixed with the fact that the loosing players get the best items combines together to form a game more resembling lottery than an actual race. The design of that game was deliberate and especially tailored to those players who are new to racing or those who are there just to have fun with other people and don’t mind random things happening all over the place.
Image taken from here.