Is it stupid to sit in a pretend racing seat and turn a pretend steering wheel to control a pretend car? Yes, of course it is. I still do it, mind. I even spend hundreds of pounds to do it properly. Why? Because it's fun, especially when you're playing a game that's been designed with it in mind, like Gran Turismo 5. But the question is: Do wheels make that much of a difference, or can pads suffice? To find out, I asked Codemasters' Paul Jeal, senior producer on F1 2010...
From the (race)horse's mouth
GR: How much do you think racing wheels add to the driving game experience?
PJ: I think it’s fair to say that wheels add massively to the overall game experience from a pure enjoyment perspective. In some cases it also makes players better drivers as well, since the Force Feedback effect helps to give a much better understanding of how the car is behaving and how close you are to the limits, as well as being much easier to control the progression of input, both from a steering perspective as well as with the throttle and brake.
GR: How much of the team’s resources go into making games fully compatible with racing wheels?
PJ: As ever with game development, it is a fine balancing act. We already had a good head start using our EGO engine, which already had a considerable amount of support following DiRT2’s release. However all of the car physics & handling characteristics need to be locked down before this phase can really be finalised. With F1 2010, we were keen to have as much development on the car physics as we could as we needed to rewrite considerable sections, most notably the introduction of aerodynamics. The physics and aero are really unique to F1, and their effect on handling which in turn the most important part of the game, made this a huge focus. Racing wheel fine tuning necessarily comes after this work is done, so while we’re pleased with what we achieved we should be in a position to improve the experience even more in F1 2011.
Above: F1 2010 is great with a pad, but sensational with a racing wheel. I highly recommend it
GR: Do you have a preferred peripheral that you wish all your players used to play your games?
PJ: There aren’t any preferred peripherals as such. We invested as much time we could at the end of the project, once the car handling was locked down, to support as many wheels as we could. Obviously the more expensive wheels, so the Logitech G27 / G25, as well as the various Fanatec wheels, all offer a little bit extra in terms of the overall experience. In an ideal world, everyone would play with a Force Feedback wheel though. It’s an investment for players, but one that should really enhance a player’s enjoyment across all racing titles.
GR: How satisfied are you with traditional joypad control in your games?
PJ: As with all areas of game development, we are happy with what we managed to achieve in F1 2010, but at the same time we know of several areas which can be improved upon for F1 2011 and beyond.
The toughest thing to balance in F1 2010 was the speed of the steering rack. A player can go from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye on a joypad, so we needed to soften those inputs a little. In a road or standard race car this would be fairly easy, but at F1 speeds this proved challenging. At high speeds the lock to lock steering speeds need to be reduced, to prevent the car being uncontrollable in a straight line. This posed problems on some of the faster corners in the game where the car is generating a large amount of down-force and changing direction quickly, such as the Variante della Roggia at Monza.
For F1 2011 a more compliant handling and tyre model will make pad set-up easier, giving the player a finer level of control over the car. Minor tweaks to steering rates and reduction graphs will also be made. This can only be achieved by focus and play testing throughout development. With the experience we’ve gained from F1 2010 and a lot of the groundwork done, this will really help us accelerate improvements and push into new areas on the next title. A large part of this will be through being able to begin focus and playtesting earlier in the dev cycle and being able to revisit it more often throughout the project.
So what does a wheel actually offer?
As Paul said, steering wheels can add a lot to the experience. Arcade racers have always had steering wheels, even in the days before computer graphics made everything awesome. You'll simply never see a PS3 or Xbox 360 joypad attached to an arcade racing cabinet. Steering with a physical wheel is the easiest way to make a videogame racer feel more realistic and that little bit more special. Add in pedals for acceleration and braking and you're already halfway towards simulating the real thing.
Even as early as 1986, OutRun was adding a degree of Force Feedback to the experience in the arcades, using motors to push against the player's hands as he steered (and shaking around like crazy when he crashed), but that didn't translate into the home for quite some time.
Racing wheels in the 32-bit era had almost zero resistance to your hands, resulting in a disappointingly detached experience, especially when you had to pay so much for the privilege. The simple wheel-only Saturn Arcade Racer was some £50 in the UK - easily as much as a game. I remember playing WipEout 2097 with it and thinking that it was the only game that felt right because the lack of response felt exactly like I imagine a hovercraft's controls would. Sigh.
Above: Sega's Arcade Racer for Saturn, Mad Catz' Dream Racer and Logitech's force feedback masterpiece
These days, depending on how much you spend, there's something for every kind of racer, from the casual to the ultra-hardcore. We're finally at a point where the arcade tech of 1986 is finally readily available from shops to play in your home. Hooray! But it's taken too long to reach this point. In the mean-time, control pads have become crazily sophisticated...
Pad of joy
Control pads as we know them have featured analog input since 1996, which means they technically afford you just as much control as any wheel. Amazingly, Sony's DualShock 2 featured not only analog sticks, but even pressure-sensitive buttons and shoulder buttons. Two of these were turned into triggers for PlayStation 3's arrival, giving gamers the option to play with pedal-style throttle and brakes, as well as having steering that could be as slight or harsh as you wish thanks to the analog thumbsticks.
Above: Sony's DualShock 3. Vibration, pressure sensitivity, analog triggers and sticks... it's a work of genius
You can reassign control to anything in games like GT5. That right stick can switch the view, gun the throttle, shift gears or even toot the horn - it's up to you. So every racer should be able to find something workable for chucking their chosen jalopy around Suzuka with pinpoint precision. And with every console coming with one of these babies straight out of the box, it means there's no real gameplay need to buy a steering wheel. In fact, games like MotorStorm even let you tilt it just like a steering wheel - a feature which I actually liked a lot (but I know I'm in the minority there).
So if a joypad can do everything a wheel can, but cheaper and with a greater degree of practicality, surely it's the way forwards? Ah, but we're forgetting that one little feature...
A disturbance in the force
One thing control pads simply can't give you is force feedback, which arrived on home consoles in 2001 when Logitech gave PS2 owners its damn fine Gran Turismo-endorsed Driving Force wheel. But it isn't just Sony machines and PCs with this tech - Xbox 360 owners got the Wireless Racing Wheel too, along with a whole load of official and unofficial third-party wheels to boot. The extra realism the Wireless Wheel provides makes the £89.99 RRP a little easier to justify (though it's crazy money really), but I have to say the build quality does not.
Personally, I find my 360 wheel's pedals always squeak after a few minutes' play despite liberal use of WD40, I've had to send it back for repair once because the AC cord stopped powering the unit and I've had to go inside the thing to get the left paddle behind the wheel to work properly. Of course, I'll always have a go at fixing things myself even if the consequences are dire. My first model wasn't centered properly either. Sounds like a lot of hassle and expense, doesn't it? I still think it's worth it, particularly for games like PGR4, GRID, DiRT 2, F1 2010 and NFS Shift. But not to the point where it's utterly essential.
Above: The Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel. Erm... why is it wireless? Should I run around while playing?
That said, I'm extremely impressed with the Logitech Driving Force GT. It's the best racing wheel I've ever used outside of an arcade. Feeling the steering go light as you slide over snow in GT5, or getting heavy as weight is transferred to the front wheels under braking is something that a regular control pad simply can't provide. It needs to be mounted properly, though - I bought a GameRacer Pro race seat, which again is extra expense, but worth the effort when you're actually using it.
This is the problem with the whole thing - once you get one racing wheel, it's never quite good enough. It needs rumble. It needs force feedback. It needs to be secured on something (because hunching over the coffee table with the pedals as far back as your knees simply isn't good enough). Can you guess what my mind secretly wants now I have those things? A second race chair, wheel and pedals to go next to it for two-player awesomeness. It's crazy. Arcades are dead and my dreams are remaking them in my house. Soon I'll be buying smoke-scented air fresheners and special sticky carpet. It's addictive like tattoos.
So which is better?
Despite joypads' ease of use and complexity, racing wheels are better. Paul's right - you notice a change in your driving immediately. Turns are smoother, the car feels more balanced... but you also need to work harder to keep the car under control when it starts to slide. That makes it all the more rewarding when your second fishtail in 30m doesn't end with you pointing the wrong way down the track.
But just because they're better doesn't mean you should get one. If you're serious about them, you have to do it properly. There's no point getting a lower-priced wheel - I know, I've done it. Ricocheting off of one wall, across the track and into another because you can't feel anything is no fun. For all the expense, you might as well just buy another driving game with the money and enjoy that with the superb tech that a regular pad offers.
Let's face it - racing wheels are a luxury. And, having bought countless wheels over the years, I can confidently say that they're not worth the money you have to spend. But I'm keeping mine...
...because it's way cool.
So what do you think? Are racing wheels worth the money and space in your house? Do you own a racing seat? Or are you happy just to use a standard joypad to play your racing games and laugh at wheelies? Let us know in the comments.
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