Monday Musings: The Race For Control

NFS SHIFT Pagani Zonda copyMotion control purports to be intuitive and accessible. Peripherals, such as the plastic guitar, balance board, light gun and, with Tony Hawk Ride, the skateboard, seemingly add weight to the argument that the traditional control pad is a barrier to entry. But the racing genre has long offered its own dedicated controller designed to remove that barrier: the wheel.

Yet the steering wheel is seen as a hardcore accessory. Mario Kart Wii may have shipped with a wheel-shaped case to house the Wiimote in an effort to make the motion control obvious to a novice audience, but otherwise steering wheel controllers have always been associated with driving simulations that strive for realism.

It seems a strange kind of logic that something in such common, everyday use as a steering wheel could prove alienating to all but the most dedicated, but it does make sense. A full wheel setup provides much greater scope for fine control than the almost abstract approximation of a pad's stick and buttons.

As Jesse Abney, producer on the upcoming Need For Speed: Shift told me recently:

“When you go full simulation, it really requires something less mundane than this kind of device,” he says, holding a PS3 Dual Shock controller. “You have to expect the player has a wheel, a clutch, an e-brake… in order to be able to model what it takes to operate at that level of fidelity."

So, as a result, the majority of racing games have to provide an experience geared towards the most popular input mechanism: the control pad. Abney admits they have to tailor the experience for the "lowest common denominator."

"We focus so much on the gamepad, so much on the lo-fidelity control in order to satisfy what we know the experience is going to be for 70-75% of the population," he says. "So in Shift we really try to craft an authentic racing experience that caters to this kind of control device, so it has that pick-up-and-play aspect as well as a much higher fun quotient."

Shift is for the PS3, PC, Xbox 360 and PSP, while a separate Need For Speed game is being designed for the Wii. Abney says Need For Speed: Nitro is a "wholly different" game that has taken an "action-arcade approach" tailored for the Wii interface.

But what's more pick-up-and-play than a gamepad or even the Wiimote? How about no controller at all?

Burnout Paradise was one of the titles Microsoft chose at E3 to demonstrate how Project Natal might be used in more traditional games. As Crecente described back in June of his time with the demo, "I held my hands out as if holding steering wheel and acted as if I was driving a car. It was that simple and the results were surprisingly precise."

I asked Abney for his thoughts on the application of Natal in the racing genre.

"It seems that Burnout has a much more acceptable design for something like that," he says. "It doesn't necessarily require the fidelity of control associated with a high performance sports car pushing out 800 horsepower at top speed. It's certainly much more arcade-element, much more... I think the ability to be experimental.

"Racing is a very clear set of definitions and laws, but Burnout is allowed to go outside of that. Instead of having something that's so defined as a racing model is to the enthusiasts out there, if we could break down the conventions of an authentic racing game and say, here's an entirely new control schema, potentially that kind of game could play in, if it was tolerated in the industry. A game like Burnout is arcade, it's fantasy, so the tolerance is much higher for things that are new and different innovation in that space."

This exchange clarified something for me. It's not necessarily how intuitive a control method seems that determines its success with a "casual" audience. Rather it's the depth of input allowed by that controller: too deep and only the intrepid few will be able to make it across.

Swinging a Wiimote like a tennis racquet or pressing buttons on a plastic guitar are shallow enough approximations that they garner widespread appeal. They are pick-up-and-play. A force feedback steering wheel with gear stick and full suite of pedals might mimic its real world counterpart much more closely, but it can't beat just turning your hands in the air for genuine accessibility.

Are you intimidated by a steering wheel? Or do you find racing games harder to play with a control pad? And how do you feel about the prospect of controller-free racing?


Comments

    What game is that screenshot off? Please say GT5 :P

      Need For Speed: Shift.

    I'm not really a hardcore racing gamer - my experience with racing games this generation doesn't go much further than PGR3 (because it was bundled with the 360) DiRT (because I won it in a competition - thank you Hyper!) and Burnout Paradise (which picked up at JB Hifi for 30 bucks.)

    That said, I've preordered Forza 3, not having played either of the prequels. I still don't really know why, but I think it's going to suck me in. I have toyed with the idea of buying a racing wheel in the past, but never took the plunge.

    The main reason was the price. The official 360 wheel is an awesome-looking bit of gear, but it's just too expensive for me. I think of the other games I could buy for that price, or the bigger harddrive, etc. Don't get me wrong, I'm pretty sure I'd love it - but I just can't justify it. Maybe Forza 3 will change that.

    As for a Natal-controlled racer....I dunno. I think force feedback is key to the racing wheel experience, and even the regular controller experience - and has been since Lylat Wars was released on the N64. Removing the rumble AND any sort of input device at all might actually put up a wall between the player and 'complete immersion' - then again it's all talk until someone gets their hands on (or waves their hands in front of) a racing game that's built from the ground up for Natal.

    My view is that Natal's greatest potential lies within the integration of it's face/body/voice recognition WITH some sort of physical input device - perhaps even the standard 360 controller - to deliver something that builds on our current gaming experience in new and meaningful ways, rather than giving us a completely new and untested control system which could actually scale back our level of immersion with a game world.

    As for why it's reasonable to have three plastic guitars, two fake drumkits and a slew of microphones lying around the living room - but no racing wheel? I dunno. I guess most people can drive. Not everyone can be a rock god :)

    over the top drift racing games like juiced dont even work with steering wheels but GT5: prologue with the logitech G25 is totally customisable giving you total control of the cars turning axis up to 900 degrees which after a while makes it way easier to corner than tapping on a d pad, my steering wheel is the only gaming peripheral my dad and uncles would ever play with but they would never go near natal, even if it was as accurate and precise as a wheel theres no force feedback or even the sensation of holding something, and besides who wants to get up in front of a screen and look like a dickhead

    most (if not all) racing games are harder to play with the control (after you've switched off all the assists that is, otherwise dont bother IMHO).

    i've never bothered pluggin in the g25 for Burnout.

    i'll be ready for controller-free racing once we're driving that way IRL...

    My G25 very quickly replaced my old Sidewinder Force Feedback 2 as the greatest peripheral I've ever owned. Well worth every dollar spent on it IMO.
    The first time I played Grand Prix 4 with my old Logitech MoMo wheel, after using the joystick for so long, absolutely blew my mind with just how much faster around the track I was with the better feedback. And I was again significantly faster in GTR2 when I upgraded to the G25.

    They do highlight in this article why I think that the AAA titles such as Forza, GT and Shift will never reach the (lofty) sim heights I hope for, simply because they need to cater to the gamepad using majority that will buy them.
    Sure the PS3 allows a G25 to be plugged in, and while the games may have fantastic physics engines, if they are only programmed to give feedback on a basic level for gamepads, and not a quality FF wheel, then that's a huge part of the 'simulation' aspect lost for the player.

    I've actually thought about this a bit here and there over the years, and I think everyone is a bit down on console controllers. How long ago was the steering wheel invented? What are the chances that it is STILL the best we can do? Personally I would be very interested to see a car controlled by a console controller-like device on Top Gear. In this article the controllers are described as "lo-fi" and "mundane". Really? I think the pinnacle of our controller art (at a consumer level at least) can be found in a current-gen console controller, and certainly not in the steering wheel. Granted, pedals are a necessity, but is the wheel really an improvement over a joystick? Surely, if we were to have "hi-fi" steering wheels, they should occasionally rip your thumb off in a minor collision, like the real thing (first rule of 4WD, keep your thumbs out of the centre of the steering wheel). And how long does it take to go from full right lock to full left using a steering wheel? And with a thumbstick? Anyway, just my two cents. It may not be "faithful" to the real life controller, but is that the fault of the games industry or the fault of the auto industry? I wonder if thumbstick controls have been seriously investigated by auto designers.

    Bucketboy73(PSN)

    I bought a wheel and find it annoyingly DIFFICULT to use in many games. Aside from rFactor I'm miles better at them with my keyboard which goes to show how hard I find it because the keyboard has a 1 or 0 style input for key presses.

    Recently buying GRID I busted the wheel out again to see if I could get used to it but after about half an hour of fiddling with settings I was still having trouble just staying on the track let alone actually trying to win races. Where as with my keyboard the only time I dive off the track is when some bastard nudges me. I've seens gone on to finish the game and even beat my controller wielding mate online, just using my humble keyboard.

    I would love, LOVE, to get some use out of my wheel but in nearly every game I play it takes so damned long to get used to I lose patience and just don't bother. Its miles easier to use my keyboard because I don't have to set it up or anything like the wheel and still manage to finish every game I've tried (bar rFactor) with it easily.

    To me the wheel IS a hardcore accessory. It never seems to feel like a real car, it just makes everything so much harder.

    I've had the xbox 360 wireless racing wheel for a couple of months, and it is awesome. I only play Forza and Race Pro. The force feedback through the wheel really helps my understand what the vehicle is doing and how it is handling. I can feel when the car is about go sideways out of a corner and correct that. A wheel also allows for very small adjustments in direction. When you are traveling at 200km/h you only need to turn the wheel maybe one degree to correct your path. Try doing that with the normal xbox controller.

    Having said that the xbox controller craps all over the playstation controller. the xbox controller has the two triggers on the back that are used to accelerate and brake, it allows alot more control that just mashing the buttons on a playstation controller.

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