Motion 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?