Though their core mechanics are quite basic by design – car meets track – hardcore racing simulators can be very different experiences to otherwise very similar people. United by the common bond of real-world auto racing – an already niche interest in comparison to the widespread popularity of American Football – some may spend weeks, months, even years immersing themselves in the act of piloting virtual race cars, whereas others may become frustrated after just a few laps, vowing never to touch the game again.
It’s a very bipolar reaction for a target audience so specific to exhibit.
Racing simulators certainly aren’t for everyone; elaborate progression rewards and light role-playing elements designed to suck you into a breathing world have been largely abolished in favor of lifeless automotive sandboxes intended as quasi-training tools, but the market has clearly indicated gamers are open to exploring this unique software. The sheer sales figures of Assetto Corsa, DiRT Rally, and the original Project CARS indicate there are a lot more dedicated auto racing fans around the world than any of us could possibly imagine – especially with attendance figures declining at marquee races across North America in previous seasons – but as implied above, something funny happens when these people take off the shrink wrap.
Some instantly fall in love with the games, others find them to be unplayable.
I purchased Call of Duty: World War II a few weeks ago, because I am clearly still seventeen years old both in maturity and in taste. I have no problem admitting I love the basic formula a Call of Duty title offers, and will unquestionably buy the new game at launch, much in the same way an auto racing fan will buy most, if not all racing games that aren’t blatant shovelware. And while I didn’t think the multiplayer maps were very good, and found the outright exclusion of National Socialist insignia a questionable decision – picture Madden without proper NFL team logos, it’s weird fam – I would hardly deem Call of Duty: World War II to be unplayable, a rip off, or an outright scam. I just don’t think it was as good as other entries in the series.
This soft, non-confrontational language doesn’t exist when it comes to racing simulators. Groups of auto racing fans, who in theory should love most games depicting their favorite sport – I know of a forum personality who’s still madly in love with Mobil 1 Rally Championship – can instead be seen deeming their new purchase to be totally unplayable, or actively warning others not to buy a specific title. In certain situations, loaded adjectives like scam, cash grab, and rip-off are thrown around quite liberally; more so than what you’d normally see generated from a yearly EA Sports release. Some will even call for the game to be pulled from store shelves.
And this can all be happening as a different group of auto racing fans shower the exact same title in question with endless praise and support. If you’re not ready for it, Facebook pages can be a total mindfuck, as if people have been sold two completely different products under the same name: one works, and the other supposedly doesn’t.
On the surface, one would believe a portion of the community appears to be hyperbolic and hostile, if not outright obsessive-compulsive, as if nothing short of a NASA-quality driving simulator will appeal to the absurdly high standards these people have for virtual race cars. Simulators don’t typically boast the expanded feature set of more established video game franchises, but very rarely are you explicitly prohibited from driving a vehicle around a circuit against some AI bots.
So what could give customers the incentive to actively warn others about a new simulator they just bought, or place loaded labels like scam and cash grab on games tailored specifically to their interests, all while another portion of the community seemingly can’t get enough of them?
The answer lies in the palm of your hand.
Tracing the history of the modern steering wheel can be an excruciatingly difficult task, as various inventors and engineers throughout the late 1800’s all experimented with what was basically the same mechanical concept without properly patenting their invention. What we can say for certain, is that humans have been piloting land-based vehicles by means of a giant wheel inside the cockpit for over a century, as there’s really no better way to exert such precise control of a large moving entity. As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I shouldn’t have to mention this, but I will for the sake of continuity: a car without a steering wheel is considered to be missing an essential component. All cars come standard with a steering wheel.
Home computers and modern game consoles, on the other hand, do not. This poses a serious problem for those who want to drive virtual cars on the computer with a level of precision equal to what’s possible in a real car; an entirely separate purchase is now required, otherwise you’ll be at a drastic disadvantage.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
The default gaming device for any modern gaming platform – whether it be a console or home computer – is a dual analog gamepad that features two sticks to be used with your thumbs, and at least as it stands in 2017, analog shoulder buttons to simulate a trigger on a gun – as shooters are by far the most popular video game genre. For driving games, these triggers quite conveniently double as miniature throttle and brake pedals to be used with just two fingers, with the left analog stick mapped to your vehicle’s steering axis.
Here’s where things get rough.
A real world vehicle’s steering wheel has nine hundred degrees of rotation, allowing for pinpoint precision at ludicrous speeds, not to mention extreme consistency. In mapping a vehicle’s steering axis to a simple stick, you’re condensing nine hundred degrees of motion into just one hundred and eighty degrees. You’re also asking this input to be manipulated with a person’s thumb over the space of just a few centimeters, rather than two complete limbs that can make use of entire muscle groups for minute movements on a giant input device.
Crunching some simple numbers that probably don’t add anything of value to this article, a single analog stick is at the very least five times less precise in controlling a vehicle than some sort of steering wheel, though this number is sure to increase exponentially when you consider the advantage of two large hands on an even larger wheel, versus the level of discipline the average person can apply to just their left thumb.
Are we on a tangent? Of course we are, but we’re building a very important narrative.
We have established that automobiles are exponentially more difficult to drive without their correct means of input, basically due to the limited range of motion an analog stick provides when compared to a proper steering wheel. Game developers can attempt to fudge a user’s inputs based on the vehicle’s speed, making the stick less prone to registering drastic inputs at high speeds, but try as they might, it is outright impossible for developers to overcome the reduced range of motion in a way that feels natural to the player. They are working against basic math, and math always wins.
If you’re going to be driving a car anywhere, in any realm, you need a steering wheel of some sort.
So why does this matter?
Built in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz for the 1987 World Sports Car Championship, the Sauber C9 could produce around 820 horsepower while tipping the scales at just two thousand pounds. The real car was campaigned by an all-star cast of European road racers during the four years it saw competition, primarily because this was a machine that could easily kill an inexperienced pilot at some of the more treacherous circuits on the endurance racing calendar. Safety regulations had increased tenfold in comparison to the 1960’s, arguably auto racing’s most dangerous period, but the 250 mile per hour trap speeds attained at Le Mans in 1988 were a reminder that this could all change in the blink of an eye.
Like the real Sauber C9, the virtual counterpart as depicted in many modern racing simulators commands respect. This is a race car in which things happen far too quickly, far too often. The car may not boast the big cornering speeds of a Formula One entry, but what it lacks in mechanical grip, it makes up for with personality and character. The Sauber C9 dances on throttle application and constantly asks you to become a better driver – as it very well should. These cars were obnoxious, loud, fast, and utterly terrifying. It’s not possible to turn leisure laps in a virtual Sauber C9, even if you’re a turbo nerd with a dedicated racing simulator rig – the pedals, the wheel, the monitors, the button boxes, everything. You have to be awake, alert, focused, and precise.
And this is where we rejoin the original theme of this article.
What did I mention about precision, or specifically the lack thereof with a certain standard input device?
There is none.
If a video game developer has held up their end of the bargain – which in these situations they usually do – the Sauber C9 should be extremely sketchy to control with a toy steering wheel. In a Group C race I participated in a few days ago, just two of the twenty four drivers opted to select Sauber’s death trap, this in a field of 24 PC steering wheel owners. Most opted to select the slower, more comfortable Porsche 962c, though at the end of the twenty minute session, only one driver finished within ten seconds of the leader.
This is because turning laps in a late 1980’s Group C prototype is mentally taxing, even under the most ideal of virtual circumstances, and with all of the relevant consumer hardware to make your life easier.
Busting out the Xbox controller and exhibiting the same base level of proficiency with this car is simply not possible. The core concept of a racing simulator, turning several consecutive laps at a competitive speed in pursuit of your opponents, almost completely unattainable for the average gamer.
Or, as some would call it, unplayable.
You can’t play the game properly because you can’t control the car, and you can’t control the car because you absolutely need a steering wheel for this endeavor to be successful.
While user reviews on Steam can be extremely cancerous, and in most cases not worth your time to dig through, there’s a common trend that arises regardless of which particular racing simulator you’re examining, and it’s one I’ve documented extensively in the collage above.
Those who’ve purchased a racing simulator without owning a plastic toy steering wheel, feel absolutely cheated out of their money.
If I were in their situation, I would feel that way as well. Though you can technically plug in your DualShock 4 and crawl around the track for any of the games listed above, the experience is the equivalent to playing Guitar Hero with a standard gamepad; it’s awkward, clunky, imprecise, and the odds of being even the least bit successful within the game world are slim to none.
If you want to turn up the difficulty level even slightly, you risk getting blown the fuck out by AI cars infinitely more consistent than you can ever possibly be. Your hands are going to cramp up or just generally become uncomfortable during long races, forcing you to restrict playtime to abbreviated sessions – sometimes in games where a selling point are the multi-hour endurance racing capabilities. Certain marquee cars in the simulator, such as the aforementioned Sauber C9, will also be permanently off-limits; it’s not that the game physically locks you out of selecting the car, the car itself is just beyond what a gamepad is capable of adequately controlling; you’re better off not trying at all.
Essentially, trying to tackle a racing simulator with a standard issue gamepad renders a large portion of the game to be almost totally unplayable. You can play the game, but you’re not going to get very far.
In 2017, almost everyone owns a smartphone and maintains an active social media account, meaning there’s basically no justifiable reason to buy a game sight-unseen unless you’re purchasing a direct sequel or something that’s part of a franchise. If you’re walking into Wal-Mart and picking up Assetto Corsa mere seconds after seeing the cover for the first time, only to complain the game is extremely difficult with a gamepad later that evening, you’re honestly a fucking moron. If you can’t browse social media for five minutes – which you’re going to be doing anyway – and see that almost everyone uploading videos of the game on YouTube happen to be using some sort of plastic toy steering wheel to play the game with, that one’s on you.
At least, that’s how I used to feel, until a couple of people openly challenged my point of view. And I gotta be honest, they found a very interesting rabbit hole to explore.
I’ve sat down and analyzed the marketing tactics used by all major (and minor) hardcore racing simulators out on the market today – from iRacing and Assetto Corsa, to rFactor 2 and Automobilista – games that myself and others would deem to be borderline unplayable for the average gamer armed with just a gamepad. Every relevant simulator I could find on Steam, I spent the time to view a couple of trailers, as well as read the occasionally lengthy product description associated with each title.
Here is what I discovered.
Of the eight major simulators currently available on Steam, only one developer advises potential customers that a force feedback steering wheel is necessary to get the most out of their game. While we certainly don’t pull any punches when it comes to iRacing here on PRC, their marketing department have set a wonderful example when it comes to informing potential customers about the product, long before any money has been spent. iRacing outright suggest for gamers to purchase a PC-compatible toy steering wheel, and even provide a list of popular, inexpensive choices for gamers to use as a starting point. They also specifically state that it will provide a preferable experience when compared to other controllers.
Good job iRacing, this is advertising done correctly.
All seven other titles, from Race 07 to rFactor 2, conveniently leave out this crucial bit of information despite these games all striving to achieve basically the exact same thing – faithfully replicate the behavior of a race car with meticulously detailed gaming software. For the sake of objectivity, I’ll even point the finger at my current employer and note how while the original Project CARS supplies a list of steering wheels under the recommended system requirements tab, the sequel does not.
Simulators such as Assetto Corsa and RaceRoom Racing Experience openly advertise a game in which everybody can play. As a hardcore sim racer, this, quite simply, is extremely dishonest. Can you technically play RaceRoom, Assetto Corsa, or any variety of simulators with a gamepad, or even just a standard keyboard? Absolutely. However, will the average gamer actually enjoy the gameplay experience simulators offer with these input devices? Most likely not.
In this demonstration video, a hardcore sim racing personality who for the most part knows what he’s doing behind the wheel, can be seen struggling to complete more than just a few turns in a row with Valve’s Steam controller. Assetto Corsa is technically playable with Valve’s popular device, but you’re kidding yourself if you think crashing three times per lap constitutes as “playing” a racing simulator.
I have no problem with games that more or less require expensive third party components to become an enjoyable experience. If Flight Simulators are your thing, ponying up a few hundred dollars for flight controls on top of the cost of the game and any payware mods obviously isn’t a big deal to you, because that money will go a very long way due to the number of hours you’ll undoubtedly spend behind the yoke.
The issue is, developers aren’t bothering to make this clear to the average gamer, reeling in purchase after purchase via dishonesty.
Above are screenshots taken from the E3 trailers of two drastically different racing games; the left image features Grid Autosport, a light-hearted yet surprisingly deep arcade racer that’s more than playable with an Xbox pad, whereas the capture on the right can be found in Assetto Corsa’s Xbox One reveal trailer, a hardcore simulator developed at the race track – literally.
We obviously know which game requires the purchase of a wheel to get the most out of it, but I’d like you all to take a moment and tell me, based on the two pictures alone, which game is the hardcore simulator that will at some point require a $350 steering wheel to actually be an enjoyable experience?
That’s precisely the issue. The average gamer would have no fucking idea which game is best suited for what he personally wants out of a race car game. This discrepancy between Grid Autosport and Assetto Corsa is impossible to make unless you eat, sleep, and breathe sim racing – memorizing the histories and traits of each respective developer, while studying the community message boards to understand where each game falls on the realism spectrum. As a result, you have shitloads of gamers buying titles like Assetto Corsa, Project CARS, and DiRT Rally because they love the idea of an “authentic” racing game, only to discover “authenticity” is a code-word for gameplay that is immensely frustrating without an additional $350 investment.
This is what breeds bipolar-like reception on social media, and the screenshot of two vastly different comments I inserted at the start of the article will now be displayed again to appreciate their full context. Both of these individuals paid $60 for a racing game, yet only one of them received a playable product at the conclusion of the transaction, solely because he had the correct aftermarket peripheral for his gaming system ahead of time. That’s really not fair to User B, who is probably just as big of an auto racing fan and loves what a game like Assetto Corsa represents, but is provided with a vastly inferior experience despite buying the same product.
I’m not advocating for racing simulators to be dumbed-down for gamepad users. That idea is absolutely silly, for reasons I’ve already outlined in this article. Try as they might, developers face an uphill battle when it comes to making a racing simulator playable on a gamepad, and I personally don’t care for them to rectify it. These games are built with a very specific audience in mind, and if you aren’t part of that core audience, there are still a lot of other racing games out there to pick from, both past and present.
What I do care about, revolves more around misleading outsiders.
I’m simply wondering why almost no effort has been made on the part of several simulation developers (with the exception of iRacing) to explicitly state their software is “best enjoyed” with a force feedback-enabled racing wheel when this is so blatantly obvious to anyone who invests serious time into these games, especially as backlash from the casual audience begins to pile up.
I believe it’s extremely devious to lead people towards these games under false pretenses, and then only after the transaction is made and the refund time limit expired, have them discover they’re objectively unprepared to play the game unless they’re comfortable parting with enough cash to cover the cost of a new console.
Racing simulators are very difficult, and within the hobby itself, it’s fairly common knowledge that a modern toy steering wheel is basically a requirement to play them. The problem is that developers market these games to as many people as possible, while never acknowledging this integral relationship between software and hardware exists, and just sort of hope the support from the hardcore audience will drown out the hundreds upon hundreds of people realizing they’ve been bamboozled – the developers protected by mere technicalities. You can play these games with a pad, it’s just a massive exercise in frustration.
The average gamer already has trouble spending the full $60 to $80 on a brand new video game, and that’s okay – we’ve all got different levels of financial management skills, as well as overall life situations. However, if developers were to come out and say that their new racing simulator is only worth a purchase if you’re also willing to shell out anywhere from $250 to $350 on a toy steering wheel – once again, the cost of an entirely new console – sales of the game would crater for this very reason. The average person simply cannot afford to spend three figures on a hobbyist item.
So developers and marketing departments make the conscious decision not to, as doing so would have adverse effects on the bottom line.
iRacing’s willingness to be upfront about their intentions with the game warranted just 50,000 members by the Winter of 2013; the game had been “on the market” for five years. By comparison, it was reported earlier this year that Kunos Simulazioni have sold over 1.4 million copies of Assetto Corsa since going up for sale in the fall of 2013 – the game existing for just four years at this point, with versions available on Steam, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Sony’s PlayStation 4.
This kind of success in the marketplace – selling a hardcore racing sim to children armed with Xbox controllers, but never explicitly telling them their controller would be largely useless – allowed for Kunos staff members to sell the company to a new owner thanks to outside interest in the team’s success, and generally keep things churning from a business standpoint. Without the near-unlimited support of the Boston Red Sox owner, iRacing would have folded years ago.
A similar move was executed by Codemasters when it came to the release of DiRT Rally.
Only two months before DiRT Rally’s surprise launch, news circulated that Codemasters were undergoing substantial financial problems – which the team themselves actually confirmed. Originally the game was intended as a science project for sim racers to gawk over, but within a year DiRT Rally promptly saw a multi-platform release, and then a re-release on the PlayStation 4 to take advantage of virtual reality capabilities.
Despite the ludicrously difficult nature of DiRT Rally, and the game no longer being sold as a rogue title for hardcore sim racers on Steam, but instead marketed to the masses on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Codemasters made no effort to convey just how essential a steering wheel add-on would be to the overall experience.
As of this year, Codemasters staff members have noted the team are “better than ever” in terms of stability, yet a large majority of YouTube videos surrounding DiRT Rally feature casual gamers just sort of aimlessly dicking around with the title. Codemasters were lucky in that DiRT Rally’s enormously unforgiving difficulty with a gamepad became somewhat of a viral sensation, but other developers such as Kunos Simulazioni and Slightly Mad Studios haven’t been on the receiving end of such fortune.
Had DiRT Rally not received the right kind of coverage at just the right time, an alternate reality sees Codemasters subjected to unrelenting fury from Xbox and PlayStation 4 owners, upset that the game essentially demands them to buy an expensive toy steering wheel; the default gamepad being totally inadequate for the task at hand, as demonstrated in this compilation.
In conclusion, I am forced to label racing simulators a scam, not to drive up clicks and troll our readers, but because I can’t really deny what’s happening in the genre as a whole.
As someone who has more or less grown up and watched sim racing evolve from humble DOS beginnings, I can wholeheartedly say these games are absolutely, positively, built from the ground up for use with a toy steering wheel, and nothing else. This isn’t a bad thing, nor is it particularly uncommon; most flight sim enthusiasts go out and purchase a variety of flight yokes, while only in challenge videos can Guitar Hero players be seen using something other than the standard plastic Les Paul.
The problem lies in how an overwhelming majority of simulation developers make basically no effort to acknowledge how lopsided your gaming experience may be without these specialty devices. In some cases, they instead market their games to crowds who would otherwise have no interest if they knew an additional $300 investment is necessary to get the most out of the product, but do so anyways, and more or less cross their fingers that positive feedback from hardcore fans dwarfs justified outrage, which it often does.
Purchases made under false pretenses inflate sales figures and allow sim developers to keep a clear head for the future so they can continue servicing their small group of hardcore fans year after year, but come at the cost of honesty and respect for the customer. Sim developers are screwing normies out of $60 by means of flashy trailers that don’t tell the full story about their products, and only after the disc is in their BluRay drive do normies discover the game they liked the idea of, actually requires a mammoth additional purchase to be even somewhat playable.
That’s a dick move if I’ve ever seen one.
Yes, customers should be doing their homework on video games they plan to purchase, and be able to figure out via social media that some games on the market actually require an expensive console add-on if you’re planning to spend more than a few evenings with the game. However, with these developers almost intentionally dancing around this subject in an effort to reel in as many sales as possible, can you really blame them for making that mistake in the first place?