Swept Under the Rug: Are Racing Simulators a Scam?

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.

Literally.

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?

Because the Sauber C9, and cars like it, exist.

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.

Nowhere are customers ever told that these games are best enjoyed with a toy steering wheel, and in some cases, the opposite is instead pushed on vulnerable outside buyers.

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.

Why?

Sadly, my own answer to that question is why I believe it’s fair to label racing simulators as scams.

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?

 

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So You Bought a GoPro… Now What?

I’m going to deviate a bit from the norm for today’s post on PRC, but it’s a subject I really want to expand upon considering this topic might be highly relevant to a solid chunk of our readers – whether they’re wanting an on-board camera for their amateur race car, or making use of it for a different activity altogether.

Though YouTube in 2017 has already replaced cable television in terms of sheer popularity, and there’s one major brand selling high-quality action cameras at a very affordable price – allowing you to record and inevitably upload your public karting escapades in all their glory – I’d wager that roughly 65% of GoPro owners have no fucking idea how to use these pocket sized devices to their fullest extent. Often taking on the role of stocking-stuffers over the holidays, last minute birthday gifts, or pre-season surprises from a friend or family member, the sad reality is that the majority of GoPro cameras live very dull and pointless lives; either sitting in a drawer or awkwardly strapped to someone’s car or helmet, but never venturing past the so-and-so bought me one for Christmas, but I haven’t really configured it yet or tried recording anything big” phase. After being blessed with a fleet of miniature GoPro session model cameras courtesy of Slightly Mad Studios, and promptly attaching them to a bunch of cars, these were the same sentiments I commonly heard popping up around my local pit area – everyone seemingly owned a newer model GoPro, but I appeared to be the only guy who knew how to make use of them.

And it’s a damn shame, because in an era where auto racing – and I guess to cover a broader topic, outdoor activities – are declining in popularity, with track owners and miscellaneous promoters struggling to figure out how to attract an audience to their circuit (I was invited to some country bar to striptease for “racer’s night” as a way to promote the Pinty’s event), GoPro’s are literally invaluable in what they can accomplish. I’m not talking about just in terms of bringing an audience out to a race track by making it look like a great time through wild on-boards – because that’s a given – but also in how they can help you better your skills as a driver, and save your ass when the officials get it wrong.

Unless you are seriously strapped for cash, pinching pennies just to keep the car running, and cannot part with $200 plus a tad extra for a MicroSD card, you owe it to both yourself and your local race track/karting complex to purchase a GoPro, as well as get everything you’ve recorded up on social media. It’s the correct, honest way to promote your local auto racing scene, whether you’re a part of it or not.

Before making this venture in the first place, it’s absolutely essential to obtain some sort of proper video editing software such as Sony Vegas, and then take the time to learn how it works – usually by messing around with clips of sim racing footage – just to ensure you’re familiar with the editing and rendering process. The reason for this is that GoPro cameras naturally “chapter” video clips, so even if you think you can just hit record, walk away for forty five minutes, and then press stop when the action has ceased, this isn’t exactly the case; GoPro cameras split recordings into twelve minute chunks, meaning you’re the poor bastard who has to piece them all together. Again, in my experience this is one of the points where a lot of racers simply give up on their ambitions of uploading their adventures to YouTube, as you’d be surprised how many are computer illiterate and deem this to be too daunting and time consuming.

This is where it helps to be a sim racer, or that special sim racing friend to assist your bro; if you’re regularly recording your own personal iRacing hotlaps and then busting out something like Sony Vegas to add visual effects, music, or multi-angle shots, importing MP4 clips from the camera into Vegas or Premiere, chaining it together, trimming it down, and disabling the resample effect when necessary, is literally a two minute job. But of course, it’s something that needs to be done so the footage is presentable on social media, and not a 38 minute odyssey of static pit area shots before the ignition switch is finally flipped and the action commences. Again, I’ve seen others do this, and it’s shitty. Nobody wants to watch that.

GoPro as a company have a pretty wide variety of cameras available – with price ranges skyrocketing for newer models – but the reality is that for any on-board footage of yourself karting, mountain biking, road racing, or a buddy of yours running his amateur car, you simply do not need anything more than a Hero 4 Session, pictured above. These things are tiny as fuck – so they’ll fit basically anywhere without feeling like a bulky, awkward extension on your helmet – retail for just over $200, and are idiot proof to the max; with just one primary button, a single press turns the camera on and begins recording, while another press ends the recording and shuts the camera off. In my opinion, the more expensive GoPro models are an exercise in diminishing returns; sure, you can shoot at 120 frames per second with the Hero 5 Black, and there’s a touch screen display on the user side portion of the camera, but what exactly does this add to the experience for your average consumer wanting to crank out videos? Absolutely nothing is the correct answer. The higher priced cameras are really only intended for amateur film makers, as the increase in framerate aids the fluidity during slow motion scenes – and even then there are tricks in Vegas to work around this.

Each camera also features a pretty stout array of settings that can be changed both on the camera itself, as well as within the PC-based software that can be downloaded from the GoPro website, but the reality is that there’s basically one universal setting on the session models which provide the best all-around outcome – and that’s ideal if you’re low on videography skills and just want to hit record & forget about it. I’ve found that an image quality of 1080, framerate of 30, and the field of view set to medium warranted solid results with reasonable file sizes and acceptable battery consumption. Again, anything above is pretty much useless; it’s not like you’re not shooting a movie for Ron Howard.

So anyways, let’s say you’re at the point where you’ve picked up a GoPro Session, grabbed yourself a MicroSD card between 16 and 64 gigabytes, messed around with Sony Vegas (or another relevant video editing program), along with a bag of mounts from a place like London Drugs, and are now ready to start documenting your summer adventures. How do you ensure the footage you capture is actually worth anybody’s time?

The first thing I’ve gotta talk to you guys about is angles, and a video of my teammate from pre-season testing earlier this year drills home how important getting the right camera angle can be. Browsing for amateur racing on-boards on YouTube, I often come across videos – such as my own above – that don’t show anything because a lot of guys fail to think through cockpit shots. Justin wanted the camera placed on the rear hatch of his Sunfire so he could review his driving inputs, but the end result was very uninspiring and extremely boring for third parties to view; even if we were to zoom in on the front windshield via Sony Vegas, you can’t physically see a lot of what’s occurring out on the track, and it’s not entertaining footage by any stretch of the imagination. There’s no sense of speed, nothing exciting to look at, and any action that does take places, does so in a little tiny window in the center portion of the screen, roughly 5% of the overall image.

That’s shitty. Don’t make people sit through that.

What I do personally, is to try and place cameras where third parties viewing the clip, not knowing who myself or Justin are, can still watch the race and become invested in the on-track product. And the way I’ve accomplished this is by drawing inspiration from Gran Turismo’s roof cam; it’s something all sim racers are familiar with, and to spectators, it provides a very clear view of the action both in front and directly beside the car in question – giving the on-track product a chance to entertain & captivate them, and possibly enticing locals to check things out for themselves. I accomplish this by mounting the GoPro in the dead center of the windshield, and then aiming the lens about twenty feet in front of the car.

The end product looks cool because sim racers instantly think “ah, Gran Turismo”, while a third party audience – family members, friends, other racers, or locals curious about what the track has to offer – can actually see a lot of what’s going on and get involved in the race.

It’s also an angle that helps to convey the pitch and the attitude of the car, so viewers can comprehend elevation changes, line choices, and general car stability more accurately. I’m not saying roof cam is the be all, end all solution that should be mandated for those running onboard cameras, but before you start experimenting with artsy shit, it’s nice to have footage that clearly displays what’s going on. Roof camera solves that.

Some guys will experiment with dashboard camers – I did as well – but there’s one fatal flaw. Dash cameras lack peripheral vision, which means that if there’s any side by side battles that may occur (and they certainly will), you’re simply not going to see them. You lose the excitement of cars running door to door – both trying to inch ahead of one another – because the opponent’s car has instead completely disappeared from the shot at the most inopportune of times.

But of course, roof cams are only useful in tin tops, and some of you guys reading this might not have the privilege of competing in a full-bodied car, possibly just wanting to record your karting adventures with your mates. In that situation, helmet cameras are certainly the way to go, as GoPro mounts will stick to literally anything, but I’ve found what a lot of people get wrong is in where they mount the camera to their helmets. Most opt to stick the camera right on top of the helmet, but this results in a ridiculously high vantage point compared to what the driver actually sees, and thus reducing the sense of speed. I’m not a fan of telling people “it feels much faster when you’re actually driving” when it’s much easier to just put the camera in the correct spot the first time and convey it through the video itself.

And given most karting facilities mandate you to use your visor at all times, this can be accomplished by placing the sticky mount as far forward as possible, and then tilting the camera upwards. Don’t be that guy with the GoPro on the top of his skull, I promise you the footage looks absurdly goofy.

This is also what many simulation developers fuck up when trying to replicate a proper cockpit view in their respective Go Karts on the vehicle roster. Teams opt to try and convey an ultra-high GoPro eyepoint that makes you feel as if you’re towering over the other karts, when in reality the view should be much lower. Let’s be real, when you head to an indoor karting complex, the wheel is directly in front of you, not in your lap like the teacup ride at Disneyland.

Now at this point you’re probably wonder if it’s possible to combine the two – running a helmet camera inside the car – and I’m here to confirm that yes, it’s certainly possible, but you have to take into consideration the roof height, and your overall level of visibility in the cockpit.

Because there’s a giant piece of sheet metal above your head, using the same mounting point as what you’d make use of in karting just doesn’t work, because every time you move your head, there’s a chance you’re going to bump the camera, or exert enough force on the mount to completely detach it from your helmet, which would obviously result in a $200 piece of equipment rolling around in the car, and sanctioning bodies typically aren’t too fond of that. Now provided you’re enough of a manlet like I am, where a high mounted camera wouldn’t run the risk of clipping the roof, you still run into the problem of creating an awkward, jacked up view point that doesn’t really resemble what the driver sees. Part of the fun in running a helmet cam is being able to convey to friends and family exactly how you’re able to interpret the situation around you. I’m not towering over the nose of my car from inside the driver’s seat.

The solution I used, at least in Hornets, was to mount my GoPro to the side of my helmet, less than an inch away from the visor slot, and then angle the camera inwards so you can still see out my driver’s side window – plus the entire windshield – despite the camera being mounted away from the driver’s side door. This also naturally induces a sort of look-to-apex effect, without the need for any Sony Vegas wizardry.

However, the helmet camera vantage point isn’t always effective. If you’re in a car with super low visibility, whether it be due to the windshield height, or running a containment/partial containment seat, there’s only so far a Need for Speed Shift-like camera can go before you’re back at square one, and can’t see shit. The key for this viewpoint to work is to have a giant cockpit area – something you’ll find in abundance in Chumpcar, LeMons, Hornets, or any discipline of racing that makes use of passenger cars. Late models, not so much, although it’s good for a clip or two to drill home the drastic change in environment from something significantly less radical. At the end of the day, the audience is going to want to see what’s going on out the window to provide context to the driver’s inputs, and if they can’t, they’re not going to stick around for long – the “oh my god you’re wheeling it” element only lasts for a couple of laps before people get bored.

Assembling the videos into something presentable on YouTube isn’t an area you’ll need to dedicate several hours, but it certainly helps retain your audience. People have significantly shorter attention spans compared to twenty years ago, so every last second of your on-track footage needs to be relevant, or at least showcase actual racing. Unless you know what you’re doing and can craft the downtime portions into something ridiculously artsy, viewers don’t want to watch you tightening the belts, sitting in the staging lanes, conversing with an official, turning pace laps, or mindlessly idling around under caution. Auto racing is an already difficult sell to millennial viewers, so this is the part where you really do need to learn the most rudimentary Vegas operations of cutting out stuff that does not serve any purpose whatsoever.

Unless you’re like, screaming in your helmet under caution. In that instance it’s hilarious.

This season I’ve slowly messed around with inserting basic graphical elements just to keep viewers informed about what’s actually happening in the race. As a racer, I often find myself bored to tits watching on-boards from other people, and this led me to inject simple green/yellow/white/checkered flags, along with labels of each session, to give a very basic outline of what point we’re at in the evening. For late models I’ve tried doing this thing where I have a results screen pop up in the center like the EA Sports NASCAR games once you cross the start finish line, but some may not be comfortable revealing their real name to the outside world. I run a website with a shitload of viewers, so I’ve sort of waived that right to privacy, but it’s not something that’s essential by any means.

Basically, you want your GoPro footage on YouTube to be accessible to the point where some random guy prowling for on-board footage can click on your video and be entertained for five to ten minutes, even if it’s just you and your mates slugging it out at the local karting complex.

Throughout this article I’ve talked a lot about retaining an audience and keeping “third party viewers” engaged, and there are two key reasons for that.

Obviously, on-board cameras are a powerful tool to help refine your driving skills and/or settle disputes with other drivers/officials at the race track, but when used to their fullest extent, they’re also a very underrated marketing tool. The reason your local karting track does Date Night, or your local race track does shit like Kids Under Ten Get In Free is all down to marketing; most circuits, save for massive facilities like Daytona, the Nurburgring, or Bathurst, have no fucking idea how to promote local racing or even go-karting to a potential userbase who are otherwise apathetic towards auto racing as a whole, so they basically throw a bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks – and sometimes the results are pretty fucking ridiculous.

Whether it’s for a karting complex or a local track, aggressive, hard racing is going to reel people in faster than any $1.50 for a hot dog & drink for #Canada150 scheme ever will. If you can use your base model GoPro to capture this sort of racing in a manner that’s easily digestible for the average person with a passing interest in auto racing, and not force them to click through fourteen minutes of your car sitting in the pits because you’re unsure of how to work Adobe Premiere and cut the clip, that’s usually enough to compel them to come out and bring a bunch of their friends – meaning four tickets sold, and a shitload made at the concession. More importantly, it also means less awkward, forced marketing campaigns that have nothing to do with racing.

It’s also an integral tool in securing potential sponsors. Throughout the 2016-2017 off-season, three of my bros who race hornets were able to secure pretty substantial sponsorships from a wide variety of companies just by approaching local shops, introducing themselves, and being able to pull up footage of us beating the shit out of each other on YouTube. Every car guy with a business and a bit of money wants to have their logo on a race car of some level, but the biggest problem is they want to associate with someone they can cheer for and feel like they’re going to win every weekend, which is pretty difficult to do if they can’t immediately see you in action. Yet if you can show them crystal clear footage of yourself – or the entire class – racing three wide to the stripe, or have some sort of compelling video that introduces your discipline as immediately captivating, that’s the extra push they’ll need to hand your operation some cash.

So if you happen to be a sim racer who also campaigns some kind of amateur car on the side, or you’ve got a friend who’s into amateur auto racing and his girlfriend buys him a GoPro for Christmas, don’t let that opportunity go to waste. Learn how to work editing software such as Sony Vegas, take the time to mount the cameras in a position that gives the best view of the action possible, and upload as much as you can to YouTube in a manner that can be easily digested by the common motorsports fan – it’s the correct way to promote local racing, and it’ll settle a lot of fights in the pits, too.

Nerd Goggles Fail to Impress at Goodwood Festival of Speed

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or are just getting your feet wet in the world of auto racing, the yearly Goodwood Festival of Speed was held this past weekend in West Sussex, England. A tradition which started in 1993, the iconic event serves as motor racing’s equivalent to the Detroit Auto Show; race cars from the past, present, and future – as well as a capped limit of 150,000 fans – all cram into the grounds of Goodwood House for what’s essentially a pop-up encyclopedia of where auto racing has been, and where it’s going. Though the hill climb at the center of the festivities is little more than a cozy one minute stretch of asphalt sporting a few blind corners, the overall atmosphere and sheer size of the displays turns the event into the pinnacle of race car exhibitions. It’s certainly a bucket list item for those living within close proximity to West Sussex, and in recent years the popularity of Goodwood has skyrocketed thanks to event organizers streaming the event live on YouTube for outsiders to take part in.

To capitalize on the audience of 150,000 hardcore auto racing fans, many major developers had their own respective booths configured to show off this fall’s upcoming simulators to their core audience. Our friends over at Slightly Mad Studios were able to partner up with Bentley’s factory GT3 team and place a top of the line sim rig next to the Continental GT3 car, encouraging fans to have a go at the yet-to-be-released Project CARS 2 on the Brands Hatch GP circuit in what was more or less the best setup money can currently buy. We’re talking a proper Vesaro rig with a Direct Drive wheel, and of course a virtual reality headset.

One PRC ground reporter – who’s also a talented sim racer in his own right – was in attendance at Goodwood this year and was actually able to try a few laps on the rig (pictured above, though it’s not him driving), which was a monumental step up compared to what he races on at home. Unfortunately, his impressions from the experience of racing on a setup that featured top of the line everything were a mixed bag, and it does not bode well for those wanting to splurge money on sim racing peripheral upgrades, or even improving a single aspect of their setup – most notably the purchase of a virtual reality headset. In fact, his time with the Project CARS 2 uberseat only served to perpetuate our notion here at PRC that virtual reality headsets are a passing fad, and that it’s completely understandable for some developers to be completely uninterested in supporting the various high definition nerd goggles available on the market.

The choice quote I received from our ground reporter after his session was incredibly blunt; “virtual reality is a joke.” That’s how the conversation began, with him elaborating further “it was blurry and disorienting as fuck, with no peripheral vision either. It was like I was looking through binoculars with these giant black borders.”

So uh… yeah, that’s the kind of experience people are spending $800 on, and then shilling for across gaming forums far and wide.

And though they aggressively beg developers to add VR functionality across every modern game under the sun – especially racing simulators, where the technology is a natural fit – it’s also why developers like Codemasters are still generally hesitant to bother with nerd goggles despite scores of fans drumming up bullshit hashtags such as #noVRnoBuy. As Shaun Cole of The SimPit so expertly described these headsets many months ago, it’s a good experience for some who really get into it and can look past the flaws, but virtual reality headsets as a whole aren’t a good shared experience. For every person who turns a few laps in Assetto Corsa and is promptly blown away by how in-touch with the car they feel – promptly rushing out to buy a pricey wheel despite little to no sim racing experience – there are three or even five people wondering what the fuck all the hype is about, as our PRC ground reporter discovered first hand. It’s blurry, disorienting, and feels like you’re driving while wearing a shitty set of dollar store toy binoculars. Some developers can’t be bothered with implementing functionality for hardware they themselves personally don’t enjoy, and believe to be massively overrated.

It’s also got me wondering just how many users praising VR are genuine individuals, and not just paid shills told to flood various message boards in a quest to get more and more teams to purchase development kits/licenses, which in the end results in Samsung and Oculus turning a better profit. As a gamer I’ve never seen reception to any gaming product so inconsistent and contradictory; usually if a product is genuinely, objectively good, there are little to no negative remarks about the game or piece of hardware anywhere.

For example, when Assetto Corsa first came out in the fall of 2013, it was unanimous that the vehicle handling was leaps and bounds ahead of anything on the market – I don’t recall any notable negative feedback; the game instead shot to the top of Steam and threw more money at Kunos than they knew what to do with. Yet despite VR goggles receiving the same kinds of glowing reviews from portions of the gaming community in a manner similar to Assetto Corsa – deeming it to be the next revolution in gaming – there’s also been an equally vocal portion like our ground reporter from day one who were left utterly perplexed by the experience.

So how in the world are some people calling this technology game-changing when many others are coming forward to say it’s downright brutal? Again, my hypothesis is paid shills, mixed with a pinch of post-purchase rationalization – early VR adopters realizing the technology hasn’t lived up to expectations, yet convincing themselves that the purchase was worth it to feel better about the enormous amount of money they’d spent on nerd goggles plus the PC upgrades to run it.

Guitar Queer-o

16716053_1375071449232086_8758369761658143409_oWhile there was a bit of an uproar when it was revealed that DiRT Rally for the PlayStation 4 Virtual Reality headset would ship with additional content not seen in the vanilla package, those fears can officially be put to rest, though they now indicate that sim developers might not know how to craft a compelling and innovative experience for this technology. Introduced as a PSVR exclusive feature, DiRT Rally’s co-driver mode was kept heavily under wraps in the lead up to the title’s release, with many sim racers speculating about Codemasters creating some sort of online co-operative functionality just for this specific segment of the userbase – one which put you in the passenger seat and tasked you with reading out pacenotes to your buddy of choice as they flew through Sweden, Wales, or Monte Carlo – but the reality is unfortunately much different, and significantly more ridiculous than anyone could have envisioned.

Codemasters made a Guitar Hero mini-game for DiRT Rally.

Seriously.

thunderstruckInstead of pairing you with a friend riding shotgun – also sporting a VR headset from the comfort of his own home – tasked with reading out complex strands of stage notes at a lightning quick pace from the virtual passenger seat to ensure your success on any of the game’s twelve stages, DiRT Rally’s co-driver mode asks you to hand your little brother the Dualshock 4 so he can play a shitty knock-off version of Guitar Hero on the main monitor, where him successfully hitting each note translates to the correct visual directions being displayed on-screen.

There was a huge opportunity for Codemasters to go out and create a memorable diversion that could potentially show off the unique experience a VR headset can provide under the right conditions, and instead they’ve straight up missed it by a country mile. Inserting a simplified version of Guitar Hero into a game most of us have already played to exhaustion, and designing the mode in such a way where it only applies to bystanders who probably won’t want to sit and watch you play DiRT Rally to begin with, won’t get people to rush out and pick up a copy of DiRT Rally VR. We already know that racing games are an incredibly unique way to showcase what a virtual reality headset can do at its absolute best, but we’re at the point where developers need to innovate and take things to the next level.

This certainly isn’t it. In fact, it’s perpetuating the stereotype of VR-based titles being more of a fancy tech demo than anything else, with developers struggling to find out what to do with this technology beyond the initial application of first-person viewpoints.

Above, I’ve linked a twenty one minute compilation of Giant Bomb co-founder and former Gamespot persona Jeff Gerstmann struggling to understand how virtual reality will retain a long-term appeal, as he demonstrates numerous fully-priced PSVR titles that just aren’t very exciting pieces of software. While some of his experience is hampered by technological issues that make him visibly uncomfortable during his trial runs, Jeff notes that after you get over the initial “coolness” of physically existing inside a game world and being able to look around at your own discretion, the decline in texture resolution and lack of exciting quirks to make it more than just an extreme first person view isn’t enough to offset the obvious cons of the hardware.

To combat this, developers such as Codemasters need to push the envelope and offer genuinely interesting diversions to their software that really justifies the existence of a purpose-built VR title. A Guitar Hero spin-off isn’t that.

Codemasters, listen up. Let us walk around the car in the service park to inspect the damage, and make repairs by physically kneeling next to the vehicle and ripping the bumper off, or changing a few tires if it’s needed. Make the user nod their head up and down to indicate to the official to start the count-down clock for each stage. Create a co-op mode, where you can invite a buddy to your offline session, and his ass is thrown in the passenger seat, where he can look at his lap and read out pacenotes – which would actually be of use in DiRT 4, as the randomly generated stages will be impossible to memorize and actually require someone to get good at co-driving should this mode exist. And on closed-circuit off road races, make it so mud accumulates on the visor of the helmet, requiring the user to either shake their head, or wave their hand in front of the censor, for the virtual avatar to rip away a tear-off.

This is all shit I’m just pulling out of my ass on a boring Saturday evening, but I’m sure a large portion of the DiRT audience would appreciate these little elements to a Guitar Hero mode that will be used exactly once before promptly being ignored for the rest of the game’s lifespan. Otherwise, if this is the kind of “innovation” we can expect from the VR generation, don’t expected it to last very long.

 

Wheeling It: The Theories Behind Exploiting Force Feedback

16472989_10208194146706819_3054346279305608142_nWith so much misinformation and rumors floating around on the forums regarding how you should set your force feedback and wheel rotation settings, I wanted take a bit of time today to clear up some misconceptions about modern force feedback wheels and what they’re trying to convey to the end user, as well as breakdown what top teams are doing with wheel settings in the iRacing world. It’s certainly not the kind of information that makes its way out into the general public, as configuring your equipment in a very specific way can produce a greatly tangible performance advantage out on the virtual track.

Now, I have to make our readers very clear, most of my various tips and insights will be predominantly be pulled from iRacing, because I’ve spent the most time on it, and it’s also the most competitive sim racing platform currently available. But hey, who doesn’t want a leg up on the competition? Immersion and realism doesn’t pad your iRating.

niswc-12-daytona-4Working with some of the biggest and best teams in iRacing for the past five years, I’ve heard all kinds of different wheel settings to try and combat the faults in the iRacing software or just to find an exploitative advantage. One thing I can say with one hundred percent confidence is that no one wheel setting will give you a massive advantage over the competition – everyone has their own style – however, some adjustments do help make it easier to find that extra speed, or save the car in a sim that is notoriously hard to save cars in without dealing with a massive tank slapper.

Let’s start with the most common and effective setting of the two that I’ve used personally, and what I know many of the top iRacers are using,  as they seem to fall into two camps. The first can be described as a very non-linear setting that seems to provide more feel, while making saving the car extremely easy but effectively having a larger ratio in the middle when you need to be smooth on the wheel.

This consists of running whatever wheel you have at anywhere from 200 to 540 degrees in your external profiler application, and then setting the in-game rotation at 1080 or more. What this does is give you a very smooth rotation through the center, and then ramps the steering ratio exponentially towards the edge of the wheel, so you are at full lock way faster then you should be based on your center ratio. To simplify, it allows you to run, say,  a ratio of 16:1 in the middle to really nail your steering inputs, but then when you’re forced to go hand over hand to save the car, the sensitivity is jacked skyward.

gen6-screenshot-3The other most common setting is just running 900 to 1080 degrees depending on wheel and running 1:1 with the sim. The debate then comes to running force feedback or not. At 900 degrees, a centering spring is a big no no, as there is way too much rotation to be fighting a centering spring all the way through the corner, especially if you are trying to counter steer at all. However Some of the fastest sim racers on the service, including my own driver Ryan Luza, run a completely dead wheel with zero feedback of any kind. The rest such as myself run a slightly non linear profiler setting such as 105-110% primarily to get rid of the massive deadzone, and give a slightly faster response time on Logitech wheels, with zero other effects and no damping.

iracing-phoenix-crashAll of this is a fine place to start, and many people out there run any combination of these settings, but of all the teams I’ve worked with, these were the most common and used by the best drivers on the service, yet a lot of it comes down to hardware as well.

Belt driven wheels such as the Thrustmaster T series wheels or the Fanatec stuff that has been hit or miss on reliability, have become the new norm for anyone wanting to run force feedback in the way it was intended, as it provides a much smoother and faster response to what you are seeing in front of you; whereas the non linear ramping settings, or non-FFB drivers tend to all be Logitech users. However, belt driven wheels aren’t worth the extra money if you aren’t going to use the force feedback they were designed to excel at, so don’t bother if you are a dead wheel kinda guy.

The other option is DD wheels such as the Accuforce or OSW, or perhaps a Heusinkveld option in the future. James here at PRC has been very outspoken against DD wheels, purely for price reasons, but the fact is they are the best wheels available for your sim racing “experience”, however, I can tell you right now that other then a few road pro drivers, none of the top iRacers are using them. The benefit just isn’t there at the moment for the price, the current belt driven wheels have more then enough bang for the current big market simulators, and it clearly isn’t a must have for speed if almost none of the top drivers in the highest competition sim aren’t using them. If you do have the expendable cash to afford the luxury then by all means go ahead, you are essentially future proofing your sim rig for when the direct drive wheels can be utilized better, or you can crank to wrist-breaking levels of FFB when you want to make a trip to the hospital for a day off work. I just personally wouldn’t recommend them at this point, as they aren’t necessary to be competitive, especially if you have a tight budget .

richmond2-1500The other consideration with wheels is both your simulator of choice, and the speed between that simulator and the wheel; almost all the major sims are using a different force feedback system from one another, and they all run on different physics engines at different frequencies. The speed your wheel receives information from the software is very important, as is the quality of the information. iRacing uses the slowest rate out of all the major sims that I know of, but yet every sim claims they are the best at the information they send to your wheel. So I’ll just focus on the speed to your hand and try to generalize the variables.

The most important element to care about is how fast your wheel reacts to what you’re seeing from your virtual car on screen if you are choosing to enable force feedback at all. This is why belt driven wheels have become so much more popular in sim racing because, they don’t necessarily make you a faster driver; they make it easier to be consistent and catch mistakes due the response speed of these modern belt driven wheels. You could have the strongest direct drive wheel in the world, but if the response time is slow none of it matters.Logitech G series wheels are notorious slow and haven’t improved the technology much at all since the Driving Force GT. This may be the reason many of us have gone to exploiting non-linear setups or simply turning off the force feedback completely – our wheels are just too out-dated. This is also why certain sims feel better with certain wheels, it all has to do with the frequency the sim puts out, and the quality of the information that is being sent. The fact that many people with older wheels in iRacing simply start clipping at very small amounts of force feedback that the Logitech wheels seemingly can’t handle in 2017 starts to muddy what information you do get, and why simply turning it off and driving visually seems to help a lot of people as it would with any sim that the wheel can’t handle.

Hopefully this will help many of you in trying to dial in your wheel settings so you can get the proper sim experience you are looking for, and maybe even gain time for a lot of you; I know among the top iRacing divisions a bunch of people keep wheel setting close to their chests, but if you look hard enough the information is indeed out there, and keep in my mind that no magic setting will help you, but that consistency is key. Don’t change something just for the sake of changing it unless you plan on spending the time to stick with it and get used to it before you see any results.