Simulating that which can't easily be simulated in driving games

11 Nov 2012

In which I explain why motorcycling video games are, and always will be, rubbish.

I’d never been particularly interested in cars, until a friend of mine showed me how fun driving simulation games can be when you remove all the driver assists. Modern driving games, such as Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo have wonderfully accurate physics simulations in them, and so become suitably challenging when you expose the underlying car. At that point I saw the joy of the challenge of driving well. It’s a skill that I find rewarding on a motorbike, that hitherto I’d not seen in cars. I’m still not interested in cars as objects in themselves, but I am now interested in them as a tool to enable me to drive.

Add to the game’s physics modelling a force feedback wheel and simple pedal inputs, you suddenly have a very interesting simulator. The inputs are like those of a real car; indeed, the inputs on the Microsoft Force Feedback Wheel I started with match those of the Smart Roadster I regularly drive pretty much exactly. One of the things I find very fascinating about these wheels is not that they provide feedback of say, the road texture, but rather how they convey a sense of weight of the car.

I’ve never really thought deeply about the steering wheel as a output device before, only of an input, but I guess that’s because on real roads I drive at a suitably sedate pace, such that the G-forces on my body in cornering tell me what I need to know about my cornering. In driving a video game simulation of driving, they can’t provide that feedback so readily in my living room. Instead they convey it through the steering wheel, and it works remarkably well. You can feel as you throw your car around a tight corner it stringing at the limits of grip (if it’s a nimble car like a Lotus) or it giving up an wallowing off the road in disgust (if it’s a Mustang). I’m not sure if they’re modelling a real feedback loop I’ve just never noticed before, or a synthetic feedback loop that happens to convey the right sensations, but either way it works remarkably well.

What’s interesting here is they’ve found an alternative output mechanism to make up for something they couldn’t otherwise recreate.

This works for other outputs too. Typically if you get a set of pedals for such games, there’s no feedback via the pedals – they’re just input devices. For some of the pedals at your feet they take care of the feedback loop visually – you can see who quickly your car is accelerating on the screen when you press the rightmost pedal. It should be the same for the reverse process, breaking, but it isn’t. Yes, you can see your car slowing, but if you press a break too hard it’ll lock up, and normally you get feedback on a real car by feeling when the break starts to bite between your foot and G-force changes, and with dumb pedals you can’t feel that, and the result is you often lock the breaks more than you would otherwise.

On the Fanatec wheel set up I have today, they’ve solved that by simulating the ABS shudder via the force feedback in the wheel. So if I press the break too hard, the wheel starts to have a subtle shudder, and this tells me I’ve pressed too far. Over time this enables me to learn how far in the break pedal needs to be pressed before I lock up. Again, one output is made to substitute for another output that they couldn’t recreate.

However, not all senses are so easily catered for.

When approaching a corner you (or at least I) rely on the rate of change of depth to tell you how much speed you’re carrying, and more importantly, how much speed you need to lose. Most games (and gamers) don’t yet support 3D televisions, so you have to make do by default with a sort of rate of change of scaling on the screen – how much bigger the corner appears as you approach it – but that doesn’t work nearly so well. In an attempt at being a simulation purist I’ve tried relying only on this, and it does doesn’t work. You get a lot less information than you need, or at least than you’re used to driving in the real world, so the simulation falls down.

In Forza Motorsport there is a stop gap solution. As part of trying to make the game easier for people, Forza will enable you to turn on the racing line, showing you where you should be driving, and that line changes colour between green and red, depending on whether you should be speeding up or slowing down. It also has the option only to show the red bits, aka breaking line.

The breaking line is then something that helps make up for the lack of depth perception, but isn’t quite perfect. For one, it tells you where you should be racing, which is more than I want to know; I’d like to learn the lines on my own terms thank you very much. But also it doesn’t tell you when you should be breaking for your current line, only the ideal line. But, it’s close enough that you can use it as a reasonable indicator as to when to start breaking (unless the car in front of you obscures it, but then if you’re that close to the car in front you’ll find out you’re in the breaking zone soon enough as your bonnet goes into the rear of their car).

At first, using the breaking line felt like cheating, having the game tell me when I should be breaking. And ideally I’d not use it. But the fact is that unless you use this, you’re missing out on an important sense in driving that you’d not otherwise get from the simulated experience. Ideally they’d make some slightly purer visual feedback just to overcome this limitation decoupling it from showing the racing line.

Thanks to all these alternative input methods, be they on screen or via the force feedback motors, you get pretty close to driving a car, and it’ll enable you to safely and cheaply enjoy driving perfomant vehicles in your own living room.

All of which leads me to why motorbike based games generally are about as fun as something that’s not much fun. I love motorcycling, but games that try to recreate it without fail leave me cold. And it has to do with this using other outputs to make up for things your video game console can’t do – on a car that gap is sufficiently narrow you can make it up mostly, but with a motorbike that gap is a gaping chasm.

In a car you start with an unfair advantage – you’re usually sat down when you play driving games, and most cars expect you to be the same. Your typically isolated from the elements in both situations. Both the car and your living room typical remain on the same plane. On a bike, you have none of these similarities. A high amount of riding a bike is how you place your body, not just what you do with your hands and feet. And that movement is in reaction to the environment of the bike. The way you lean your bike and place your body is relative to the speed and corner radius, but there is no “right answer” – they’re four variables that you constantly tweak, almost subconsciously at times, through the corner. Neither input nor output on games console or PC gets close to recreating this.

So you’re not simulating motorcycling – you’re simulating a very bad car that you need to slow down on the corners for and will mostly fall off of. For the bike games that do let you adjust the angle of lean – you have no haptic feedback mechanism to convey to you how much you should lean by and what effect that lean is having in your dynamics. So motorcycling, which should be this raw, exciting, thrilling experience, feels limp by comparison to simulated driving, where we can provide the sort of feedback you expect.

Kevin Schwantz, former motorcycling world champion and now car racer once said that car racing is 80% car, 20% driver, and motorcycling is 80% rider, 20% motorbike. This feels like the right analogy for why car games work and bike games don’t – convey the 20% of senses required to engage with a car is far more achievable (and still have it be fun) than the 80% required for motorcycling.

But it’s okay, as we can get very close with cars, which is hugely fun for those days I can’t get out on the bike, and means I don’t need to save up for a Lamborghini.