As time goes on, people are finding fewer and fewer uses for analog game controllers. While this is less true of consoles, it is certainly the case for PCs. The keyboard and mouse reign supreme here. A while ago there was often a use for joysticks and possibly even gamepads. Games with complex controls like Mechwarrior required fancy joysticks with many buttons and sliders to play with any real dignity. Nowadays, even Mechwarrior games bow to the mighty keyboard and mouse combo.
I'm under the impression that many people are reluctant now to drop $100 odd on a joystick which can only be used in a certain set of games, many of which are better controlled using the keyboard and mouse anyway. It must be even more ludicrous to suggest dropping about twice that amount on a controller that only works for one type of game. I'm talking about wheels.
I've always wanted a wheel. However, I couldn't even justify this to myself, much less my parents, owing to the fact that I would've had at most one driving game on my PC, and likely many more that could've taken advantage of a joystick or joypad. Furthermore, I was rather dubious about the nature of these wheels. Would they make any difference to the game? Were they anything like driving in a real car, or are they just analogue controllers dressed up so suckers will buy them? nathan has a wheel that does not only force feedback, but is one of the few that work on a PC: The Logitech "Driving Force". He lent it to me so I could play some driving games on it.
The first thing I learnt is that a wheel without force feedback would probably be useless. I know because when he lent me the wheel, he didn't lend me the power adaptor. The wheel still worked, but there was no force feedback. This effectively made it an analogue joystick, except with crappier control. A wheel without force feedback could have springs in it to bring it back to the center, but the mere fact that your arms have to travel a great distance to go from "hard left" to "hard right" effectively makes it worse than a joystick, save for the accelerator and brake.
So now that I do have the power adaptor, I figured I'd try again. With the power plugged in but the game set to "minimum" force feedback, the change was minor. It was still a great deal of trouble to steer, but when set to "medium" my experience immediately improved. I found I could feel the road a bit better, and even pulled off some tricky turns. Having said that, I was still fishtailing it through the straights for a long time before I got used to it. Why?
Because fundamentally, a force feedback wheel feels different to a car. I mean, I'm sure if the game worked right, it could feel similar, but it's still very different. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is the "feedback loop". Basically, in a car, your steering wheel is attached straight to the wheels (figuratively, not literally). The power steering is only an assistance mechanism, but there's still no "lag" between when you turn the wheel and when the car starts turning. Contrast this with the accelerator, which will only open the butterfly valve, which will increase the amount of air to your car, which will increase the revs. There's a distinct lag between when you press the accelerator and when the car accelerates.
In a game, your steering wheel sends an electrical signal to the computer, which may or may not process it, and then send it to the game. Further, the game must then generate electrical signals to "push" the wheel one way or the other. This means there's a lag between when you move the steering wheel and when the game responds. There's also a lag between when you move your steering wheel and when your wheel responds with the feedback. The problem is, when your brain does something and doesn't get a response for a little while, it has a lot of trouble correlating your immediate actions with the immediate consequences. Think of it as a loss of "sync".
Have you ever had an experience where you're playing a game on a computer which can display 90FPS, but having a lot of trouble. Then you upgrade to a computer that can display 240FPS, and all of a sudden you find the game trivial. If the monitor can only display 85Hz, then how is the FPS difference affecting your gameplay? The answer is that most games have a "game loop", which runs usually in sync with the FPS. The quicker this loop, the quicker the game will respond to your actions. The difference in FPS is not making you better because you can see the results quicker(you can't), but because the game is responding to you in 1/240th of a second instead of 1/90th.
This "loss of sync" is apparent in force feedback wheels in PCs (in consoles, they care a lot more about this "lag" and cater for it a lot better). You not only have to concentrate more because you've got more complex controls available at your disposal, but even more so because your brain's gotta do stuff to link that turn you took 1/60th of a second ago to the "feel" of the turn right now.
It gets worse, though. See, because a real road has the advantage of actually being there, you don't have to compute how the wheel's going to react to you travelling on it. In a game, instead of having every piece of gravel speak for itself, you usually have "patches" of road which have certain properties. There's usually simple (or sometimes complicated, but simplified) equations that determine whether you have grip on a patch of road, or not. Despite this, for a game it feels OK, and if you're driving on the road (or gravel, or ice) that you're meant to, it feels OK. It's just when you accidentally go offroad, the feeling's abrupt and unrealistic. This is not bad, per se, and it doesn't destroy the gaming experience, but it still doesn't feel like I'm driving, just playing a game.
A wheel is probably the toughest thing to design, because unlike killing aliens, sneaking around factories taking out guards, or riding around on a giant 'mech, we all have some experience in driving (except nathan). The demands for realism in a wheel controller are large, and in some ways unachievable. Having said that, it's still a lot better, and a lot more immersive, than a keyboard and mouse, and it begins to allow you to think of the driving game more in driving terms. Perhaps I'll buy myself a wheel some day.