My Driving Sim Story, Part 1: Firing Up The Playseat

What was I expecting when I set out on this driving-sim adventure? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t this. If the logistical complexities of doing driving sims properly caught me out a little, the initial experience is completely off the map. But I’m finally up and running thanks to the arrival of a Playseat seatpod thingie and I’ve had something akin to my own Matrix moment…

First, a quick refresher. When I introduced my intention to give driving games a proper go, the context was someone with a serious penchant for real-world pedalling of the petrol-powered variety. And yet I also sensed my assumption that driving literally anything in the real world is more engaging than getting behind the virtual wheel of even the most exotic competition car was slightly missing the point. And so it began.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should also point out that I have had significant help from numerous hardware manufacturers in getting this going in the form of the loan of various bits of kit, regarding which I have done my best to remain objective. As you’ll see, I wasn’t fully aware of the scale of the investment required. With all that in mind…

The remit was doing it properly and for me that meant a proper driving seat, which is the main reason why it’s taken so long to pull this all together. A few of you mentioned using a VR headset. But logistics aside my early impressions are that if I have issues with immersion, it’s not display related. More on that in a moment.

Happily one of the bigger brands in driving seats came good and what you see before you is the Playseat Alcantara, one of the more affordable seatpods in their range. It clocks in at €319 or about £250 in old money.

Initially an unpromising jumble…

That’s not as bad as I’d feared, price-wise. But then I clocked the price of wheels and pedal boxes. Initially, I’m rolling with the Thrustmaster TX Leather Edition wheel and pedal box which add a pretty debilitating £400 to the overall setup fee. Clearly, doing it ‘properly’ is not cheap and as it turns out I have major issues with the Thrustmaster kit, which I’ll come to.

Anyway, assembly of the Playseat is simple enough and about 25 minutes in the result is a very adjustable platform for driving, which matters if you’re as anal as I am about this stuff. The bucket seat and seating position make for a very familiar overall seating position, which I think was critical for what was to come.

If I do have an issue with this particular Seatpod model, it involves the lower forward part of the steering wheel stand and how it relates with the pedal-box platform. The Thrustmaster pedal box I’m using is far from ideal for a lot of reasons. But the design of the wheel stand makes it more likely you’re going to run into problems getting an ideal pedal position.

Anywho, the projector also proved problematical. I needed a short-throw model in order to situate it ahead of the Playseat and Optoma kindly came up with a GT1080. However, the GT1080’s simple optics make it very hard to achieve an ideal setup with good geometry and consistent focus, a problem exacerbated by my odd projection screen setup.

…30 mins later and ready for action

I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s both an issue of my own making and not actually of much consequence, as you’ll see. Pricing on the GT1080, incidentally, is around £580. Optoma has offered to send an alternative model that should help with my setup issues, but the short-throw requirement generates certain limitations. I’ll report back in due course. Of course, if you wanted a dedicated PC to go with all that, you’d be looking at another £600-plus. It adds up scarily fast, it really does.

Whatever, with the Playseat configured, the Thrustmaster wired up and the Optoma short-throw projector in hand, I had something workable.

It was hard to know where to begin regards all the suggestions for game titles the RPS crew kindly came up with. But for better or worse, I went with Asseto Corsa. I suspect the next choices I made were potentially crucial. I decided to start with a car I’d driven in the real world, the Lotus Elise S/C, and a track that, again, I’ve driven in the real world on multiple occasions – Brands Hatch Indy.

Realistic seating position is ace, but pedal box platform not a great match with the clunky Thrustmaster pedals

A quick fiddle in the settings to turn off the stability and traction control systems and I was off. The result from the very first moment I pulled out of the pits was, frankly, shocking. Braking into the ‘Graham Hill’ corner on that initial outlap and my stomach went through the floor.

What with the large-screen view, the oh-so-familiar seating position, the steering wheel tugging at my hands, the noise filling the Laird Gaming Dungeon™, my brain got completely befuddled and started generating some really intense and totally unexpected physical feedback sensations. The best way I can describe it is a bit like being in one of those hydraulically-actuated simulators seats, except of course I was in nothing of the sort. The sensations were entirely psychosomatic.

I suspect this is the kind of thing that will likely only happen to someone who has done a fair amount of a particular kind of driving and has thus programmed his or her brain with certain expectations. Whatever, it made the first few laps a distinctly giddy experience.

The feel in Asseto Corsa with the Thrustmaster wheel is lovely…

Once I got past that, the next 30 minutes or so were a revelation. It was all about banging in laps, enjoying the stuff that felt really familiar and getting to grips with the weirdnesses that come with driving sims.

The best bit is the steering. I assume much of that is down to the game coding rather than the specifics of the Thrustmaster TX wheel. But either way, I was really impressed with how the essential character of the Elise’s rack has been captured. It’s not a complete rendering, but it’s so much better than I was expecting.

Less impressive is the pedal feel, which is nothing less than awful. The brake pedal travel in particular is far too long and springy. Nobody who has even the most cursory understanding of driver’s cars or driving signed those Thrustmaster pedals off.

Despite that, I quickly found myself in very much the same rhythm you do on a real track day. Pounding around, working on lines and braking points and near constant disappointment with your driving punctuated by momentary exhilaration as you get a corner just right or realise where there’s a little time to be found.

…but the pedals are minging

If all that is fun, the really impressive bit is that it turned out I was quick in the same places and struggled in the same corners as I do driving that very Brands Hatch Indy track in the real world. Now that is something, isn’t it?

That said, there are issues. The awful pedals make judging braking much harder than it needs to be and generally I found it really hard to gauge my corner entry speeds and braking points. Placing the car accurately on track is also much harder in-game than IRL, funnily enough, though a lot of that is, again, down to the difficulty judging entry speeds.

Generally, I was carrying too much entry speed and missing apexes like my life depended on it. But, slowly, it got better and after 30 minutes I was lapping with something vaguely resembling composure. So I recorded a lap for posterity in the video below.

As it happens, I also recorded a track day I did at Brands Hatch several years ago in my dearly departed and rather stately (204hp and 1,300kg) Boxster, so I’ve included a lap in that, too. Fun comparison, eh?

I had a very brief blatt with the new Forza demo for PC, too, but the arcadeyness of it had me gagging almost immediately. I will return to the arcade approach, but I’m 99 per cent sure it’s not even close to being my bag.

All in all, it was a pretty thrilling beginning to this adventure. But there is a catch. After that initial euphoria, the excitement levels have rather normalised. Those somatised sensations fade fairly rapidly and I expect won’t return without a long break from the world of virtual driving.

Generally, my expectations have been confounded both for better and for worse. I have an alternative Logitech wheel and pedal box in stock which intitially seems to have superior pedal feel, so that could be a big help. But I’m not convinced VR will make much difference regards the issues I currently have which revolve around physical feedback. Visual immersion definitely hasn’t been a problem.

Overall, then, the jury is out for now whether this driving sim stuff will be a quick fling or something more substantial. The key to long term enjoyment may well be online racing, but that makes me nervous. I know from my Counter-Strike days that being even reasonably competitive online is a major commitment in terms of time.

Watch this space.

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41 Comments

  1. heyricochet says:

    You’ll maybe want to find a friend with a Fanatec setup, the pedals feel much better and as you step up from the base model you get a brake pedal with a load cell so it responds to pressure instead of spring travel which is a huge difference in terms of driving.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    This is on one hand seriously impressive and on the other hand ridiciously decadent. Which also more or less sums up the subject material of these driving sims so I suppose this is the best way to experience it all :-D

    Pity the pedals are giving you a bit of grief though. My simple understanding is that the basic pedals that come wiht all of these sets (including me own G27) are “Single seater style” as in they depress into the floor, eg move along a horizontal axis, whilst the pedals that you would have in a car depress forwards into the bonnet, or move along a vertical axis. Higher end pedals (such as one that Thrustmaster sells and a lot of the crazy Fanatec kit) do simulate this. As Heyrichochet mentioned, there’s also the realm of load cell pedals and there’s quite a few progressive springs available for every pedal set.

    However, just like me when I was 10 who knew everything there ever was to know about Lamborghinis without ever driving one, I’d be ill equipped to actually tell you how any of that feels (Although I do now know how a Lamborghini feels: I don’t fit in one).

    But, if you are pushing the crazy investments into that piece of kit, it might just be an idea to go into the Tim Stone direction and try to fit a full on fighter plane control set as well. There’s something about having such a large screen and being able to fly Battle of Stalingrad in it that seems incredibly appealing.

    • golem09 says:

      If this is decadent, then what is buying a real car and burning fossil fuel for fun?

      • Jeremy Laird says:

        Well, slightly off topic, but a return long haul flight for a holiday is very roughly about the same carbon footprint as my leisure driving for a year.

        So I suppose if, as an example pulled out of thin air, getting a cheap flight to the US to go on a camping holiday in the Rockies for a week is decadent, then so is driving a car for leisure. On the other hand, if the camping trip isn’t decadent, it’s pretty hard to see how spending a whole year to match that week is terribly decadent.

        In short, it’s not an issue that lends itself is easy generalisations.

        • remon says:

          Two things about your physical feedback. First, get a buttkicker or two. Second, don’t bother with the projector. It’s the wrong approach to sim racing. You need to be as close to the screen as you can, with the right FoV. And remove the hands and the wheel. You already see the real ones.

          • Zantium says:

            My thoughts exactly, if you’re looking at simulation rather than arcade racing then a projector or large screen placed far away is the wrong way to go. You need a screen placed so that you can have the virtual dash and physical wheel as close to their relative positions as possible.

            Though I have a normal desk and chair (that drops down to about the right height) my screen is on an arm and sits just above the wheel base when racing.

            VR is the other new alternate route and the immersion and “feel” of subtle car movements takes simulation to another level completely. You’d need large triple screens to get anywhere near that immersion level but even then it’s still more realistic feeling. Racing games luckily also match up to the narrow VR field of view, as it feels like you’re wearing a helmet.

            A better braking pedal is useful but people can do well once they’ve adjusted to the cheap pedals that are basically bundled with lower and mid range wheels.

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        Grizzly says:

        Depends on the car right? Similarily to how there is massive differences between a computer with a gamepad for driving and what Jeremy is building, there’s differences in leisure driving an old Opel Kadett and a Ferrari F12. Do you get more enjoyment out of the latter? Hell yes. But I can’t help but feel that all of that is disproportionally excessive. And yet we all want a taste of it, which is why alongside the supercar industry there is now a … supersim industry. Not only do we have luxery but we have luxery so that we can experience another luxery, itself build upon several other luxeries.

        I enjoy every bit of it, but there’s ocasionally this pang of existentialism that says that we as a society have accrued total mastery of electronics and THIS is what we’re using it for? We celebrate the achievements of Nvidia who has managed to fit more on-off switches on a 384mm^2 chip then there are people on this planet but ultimately it just means that we can have a few more graphics. It’s insane!

        And yet also so compelling!

        • Unsheep says:

          Sim racing fans are not more excessive than other gamers though, considering many, if not most, tend to stick with just a handful of games for several years.

          You can contrast this with mainstream gamers who buy the biggest triple-A and Indie games every year, costing them £100+ annually.

          The vast majority of sim racing fans don’t have big €3000 rigs, but instead use smaller €400 sets. A good number of them also use gamepads, although they would rarely admit to it given the unfortunate social stigma associated with using a gamepad.

          So I don’t think the expenditure of the average sim racing gamer is more luxurious than that of any other gamer, when you take all costs into account, not just the gear.

          • Premium User Badge

            Grizzly says:

            I’m a simracer (and occasional simflyer) myself, actually! I’m more commenting on the extravagance of dedicated simpits.

    • King_Rocket says:

      I installed a loadcell mod into my g27 pedals, well worth the cash and it was a simple install to boot.

      Though I wouldn’t recommend a loadcell unless you have the pedals mounted to a frame.

  3. milligna says:

    VR really puts a lot of these expensive setups to shame.

    • King_Rocket says:

      Yes and no, my VR headsets haven’t completely replaced my projector yet. Plus you need the rest of the kit for a good VR experiences, seat, wheel etc.

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      The projector used here is about the same price as a VR headset and you’ll need all the other peripherals either way, so cost wise it’s all pretty moot.

      As I said in the text, my issues were physical feedback. The visual immersion levels were very high!

      • remon says:

        Stupid system, meant to reply to this post with the above video.

      • alphax1983 says:

        I havent tried VR yet but I can imagine that unlike a projector it would cause my eyes “bleed” fairly quickly? That “screen” in VR is way to close for a comfortable couple of hours gameplay on a day off isnt it ?

        • Zantium says:

          No, that’s not really how a VR headset works. It’s the lenses that make the difference, in fact with the lenses in you’re focusing much further away than with a monitor and it is actually less stressful for your eyes.

          Thinking it’s like holding a smartphone in front of your eyes and trying to focus on it is a common misconception, but it’s easy to see why people fall into that trap.

    • LacSlyer says:

      VR for sim racing is highly subjective. Yes, it has the obvious appeal, but using it compared to triple monitors is going to depend on the person using it. I have both options available and will stick with triple screens for various reasons. Mainly because the VR tech will take a while to catch up in quality, and the peripheral vision is just far too superior to anything VR can offer.

      • Unsheep says:

        I had an opportunity to try some VR. What I didn’t like was having all that gear wrapped around my head, to me it felt more claustrophobic than expected, so I’m happy to stick with my screens.

  4. King_Rocket says:

    Why playseat persist in using that gimped central column support I’ll never know, turns what is on ok (if overpriced) piece of kit into garbage.

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    MrJohann says:

    If you are struggling to judge distances then I strongly suggest looking into how to calculate the correct field of view. Particularly worth it seeing as you have a big screen! Just google “sim fov” or similar.
    If you are unconvinced about FOV changes then the idea is to make the in-game steering wheel in the same place as your IRL wheel (or at least make the distance less). This will make car placement easier too.

    • LacSlyer says:

      I second this notion. Not only will it allow you to improve vastly, but the immersion is superior when you have the FOV setup correctly. Though with your setup I can see how it’d be difficult without putting your rig much, much closer to the projector screen.

    • ikehaiku says:

      And I third this notion.
      Only piece of advice I can give to someone is “get the proper FOV” right after “spend a s** load of time on track practicing”

    • RimRider says:

      Thanks – gonna try that when I get home. Just one question, though – how does the eye-height factor into the equation?

      I have a projector with lens-shift, so I can set the size and position against my wall manually, so I can easily position the display as high or low on my wall as necessary…

  6. Ethaor says:

    “I found it really hard to gauge my corner entry speeds and braking points. Placing the car accurately on track is also much harder in-game”

    All of these three points are vastly improved in VR, the depth, position awareness and sense of speed is almost completely absent in 2D screens.

    In terms of visual fidelity, you’re better off with 2D high definition crisp screens. In terms of realism and presence, you’re better off with screendoored and muddy VR HMDs.

    I find the pedals are usually by the most costly piece of the puzzle for one that decently feels like the real thing. It’s hard to find anything under 600-700 euros that feels even decent. I haven’t tried the Fanatec CB V3, but I’ve had the V2 for a while and they didn’t impress.

    • LacSlyer says:

      I disagree completely. The only reason monitors wouldn’t be as good for you is if you don’t have the FOV setup correctly, which is hard for most people to setup. Not just because it’s dependent on how far your eyes are from the monitor, but because without additional hardware it’s difficult to setup a monitor where it needs to be. Which is 3-4 feet max from your eyes, depending on the size of the monitor of course.

      Once you setup the monitor FOV correctly there’s no advantage VR gives you in this aspect.

      • Unclepauly says:

        BS. VR will give you depth perception and superior head tracking.

      • BlackMageSK says:

        You severely underestimate what a natural sense of depth gives you that is impossible with flat screens. The ability to look around in VR is actually not all that important in the grand scheme of things. In VR and on real tracks my head doesn’t really wander around all that much. It is the ability to know exactly where your car is in 3D space perfectly naturally like you were in a real car which makes it a step above traditional setups. Try it before you knock it, the most obvious time this becomes noticeable is when you are tail humping another car without ever touching them.

  7. pfm says:

    Forget VR, what you need is this:

    • Unsheep says:

      I can see how something like this could have practical use for actual racing drivers in training, but for home-use it’s just ridiculous.

  8. Moixa says:

    Is a poor review really, I was expecting more especially as Jeremy had consulted with fellow reviewers.

    The reasons why are as follows:

    The set up / and seating distance is way higher than the actual viewing screen (maybe could not be easily adjusted – as in the existing screen height)

    The seating position is not tilted in anyway looks like may as well be sat in an armchair.

    And to be honest the photos look like the steering comes out of the pedals? so lack of pedal room? – the steering wheel mount should be behind the pedal mount, it just looks plain wrong and does seem as though the concept of actually racing cars affected Jeremys set-up and enjoyment of racing.

    Next review, please at least not have the pedal mount inbetween the pedals, that is no way to race, but I guess sponsored.

    Just my tuppence worth (and unfortunately my first post).

  9. identiti_crisis says:

    The lack of an immersed buttometer is a problem with sims.

    I personally use visual evidence of yaw rate as the main identifier as to what the car is doing. This messes with the idea of “ideal FoV” because you need a balance of the swing of your peripheral vision and close-up parallax between, say, the cockpit and the track.

    Doing it that way means you can play more games in more environments, more consistently. I’m not a fan of constantly tweaking virtual seating positions just so, although I do find that a bad cockpit view ruins the game.

    Mostly a bad cockpit view is one that offers too much view of the cockpit – multi-screen, track-IR (and presumably VR) setups offer partial solutions to that issue as well, by effectively increasing screen real estate. But there are other weird factors at play I can’t explain.

    I had a lot of success with multi-monitor racing, and can’t wait to try VR now I don’t have the space anymore.

    Any modern wheel is fine; but most pedals are rubbish. Load cells are best, but other options can work, including a simple foam ball behind the pedal and a tweaked pedal curve in the drivers (or third party tool). Consistent braking is my main difficulty, and a tired load cell (several years of mechanical wear) doesn’t help, despite being excellent at first.

  10. Michael Manning says:

    It looks a bit awkward having the ‘screen’ so far away from the wheel. I pull my 21:9 screen so it’s as close behind my wheel as possible then adjust the FoV using this video as a guide link to youtube.com.

    That seat thing looks amazing though must be so much nicer than a desk chair. I just don’t think I could handle having it in my house, it’d feel a bit like this link to img5.uploadhouse.com

  11. heinz says:

    I would suggest you try driving in socks, you get a lot better feeling for the softer pedals. Driving in normal shoes like a road car is not happening without expensive pedals. Hell even race drivers usually use shoes with thinner soles.

    Setting up a proper FOV will help immensely with judging speed and break points / apexes.
    I would suggest you try a low FOV. This will give you a more natural view allowing you to drive better.
    It sounds counter-intuitive since we all are used to the shooter fovs of 90 and whatnot and the fisheye effect we get, but when you think about this it makes sense to use a natural low fov. Like imagining to look out the cars windows. More in depth analysis: link to projectimmersion.com on that website is also a calculator to set your system up.

    • Unsheep says:

      I remember it taking me a while to get accustomed to driving in socks, it felt very strange at first. Like many I started with shoes, but coming home after work I couldn’t be bothered dressing up for the occasion. I just wanted to relax and have fun, with some beer and racing.

      • heinz says:

        The more you push when driving sims the more you find those things to improve. Proper adjustment of everything can help a bunch. And when you want to race for longer it helps to be comfortable :)

  12. Unsheep says:

    Myself I use a RaceRoom rig, I like their look and design.

    In terms of games you really need to try some RaceRoom stuff (DTM, ADAC, WTCC … ), as well as the games by Reiza Studios: Game Stock Car 2012, Stock Car Extreme and Formula Truck 2013. If you don’t mind a subscription system, rFactor 2 has a bunch of good mods.

    Compared to real-life driving all driving sims will feel arcady, they are still games after all. If you want the best sim racing “games” you need to buy the £10,000 sets used by actual racing drivers in training (if £10k is even close to what they cost).

    So have realistic expectations. Keep in mind that everything is relative: to people who play Mario Kart the Forza games will feel like sim games, to people who play PC exclusive sims the Forza games will feel arcade, and for people who drive in real-life all these games will feel arcady (to various degrees).

    Even games with VR can’t mimic effects like heat, g-forces and the various muscle strains associated with driving an actual car, not to mention racing in one.

  13. Jediben says:

    May I ask why you have chosen an in car view which shows the steering wheel? Surely that is unnecessary and a distraction – you have the wheel in your hands, and it shouldn’t need to be represented on the screen.

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    hemmer says:

    But why did you feel the need to hook up the projector in front of the seat? o_O
    We just have it mounted on the celing, like almost every projector I have ever seen.

    That said, as someone else has mentioned, a big TV is absolutely enough and personally I even prefer it, because of the more vibrant colors and no potentially eye-confusing background.

    Good pedals and a wheel with proper force feedback are a must though, they simulate some of the physical feedback you get during actual driving and though you still can’t feel the car moving under your ass it still helps immensely.

    Meanwhile I didn’t find the seat particularly helpful, we didn’t have a dedicated one for ages, now we have a refurbished one from a crashed rallye car (yay connections!) but it didn’t add much for me.

    • Premium User Badge

      hemmer says:

      As far as games go…DTM Race Driver 3 and the first GRID both struck a great balance, anything more arcadey than GRID I didn’t much like. No idea about newer stuff though.

      There’s definitely better sims, but it’s down to personal preference and what mix you’re looking for.

  15. buddybubble says:

    We get, you drive fast cars IRL.. No need to throw in every few sentences that you own a Porsche or have driven an elise on track