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What's the deal with steering wheels for PS4 and Xbox One?

Most last-gen wheels don't work with current-gen consoles. Why? We investigate.

Many gamers forked out hundreds of pounds for expensive steering wheel peripherals for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 - only to find they do not work on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

In October we reported on Evolution's PS4-exclusive racing game DriveClub and the steering wheels it officially supports: Thrustmaster's new T80 and T300RS wheels.

"We've been working really closely with Thrustmaster on their new T80 and T300RS wheels, to make sure that they're perfectly tuned for DriveClube and the PS4," community manager Jamie Brayshaw said on the PlayStation Blog.

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Some PS3 and Xbox 360 wheels cost upwards of Ł300.

Digging a little deeper, we find some of Thrustmaster's older PS3 wheels also work on PS4. So if you're lucky enough to own one, like Eurogamer's resident racing nut Martin Robinson, you don't need to spend hundreds on a new wheel. Job done.

But what if you don't? What if you own a wheel from Logitech, or Fanatec, or Mad Catz? Their last-generation wheels are not supported on PS4, and, currently, they don't have new PS4 wheels available, either.

What's going on?

Having spoken to a number of people associated with the video game console peripheral business, both on and off the record, we can paint a picture of what is a complex network of licensing deals, security chips and compatibility drivers.

At a base level, peripherals for both the PS4 and the Xbox One must have an on board security chip. Peripheral manufacturers have spoken of this before: back in August, Logitech tweeted to say their popular G27 wheel, which works on PC and PS3, requires a security chip for full functionality with the PS4. Currently it does not have this chip, so it doesn't work.

Unfortunately Logitech failed to respond to Eurogamer's request for comment, but we did have a chat with Mad Catz to get more information.

Let's start with Xbox One. Here's Richard Neville, Mad Catz's senior product development manager:

  • When launching the Xbox One, Microsoft created a brand new protocol for game controllers and input devices. Xbox One is not compatible with the XInput protocol used on Xbox 360. Force feedback wheels in particular have seen changes made that vastly improve the fidelity and range of force feedback effects that are possible. In essence, an Xbox 360 racing wheel could not be 'understood' by Xbox One.

This suggests there's something about the way Xbox One is designed that means Xbox 360 steering wheels will not work - beyond the security chip. For a console that's not backwards compatible with its predecessor when it comes to games, perhaps this comes as no surprise.

What about PS4? The security chip issue once again rears its ugly head, as Neville explains:

  • A PS4 racing wheel is required to include an authenticating security chip which handshakes with the console for verification, as such our older PS3 wheels will not function on PS4.

Fanatec is another steering wheel maker. It doesn't have an Xbox One wheel right now, but it recently announced it had signed a license agreement with Microsoft to make racing peripherals for Xbox One. It plans to release Xbox One wheel rims you can attach to one of its wheel bases. The wheel rims contain the pivotal security chip.

Back in May, Fanatec responded to its customers who were waiting for news of Xbox One support. It said:

  • The new console uses a completely different force feedback communication protocol, wireless transmission protocol and a different security chip.
  • The security chip needs to be purchased by the third-party manufacturer from Microsoft and it makes sure that only official licensed products can be connected to the console. Only if you get the official approval from Microsoft you will be able to purchase such a security chip for Xbox One.

These statements suggest the security chip is the sticking point when it comes to compatibility. But it does not appear to be a sticking point for Thrustmaster. Eurogamer's Martin Robinson owns a Thrustmaster T500, which, officially, only works on PC and PS3. When using it with a PS4, our tests show the PS button doesn't work and you can't navigate the system menus, so to get into a game you need a DualShock 4. But once you're in, say, DriveClub, the wheel works fine.

The T500 obviously doesn't have this PS4 security chip. So how does it work with DriveClub when other manufacturers' PS3 wheels do not? Unfortunately Thrustmaster declined our request for an interview.

It turns out there may be more to this story than PS4 security chips. Our sources told us security chips are required for full compatibility with Sony's console. That is, interaction with the system menu, Share functionality and more. But limited functionality - playing the game, including force feedback effects - is possible for wheels that work on PC and PS3 without the need for the PS4 security chip.

There's evidence of this out in the wild already. A Naughty Dog programmer created a USB driver for Skullgirls developer Lab Zero Games. This enables a PS3 fight stick to work on PS4. There's no security chip here. So why not create something similar for steering wheels?

"We're delighted that Skullgirls will allow PS4 owners to use their PlayStation 3 Mad Catz FightSticks, we think that's a huge win for the fighting game community and offers real value to the gamer," Neville told us.

"Some control devices on PS4 (such as racing wheels), will simply not operate on PS4 without the inclusion of a security chip and to our knowledge a workaround via a software update or driver will not prove sufficient."

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Logitech's fantastic G27 racing wheel works with PC and PS3 - but not PS4.

Here's how it normally works, based on what we've been told: a steering wheel manufacturer develops a driver that is sent to the developer of the racing game in question. The developer then adds support for it in the game.

But a PS4 software development kit is required for a peripheral manufacturer to create one of these drivers. Without that, development of a driver is not possible. And the PS4 SDKs are controlled by Sony.

So what appears to be the case is that Sony is selling its PS4 security chips to Thrustmaster AND granted it permission to develop a driver that will let its last-generation wheels work with PS4. The other manufacturers, so far, seem left out in the cold.

Why? Both Sony and Thrustmaster wouldn't tell us. Fanatec CEO Thomas Jackermeier had a few thoughts on Thrustmaster's apparent PS4 steering wheel monopoly, however.

"People say they have an exclusive deal with Thrustmaster," Jackermeier said. "It could be a policy issue that Sony has some restrictions, that only one wheel is allowed. They had that in the past, when they only allowed one licensed controller per category. I don't know. Seriously. I don't know the real reason and they don't tell me the real reason."

Fanatec is talking with Sony to try to convince it to let it manufacture wheels for the PS4 and create a driver so that its PS3 wheels will be compatible, but ultimately it wants to create a multiplatform wheel that works across PC, PS4 and Xbox One.

"The ball is in Sony's court," Jackermeier said. "We would be more than happy to make an officially-licensed wheel and make everything compatible. That's our target."

Exclusivity deals are nothing new for the video game industry. We see it all the time when it comes to games. And that extends to peripherals. So is it simply the case that Thrustmaster threw money at Sony to secure exclusivity?

"It's a possibility," Jackermeier said. "But looking at the balance sheet of Thrustmaster, I'm not sure they're in a position to do that. Would Sony do that for money? I think it's a more complex issue. It could be even that Kazunori Yamauchi is involved and he says only Gran Turismo-licensed wheels should be supported. Or whatever. It's some policy thing internally. I can only speculate. There's no reason given either to me or the public.

"Some gamers think it's up to us, the wheel makers, to just make it compatible, but unfortunately it's not that easy. I would love to make our wheels compatible and sell more. But it's just not possible."

When it comes to steering wheels, it seems Microsoft is more open than Sony at this stage. Thrustmaster and Mad Catz both have officially-licensed wheels for the Xbox One, and Fanatec is working on one of its own.

When Fanatec announced the Microsoft deal, it mentioned an adapter that would let players use any wheel with the Xbox One. This, by Jackermeier's own admission, was misleading. There will be no adapter.

Rather, Fanatec plans to sell Xbox One wheel rims that include the Xbox One security chip, special Xbox One buttons and the appropriate logos. You attach the wheel rim to a Fanatec wheel base, and the base and associated peripherals will then work with Xbox One.

A similar solution would be doable on PS4 in theory, Jackermeier said. But it's up to Sony to approve it.

"Microsoft liked the idea because we convinced them. 80 per cent of our customers actually have two or more wheel rims. You can only sell one complete steering wheel to a customer. But you can sell plenty of steering wheel rims to the same customer. This way they're also going to earn more money on the license fee. That was one of the points which convinced Microsoft.

"Many people were saying, make an adapter and we can use our wheels. Well, you make nothing without the approval of Sony or Microsoft. They own everything on the controller side. Microsoft would simply never license such an adapter. And it makes sense, because if they licensed an adapter, then the whole security chip system would be obsolete. You could connect anything to it and make it an Xbox One controller.

"This is not just because we are mean and greedy or whatever. It's just that we can't. Maybe such an adapter is technically possible, but it's not easy because our wheels are wireless and now we have a wired protocol. But even if it was technically possible it just won't happen because Microsoft will simply not license it, period."

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Mad Catz's Force Feedback Xbox One wheel.

Microsoft's new-found openness is something of a U-turn. PlayStation has, traditionally, employed more relaxed rules than Xbox when it comes to peripheral support. Many wheels that worked on PS2 via its USB slot also worked on PS3, also via its USB slot. Microsoft, however, has over the years preferred a closed system. Xbox owners, then, are used to having to buy new wheels when new Xbox consoles come along.

Mad Catz's Neville explains:

  • Just like the Xbox 360 before it, the Xbox One requires all control products to include a security chip which handshakes with the console for verification. This is why only licensed companies are able to create control products for the console.
  • Some third parties worked hard to circumvent the security procedure for Xbox 360, a practice which had varying degrees of success and one which Mad Catz has no intention of following. Mad Catz value our relationship with first-party and work closely with platform holders to create best-in-class hardware. We believe that this is the best way to deliver value to the gamer with products we can be certain will work throughout the lifespan of the console, we're not interested in deliberately creating work around solutions without the blessing of our first part partners.
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The Gran Turismo-branded Thrustmaster T500, which works for PC, PS3 and PS4.

Let's go back to the DriveClub situation. Many gamers were angry that their PS3 wheels would not work with the game, and were hoping that Logitech, in particular, would release something - anything - that would help them out.

But this seems unlikely. These security chips don't come cheap, and the company would have to invest in the development of a driver that Sony may or may not approve.

Why would Logitech bother with all that, when it seems it has exited the console peripheral business altogether, instead focusing on PC, tablet and smartphone products.

In January 2013 Logitech CEO Bracken P. Darrell said this:

  • We are taking immediate actions to shape a faster and more profitable Logitech. We are developing more mobility-related products, leveraging the powerful growth of tablets and smartphones. We intend to sustain our leadership in PC platform-related products where we have engineering, distribution and scale advantages. Our goal with PC-platform products is to maximize profitability, while investing selectively in growing categories.
  • We have also identified a number of product categories that no longer fit with our current strategic direction. As a result, we have initiated the process to divest our remote controls and digital video security categories, and we plan to discontinue other non-strategic products, such as speaker docks and console gaming peripherals, by the end of Calendar Year 2013.

The upshot is Logitech probably won't invest in either making its last-gen wheels work with current-gen consoles, or producing new wheels.

Having hit a brick wall with Logitech, I explored an alternative route: customer support. I asked whether its Driving Force Pro would ever be compatible with the PS4.

"I regret to inform you that this device is not compatible with PS4," I was told. "At the moment we still do not have a gaming wheel that is compatible with PS4."

As for Sony, all we have is the following statement: "We'll continue to add support for other manufacturers' wheels as and when they become compatible with the PS4."

When it comes to Logitech, then, don't hold your breath. But there's hope for Fanatec and Mad Catz.

"We are of course fans of PlayStation and keen to develop for a wide range of formats," Richard Neville said. "As a public company however, we cannot talk about any product not yet disclosed and at this time we have not announced a racing wheel for PS4."

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