Let’s Talk About Control

A History of Controllers

A History of Controllers

I’ve been thinking about a number of articles I wanted to write for a while about control schemes, but I didn’t have a focus to write on; that’s changed today, so here we go.

How much do you think about the controls you use in video games? It’s something that hasn’t been studied enough, as of yet, but there is a whole field of study devoted to it: Human Interface Design. Generally, the idea of Human Interface Design is to find the most intuitive control scheme possible for the software involved, and it’s something that’s hard to get across to gamers, in specific. The reason why being that people are resistant to change, and gamers have gotten used to lots of bad controls over the years. I for one resisted WASD/Mouse controls for a long time, being used to playing with strictly keyboard controls (and being quite good with them) — it’s not uncommon for people to want to stick with what they know, because they’re used to it.

For a great historical example, all you need to to is look at the origin of the QWERTY Keyboard — It goes back to mechanical typewriters. Once upon a time, there were ‘ABC’ keyboards. All was well and good until the typists of the era got too good; the problem being that once people started typing fast enough, their keyboards would jam up. Typewriter designers made new a new keyboard layout called ‘QWERTY’, to make typing more inefficient, in order to slow down typists and prevent jamming.

Of course, modern computer keyboards don’t jam, but they’re still using the QWERTY layout, because we’re used to it. In fact, there’s a number of other keyboard layout out there that are supposedly more efficient (DVORAK being a popular one) but they have a hard time earning market penetration. This exact kind of issue applies to video games; we’re very comfortable in continuing to use the same old controls, even if they aren’t as efficient or intuitive. Determining ‘intuitiveness’ isn’t easy, and it’s debatable is it’s an exact science, but there are generally two things to measure to determine it.

First, there’s learnability, which is how quickly someone can learn to competently use a set of controls. This generally requires you to test the controls on people who have never used them before, and can be a real trick if there is an expectation of controls from those people — if they expect something other than what you give them, they may resist it.

Second, there’s peak competency. I don’t know if there’s been an actual study or consensus, but there’s definitely a belief that console FPS controls (2 Analog Sticks) are inferior to computer WASD controls (mouse/keyboard).  Peak competency is how capable the user is with their controls when they’ve learned how to use them comfortably — good controls will allow for greater accuracy and ability than poorer ones.

The ideal controls maximum the amount of capability the user has, and minimizes the amount of time it takes to learn. Generally speaking, less inputs is better, but there’s really only one way to find out if a control scheme will be an improvement, and that’s to make it, and test it.

There’s a few good games that have done new and simple things. Geometry Wars is part of a series of games that have used two analog sticks for essentially everything. Wii Sports is a great example of a series of games with simple, intuitive controls. But what else can be done? Generally simple controls are limited to simple games, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Here’s a few ideas:
How about a fighter game, in the style of Street Fighter or Soul Caliber. They generally use an analog stick to move, and then 6 buttons for kicks and punches. These games generally include very intricate key combinations to pull off additional maneuvers.

So how about this instead: Two Analog Sticks, one to move and jump, the other to act. Then two shoulder buttons to modify the second analog stick.

So each character has four categories of actions, which would generally be punches, kicks, grappling and blocking. When using the Right Analog stick to perform attacks, the character would punch by default; if you tap the stick quickly, they’ll do a quick punch in that direction, and a slow press would be a strong attack, with a third middle speed for a moderate attack. With the stick you could direct high, medium, or low, and even straight up or down (though the game would have to be designed with times where that would be relevant in order to be used), as well as fast, moderate and strong.

If you hold on the right shoulder button, however, the character kicks instead of punches. If you hold on to the left shoulder button, they’ll block instead. Hold both and they grapple. You can also add a number of combos to this; rolling from down to up with a punch makes an uppercut, and up to down with a kick performs and axe-kick. Back to forward with a grapple might be a diving lunge. The possibilities are enormous.
Another possibility; in a Legend of Zelda style game (Let’s say like Zelda 3). One analog stick to move, another stick to act. One shoulder button to switch between items.

If the player is equipped, they can press the second stick to use the item. In the case of a sword, they can roll the stick to swing the blade, or tap to thrust. They can use the stick to toss something, or press and hold to draw back an arrow. Pressing the shoulder button will swap between two equipped items; pressing and holding the shoulder button will unequip the current item (so that the player can talk or pick things up).
I’m very fond of analog controls. While buttons have been great to gamers for a long time, analog controls let us do a lot more. Motion controls on the Wii offer a lot of similar benefits, but surprisingly, very few games take proper advantage of the possibilities presented, which is a real shame. Hopefully in the next two or three years we’ll see that change, as I don’t see motion controls going away any time soon.

It’ll also be very interesting to watch controllers change, both for computers and consoles over time — will we still even recognize them in 20 years?

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One Response to “Let’s Talk About Control”

  1. D. I. Harris Says:

    Your history of keyboards isn’t quite accurate: QWERTY was not invented to be slower; it was invented to use as few typebars close to each other as possible, so that they would not hit each other. QWERTY was invented so you could type faster.

    Interestingly, because of this, QWERTY shares its primary feature with Dvorak: alternating hands.

    Also, Dvorak has failed to prove itself superior to QWERTY.The studies used to test the effectiveness of Dvorak were flawed. Most were conducted by the good professor himself, creating a conflict of interest, since he had a financial interest in the venture.

    A U.S. General Services Administration study of 1953 appears to have been more objective. It found that it really didn’t matter what keyboard you used.

    I learned Dvoark, and got up to my original QWERTY speed–but never surpassed it. When I got a new computer, I never bothered switching the keyboard layout to Dvorak simply because it didn’t matter.

    The real reason for writing here, though, is that I wanted to talk about the new expanded motion controllers, with Sony, Msoft and Nintendo developing new ones. But I really don’t know what to say about them. The Microsoft one makes me leery, simply because the whole using other parts of the body to play the game (i.e. their example of using the foot to speed up and slow down) seemed awkward. Also, having the camera at the TV instead of in the controller limits the multiplayer possibilities.

    And that’s really all I have to say. Shocking, I know.

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