Friday, July 17, 2009

Game Design: Controllers

Back to games. Sorry for the odd detour. This time I'm going to talk about INPUT methods for games.

Intro
Granted I'm just over two decades old, but I have seen my share of unusual controllers. Although I've not used them all.
They ranged from keyboards to joysticks and buttons. There are some things that I like and dislike about some of the more recent controllers. But being the nostalgic git that I am I'm going to look back before looking forward.

Joysticks/Keyboards
Early games on computer systems used a keyboard. (Yay for text based games). And there's not much to expound on that. The keyboard remains a staple example of a game input device. Although now it's often combined with a mouse.
In the past, I remember that it was ONLY the keyboard that controlled everything or only the mouse. (Or you could switch between the options.) Now very often I have to combine them. Now on the surface there's nothing particularly wrong about this method of input. However, I do feel it can discriminate. YES. Discriminate.

Back in the day (she whines from her rocking chair), There was only a handful of buttons needed to play a game. Arrow keys for movement and enter or space bar or sometimes even esc. Mostly RPGs fall prey to this but now you can assign ANY key to a short-cut to perform a command. While using a mouse at the same time! For example, World of Warcraft you can assign menu items to keys. Although I've played regularly for a couple of months I still have a hard time remembering which key opens which menu. Some I have memorized due to use.
I don't like my controlls or commands to be overly complicated.

Joysticks now...well...they've certainly evolved. I didn't mind them as long as they ACTUALLY WORKED. They were really best for those flight simulator games. Some of my favorites were those WWI bi-plane flight games which really made the joystick as a input make sense. And I think it was just the sort of joystick we had. It was one of those with a trigger button.

For other games like arcade games they were okay. It still remains a solid method of input.

Keypad Controllers
Like the ones for the SNES and such. You had the cross pad (D-pad if you will) and a certain number of other buttons. A number of buttons that steadily grew as the consoles progressed. I want to say that the NES only had the D-pad and two buttons besides start and select. Adding up to a total of 8 buttons. SNES adds four new buttons to this increasing the button number to 12. (These numbers DO count the 4 directions on the D-Pad).

Hand held systems also had these traits. So they totally count in this category too.
The point is that the input was very limited. You had input to control movement and actions. Which why games were pretty simple as far as performable actions could go. (This doesn't mean that combinations of buttons or controlls were simple. You got creative.)

I actually don't count N64 onwards "keypad" controllers. Those are joystick/Keypad hybrids which I'll talk about next.

Joy-Pad Controllers
Okay from N64 on (I'm sure there was an earlier system that had these I just don't know it.) controllers mix a joystick system with the keypad. Granted most joysticks ALSO had buttons. It was just a very limited number. I think the most we had on one was 4 (2 triggers and 2 buttons on the base). But these take the layout of the keypad and add small joysticks.

But boy oh BOY do these suckers have a LOT of button inputs. The N64 controller on top of the joystick had 14 buttons. (It also had a d-pad).
Game cube has 2 joysticks (the dual stick system is popular now.) along with 12 buttons. (It also still has the d-pad)
PS2 has 2 analog sticks and 14 buttons.
Xbox also has 14 buttons.

Okay 14 buttons!! (Granted a D-pad adds 4 buttons per controller). Wow that's a lot to fit on a small space. That's also a lot of buttons to keep track of. Well it IS. 14 seems to be the standard.
The shapes of the controllers are what really get me.
PS2/3 and Gamecube have good sized controllers...for MY hands. This is a personal pet peeve, but I have TINY HANDS. They're very petite, delicate and ladylike which is perfect for an artist like me. However, getting a grip on a controller and being able to reach all the buttons properly gives me some challenge when I get a standard Xbox controller. It was made for fat hands...which granted aims for the majority of the demographic. (I mean big hands. :))

Alternative Inputs
This is a growing field in entertainment. Nintendo started it long ago. It wasw the running pad that I first remember seeing commercials for. There was also the glove and balance balls and other what not. In the end they were not all that successful. :/ They didn't work well at all. Except the guns...they could be pretty reliable.

Now we're seeing this reborn...except the controllers DO work. (yay progress). We have Motion cameras, dance pads, guitars, drums, microphones, wiimotes, balance boards and probably more fun stuff in the future.

The quality of an alternative input depends on a couple of things. 1) Does it even WORK?
2) Is it easy to adapt to?
All the newer inputs do work. Things like the guitar and dance pad were relatively easy to adapt to. HOWEVER, to me at least, the Wii-mote is not as easy to adapt to.
Granted it's great for sport games and carnival games but if I were to play one of my action-adventure titles, I'd be scrambling for my comfort zone of joysticks and buttons. (No...nunchuck doesn't count. I still play Smash brother Brawl with my GC controller.)
Speaking of Wii-mote despite being so revolutionary it's still COVERED in buttons!! and you can ADD more buttons to it with the nunchuck.
Total you can have...well...the standard 14 buttons. On top of having a joystick.
...
.....
Okay tell me how this is revolutionizing gameplay again? Shouldn't motion censoring REPLACE the need for a joystick? Whatever.

Conclusion
In the end I feel that controllers are trying to become more like keyboards! I mean on the one end of the spectrum you have your standard computer keyboard. (Over 80 keys...or so. I'm just using a laptop right now. There's more on standard keyboards.) That's a possiblity of over 80 input commands. Let's not forget combining keys!
On the other end of the spectrum you have the simplest joystick with maybe 2 buttons.
The more buttons you have the more choices the player has to deal with. This can open more possibilites for input commands but can also lead to excluding new players. It's a lot to learn. Now for most people, growing up WITH the technology we grasp how to handle it and can adapt to the number of buttons currently before us.

As long as assigned commands aren't ridiculous then I'm fine. But to me, it feels like the high number of buttons increases the pressure on the player and the entry way into games.

I like games that don't utilize ALL the buttons on a controller. It's nice to have an easy to control game.

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