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On Controllers and Controls

posted on April 14, 2015 at 5:09 pm by Justin Dallal

Several months ago, Steve and I attended the launch party of the Experience Music Project’s Indie Game Revolution expo, a year long project to display how independent game development has shaped and formed a medium that so many of us grew up with.  Among many titles which we hadn’t yet heard of were some now household names of the indie world, like Nidhogg.  Nintendo co-sponsoring an event showcasing independent developers and having their own booth displaying no less than a dozen titles was an idea almost as alien to the industry a year ago as virtual reality was three years ago.  Yet, here we are and the community is better for it.

One particular title caught my eye as we explored the different works on display.  I love the idea of interactive media that bends the barrier of what we consider a “game” to be, and I think Panoramical in particular is a great example of what can be done when we ask, “What if, instead of making a ‘game’ with a win condition, we just try to enable a user to build an experience in our world?”  Instead of giving the player a controller or touchscreen, Panoramical enables players to experience the game with a soundboard.  Sliders, volume knobs, etc. were all functional in their own ways.  What a great idea!  A diverse group of crowd seemed to be enjoying it, and, just as importantly, they seemed to be enjoying the creations of each other.


Panoramical by Fernando Ramallo & David Kanaga. Go check it out.

Steve and I have had numerous discussions of what makes a game qualify as a by-the-book game.  The only conclusion we’ve come to is that a real game must have a success and fail condition.  By that definition, Panoramical and other works like it don’t fall under the “game” category, but that doesn’t diminish their worth nor gratitude to have them included in our medium.  Panoramical falls in this grey area between a film and a video game, like Dear Esther and others.  They tell a story or allow us to explore a world, and to take on the burden of allowing users to visually explore a soundscape is no small task.

Exploring what it is to be a “game” vs. another medium is a topic for another post.  This is about how we interact with games.  Controls have always been interesting to me.  I loved using a joystick to play Descent growing up.  A first person flight shooter in a zero-G environment was perfect for that method.  However, remove a dimension, and it becomes unwieldy.  In Doom or Counter-Strike, a joystick is about as useful as a Guitar Hero/Rock Band drum set.  Yet, they both have their target applications and are very effective at it.  Otherwise, people wouldn’t pay hundreds for a joystick or thousands to build a multi-monitor flight simulation station.

Controls are evolving right before our very eyes right now.  Valve has their new Steam controller with some very interesting ideas.  Nintendo pushed the envelope with the Wii stick and nunchuck to limited success.  Microsoft removed the physical piece alltogether with the Kinect and now seems to be taking it a step further with Hololens.  However, we need to be asking ourselves why.  To what end do these new interactions allow us to convey feelings to our users?

Kinect Harry Potter

Kinect Harry Potter. A useful control metaphor? I think not.

Controls are merely a method of indirection.  They enable a player to interact with the game.  Good controls should be transparent and make the game feel like an extension of the player’s will.  This is very difficult to achieve in a medium where dragons, spaceships, 4D geometry, and altering the space-time continuum are par for the course.  A good controller for a particular game or genre does not and most likely should not be exactly what you would use to perform the tasks in game.  For example, electronic boxing gloves for Street Fighter are a terrible idea.  No one wants to actually get on a skateboard in front of their TV to play Tony Hawk.  It’s not practical.

This leads us to understand why controllers are the way they are.  It’s because games enable us to feel like we’re doing the impossible.  The Marine in Doom can run at over 90mph.  Ryu in Street Fighter can jump over three times his own height.  When the assumptions of reality are broken, so must our assumptions of how to interact in reality.  So, we have a keyboard and mouse to navigate treacherous corridors at 90mph with lightning reflexes.  We have a joystick and 6 buttons to allow us to input complex commands in tens to hundreds of milliseconds instead of seconds and with extreme precision.

Controllers and our controls have evolved to meet the needs of the game itself, and this is a lesson we must not forget moving forward.  The metaphor of the game must not be broken to meet a contrived control metaphor.  This is where Kinect ultimately failed.  You can’t simulate a sword fight if users aren’t holding swords or feel the impact.  It feels less realistic than if they were doing it via controller.  This is such an important point that I’m going to repeat it in another way.  Controls that attempt to parallel reality and can’t convey the subtlety are immeasurably worse than those that ignore reality and focus on making the game an extension of the player’s mind.  Button layout doesn’t matter if players aren’t thinking “what button do I press?” and are thinking “how can I get over there?” or “how can I solve this problem?”


A counterpoint might be Guitar Hero.  A custom controller for a game had been attempted numerous times, but this one deserves special attention.  Next time you play (or go to your local thrift store and buy it for $10, because, trust me, it’s there), hold the controller up to the screen.  The buttons exactly match what’s on the screen and you strum every time they cross the bottom threshold.  It’s so simple that a 9 year old can figure it out, and thousands did.  Did you ever notice that the controller made a satisfying click when you strum it?  It’s because it was made with Cherry MX switches, the very same that have been in old IBM keyboards since the 80s.  Everything was calculated to make you feel like a rock star and, in that, Guitar Hero succeeds exactly where Kinect fails:  the controller is a perfect extension of the metaphor of the game itself.  In music, if you miss a note, just keep going.  Screw up too much and you’re booed off stage.  It’s an elegant solution because the controller was designed with the game.  Kinect was designed, then games were made to match the metaphor, and the disconnect shows.

As we evolve forward with new methods of indirection, we need to keep in mind that our games must be a projection of the player’s desires.  If we fail at this, then the game itself is a failure.  There is nothing worse than a player being removed from the experience because controller doesn’t allow them to quickly perform what they want within the rules of your constructed world.  Professional Starcraft players can control entire armies of dozens of units at over 400 actions per minute using a keyboard and mouse.  Don’t try to give those players a touch surface because it’s how actual military commanders coordinate squad movements in battle.  It will fail and the game, mechanics and story be damned, will be a waste of good ideas.  Afford the player the tools for success in an unrealistic world and allow them to exploit it and they will feel successful.  Now, I’m going to go play Super Meat Boy, because the controls are perfect.

More Reading:  Extra Credits:  Kinect Disconnect


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