Extra Consideration

Controller Evolution



Last week we kicked off Extra Consideration, a brand new column here at The Escapist where we allow our best and brightest to discuss the industry’s big issues.

In our first installment, Yahtzee, MovieBob, and James Portnow began discussing the state of console gaming and the conversation eventually turned to controllers…

imageJames Portnow: Interestingly, while I agree with Yahtzee for the most part, we are members of a shockingly small minority. The Wii’s success has been based on the fact that while we consider playing stick/button based videogames to be some simple thumb twiddling, many people actually find our modern controls unapproachably complex and would much rather mimic actions they already understand.

That said, I do think you gloss over the fact that certainly some activities are better with a physical component. There are a number of sports which are simply better in real life than with thumbsticks because of the kinetic elements involved in playing them. If this is true there, why not for other types of play we have yet to discover? I say we continue experimenting. Go back pre-DS and look at all the detractors who said a stylus was the worst input idea of all time… My Wii gets far more use with a classic controller than with a Wiimote, but I believe this is mostly from the fact that we haven’t really found the right applications for motion controls, not something inherently flawed in the input method. Dismiss this method of input whole cloth and who knows what incredible games never end up getting made.

imageMovieBob: Would Guitar Hero be as successful, or even “work” at all, if it was played with controller-buttons rather than a “real” toy guitar?

Over-complicated controls brings up another issue I’d be curious to hear both of your thoughts on: Prior to this generation and the impact of motion-control (for good or ill), were console game-designers TOO focused on the “first wave” gamer audience (i.e. gamers who started early-80s) to the detriment of those who came after? It’s a theory I’ve been picking at for awhile.

What I mean is… when I look at, say, a 360 controller; objectively it’s nothing so much as a vaugely-ergonomic plastic blob ENCRUSTED with buttons of various sizes and shapes – aesthetically, controllers of the last two or three generations have all looked like someone went into a craft store, slammed a chunk of wet clay into a bucket of beads, then handed the resulting lump to a design-firm intern and said “make a slightly more symetrical version of THIS.”

Yet, when I start playing any given (non-Wii, where all bets are off) game, unless its control-scheme is truly abysmal I can usually pick it right up. Why? Well, I think it’s because console gaming and I “grew up together.” I started with the NES, moved up to the SNES/Genesis, then the N64/PS/PS2 and so on and so on – controller-complexity evolved in-tandem with my generation’s ability to handle said complexity. It’s the same way with content: In 1985, the majority of “big” games were aimed at grade-schoolers. In 2011, the majority of “big” games are aimed at guys in their late 20s/early 30s… in other words, the “main” game audience of now and the “main” game audience of then is THE SAME PEOPLE, they just got older.

My point being: Did we “lose out” on having a broader base of people playing games by letting “basic skills” games fall by the wayside with each successive leap-forward (i.e. once games went 3D everyone “gave up” on 2D side-scrollers) until fairly recently? Would we be in a substantially different “place” in console-gaming if there had been even HALF as many “gateway games” on the PS2 as there were on the NES?

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imageYahtzee: I don’t think you could say by any stretch of the imagination that the Guitar Hero controller is not a ‘button controller’. But I get the point that there are some games that are enhanced by a motion control. It’s just I’ve never seen anyone get as lost in Wii Tennis for hours like I do in, say, Silent Hill 2.

The point I suppose we dance around here is that gaming is multifaceted enough that it can cater for a wide range of people with varying ideas of entertainment. Motion controls are akin to playing cricket on the beach with your family at Christmas (in Australia, that is, southern hemisphere lovely weather year round ha ha), while a game like SH2 controlled with button controllers from a prone, inactive, sofa slump position is more like settling down to read a good book. I prefer the latter, and motion controls will never improve that experience. It just won’t.


Yes, controllers are complicated enough now that they make it harder for potential new gamers to get into. You can observe this at any time by sitting your mother or spouse or other total non-gamer in front of GTA4 and seeing how well they do. Generally it’s a surprise if they can manage to walk down the street without staring at the floor and blowing their own nuts off. Hell, I remember when I first tried using console controllers, having previously gamed on C64, Amiga and PC with joystick, mouse and keyboard, I was tying my thumbs up in knots. Navigating an avatar in 3D space would be disorienting at first even with the world’s most intuitive controller.

It could be that this is detrimental and alienates non-gamers, but one could also argue that books alienate people who can’t read. Gaming is such a common pastime for young people these days that once the generations above us die off then people who don’t game and can’t fathom controllers will almost certainly be in a minority. Eventually the ability to game could be just another skill kids have to gather as part of their cultural development, along with reading, telling the time, using the internet, etc. It’s a skill that crosses over to the working of vehicles and the many wondrous gadgets of this modern future age. GTA4 was the biggest release of any form of media ever. Gaming is the biggest entertainment industry in the world. It’s not in the kind of dire straits that it needs to kowtow to whoever can’t keep up. It’s your loss if you don’t want to take the time to learn, Grandad.

imageMovieBob: Well, yeah… okay, it’s a button controller. My point was more that Guitar Hero is more (only?) fun because you get to play it with a silly toy instrument, but you’ve got me there 😉

I hear you on the “getting lost in _____” thing, though if I may offer a counterpoint: Is it really “fitting” for that level of immersion to be part of the baseline criteria for evaluating a game’s worth? I’m not necessarily suggesting YOU’RE doing so, but it IS something I see cropping up in game criticism that’s been gnawing at me. We – well, you (Yahtzee) and I anyway, I don’t believe James has weighed in on this point specifically – tend to regard it as such because that’s how we’ve generally played games; initially with the torturous memorization-is-the-only-way difficulty curve of the arcades and early-80s PC/Console titles, then the 16 to 64 bit collect-a-thons and now the DLC=immortality era. But if “how much of my life does it consume” is the ultimate criteria, then WE’RE all lightweights and those nuts who let their kids starve to death because they’re busy in Farmville are the most “hardcore” gamers who’ve ever lived…

In any case, true enough i.e. books being alienating to the illiterate; but there’s one key difference: There are multiple “reading levels” of books out there, and an OCEAN of materials specifically designed to teach one how to read. Games? Not so much. Even the tutorial mode of most “hardcore” games assumes one is already familiar with the last few years of whatever the genre is, and God forbid the Tutorial isn’t 100% skippable or “hardcore” gamers are garaunteed to pitch a fit about it – as though it’s inconcievable that people without their specific prior experience might want to play, too. Heck, even if newcomers WANTED to play previous installments and “catch up” they usually can’t if they came out on a prior defunct console. This is different from, say, film-fandom where you could basically take yourself to filmschool by going to Blockbuster (or Netflix, now.) Right now, it’s both easier and slightly less-expensive to familiarize oneself with comic-book continuity than it is with game-to-game continuity… and that’s just sad.

That last part, incidentally, is something I think we’ll see the end of once physical media has given way fully to gaming-on-demand – once “all of this” is in The Cloud, there’ll be no reason for companies NOT to put their back-catalogues online and rake in the microtransaction cash. That’ll be a win-win: Newcomers will have, say, GTA 1 through whatever to take a swing at before they dive into the newest one, and hardcores will benefit from developers being less able to re-press the same game as a “sequel” when the last one is sitting right there online.

imageJames Portnow: I’ve a few of quick things but first, I witnessed something fantastic tonight: I watched two people fall in love over a game of Dance Central.

Now, onto actual responses.

(to Yahtzee)
I couldn’t agree more strongly. F motion controls being the only thing out there. Different input devices lead to experiences (I’m convinced this is why space pilot games disappeared: the death of the PC joystick). SH2 and most of the amazing experiences we’ve had come from the sort of instant, unthinking communication a controller gives us.

(to Moviebob)
Good point about the learning tools presented to people who want to get into modern gaming. I want to agree without reservation, and I would have two days ago, but my nephew’s turned 5 this Sunday – I gave him a DS. This may be today’s training wheels for console gaming. Nonetheless, I think the point is still one we have to consider.

On the flipside though, I’m not sure digital distribution alone is the cure, even if everyone does post their back catalog as, who plays retro games today? It’s not novice gamers, it’s the hardcore. Novice gamers want the spectacle and the elements that are closest to mediums they are more familiar with…besides, most novice players wouldn’t know what to pick up.

That said, I still think preserving our heritage and handing off the classic games to future generations has immeasurable value. It’s sad how much of our medium’s history has vanished amidst the march of progress. It impoverishes designers and future aficionados, and, in doing so, impoverishes the medium at large. It’s a tragedy how much is already forever lost.

imageMovieBob: I think you may be underestimating novice gamers. Believe me, NO ONE has a lower opinion of the “average joe’s” ability to to better himself than I do; but it’s also been my experience that – to borrow a thoroughly-wretched cliche from an otherwise really good movie – “if you build it, they will come”… at the right price, of course. I spent about ten years off and on working in video stores, and the phenomenon of people renting the damndest stuff if it was just visible was consistent.

The thing is, gaming “fandom” is a prohibitively expensive hobby right now; but so was for example FILM fandom back before TV and then video made it so you could watch older “notable” stuff without having to drive around the country to revival theaters. I don’t necessarily KNOW that The Cloud is going to be gaming’s Guttenberg Press moment, but it’s got to be better than what we have now.

imageJames Portnow: I hope you’re right. I’d honestly like nothing better than to see the best older games find a new audience…and without question I think it will happen to a degree. It’s just (and I have no hard data on this) that I don’t think that the people who bought the Wii for Wii Sports are really digging through the virtual console for the classics.

Come back soon to watch our contributors tackle all the big issues in gaming! If you have a suggestion for something you’d like to see them cover, send it to [email protected].

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