This is my first blog post ever so it might be a bit rough. But this is a topic that I'm interested in and would like to spark a discussion about it. I hope you like it.
I'll start with the obviously here, controllers are what let us control our beloved video games. Without them we simply could not play. But what is required from the controller to get us in the game. My opinion is that the most recent generation has taken a turn for the worse with overly complex controls that overload what our hands are capable of. I came to this conclusion by looking at the history of the video game controller. In the very beginning video games used controls that were dirt simply. Compared to modern games, the range of actions that you could perform are minuscule, but the simplicity of early analogue devices is what allowed video games to become a hit with the mainstream. To understand this better, we need to look at early controllers and what they meant to the games they were made for.
One Dimensional Control
The Pong Generation
The simplest kind of control originated with pong. It was as simple as it could get, you had one range of movement. Up or down. While it may not seem significant, this simple design is what allowed the masses to get acquainted with video games. It was impossible to get this wrong. Your reaction time could be off but you could not misinterpret the controls. You only needed one hand to play and only had to make one action. This was simplicity at its essence.
Two Dimensional Control, The Action Button
The Space Invaders and Mario
The next step in control came with the action button. Now you needed two hands, one to control movement and another to commit an action, in the case of space invaders it was shooting. Although this was more complex it was still simple. You would only need to keep track of a few actions. The NES was based on this control and perhaps epitomized by the original Super Mario Bros. An entire generation was based off of these controls and despite the simplicity of it, it fueled an endless amount of game play types. The longevity of these controls are a testament to their intuitiveness, versatility, and ease of use.
Street fighter and the SNES
As game design became more complex there became a need for more action buttons. The SNES tripled the amount of buttons and the Sega Genesis suffered with their sparse 3 button controller. Of course Sega tried to remedy this with a new 6 button controller but the 3 button original stifled games by forcing them to be backwards compatible with the old one. Although the additional buttons gave the gamer more control over the action the learning curve was infinitely higher for new players. Games like street fighter could provide rich game play but required a high investment to learn, and gaming became less accessible for the non hardcore gamer who did not have the time to learn such complex controls.
The Camera Problem
Super Mario 64 and Platformers
The 2D generation of video games had it easy with controls. The D-Pad covered the entire 2D range of movement while the action buttons handled interactions with the environment. But with 3D games we needed to be able to move up, down, left, right, and in and out. To make matters worse, we also needed a way to control the camera. While the games turned 3D our controls weren't. The Playstation was stifled by the lack of camera controls which made 1st person shooters and 3D platform games on the system much weaker. 3D platformers could not provide a true 3D controls as the player did not have any input for looking around. Games like Crash Bandicoot avoided this problem by keeping the camera fixed with linear levels, but did not allow for the free roaming abilities of future 3D games. Nintendo had great foresight into 3D controls by improving their controller (although their lack of faith in the controls lead to the awkward 3 pronged N64 controller). But by foresight, I don't actually mean the analogue stick, I'm actually talking about the C-Buttons. The C-Buttons of course stand for camera buttons and these innocuous looking 4 buttons are what allowed for free roaming controls in 3D worlds. They controlled the camera in Super Mario 64 and let you strafe in Goldeneye. Although this made the games much more complex they were still relatively simple, as platformers only required the occasional change in camera orientation, and most 1st person shooters had you pivoting the camera as the main way of getting around instead of strafing and turning. The camera buttons would later be replaced by another analogue stick which leads to the problem of the last generation.
Not Enough Hands
Halo, Halo, and more Halo
With the full embrace of 3D worlds the complex controls finally caught up with us. Now we needed to do 3 things at once. Move, control the camera, and execute many action buttons. Of course the main problem with this control scheme is that we only have 2 hands. To play games effectively the player practically had to become a hand contortionist, covering 4 shoulder buttons, 2 analogue sticks, 4 primary buttons, and maybe even 4 more buttons from the D-Pad. At this point gaming had become so inaccessible that most games had to be catered to the hardcore. It is because of this that I think many people left gaming that generation. For me, I skipped that generation, and years later when I tried playing first person shooters like Halo, I found the controls nearly impossible. I'm not the greatest gamer, but it's a problem when I pick up a game and have a hard time aiming straight. We had 3 dimensions of control but only 2 hands to execute them with.
The Controller Revolution and True 3D controls
The Nintendo Wii
Now is where I gush about the Nintendo Wii controller right? But the wiimote is definitely not where this started. I consider the first 3D control to be the good old fashioned mouse and keyboard approach. What was great about the mouse and keyboard is that our hands aren't overloaded with functions. The left hand handles movement through the keyboard, the right hand handles actions via mouse buttons, and controlling the camera was handled by, the wrist! Instead of using 2 hands to do 3 things, we use 2 hands plus our arm. Each body part has a function and it is intuitive. However, the mouse and keyboard are obviously too cumbersome to use in a console gaming environment. The advantage of the wiimote is that it acts like a 3D mouse and lets us overload the controls to our arm along with our 2 hands. The use of these controls are obvious in 1st person shooters like metroid prime and call of duty. But I'm disappointed in a lot of the game design we have been seeing with this controller. I think developers are not considering the philosophy behind these controls and and treating the system like the last generation of games. The wiimote is being used abysmally in some cases. In many games the wiimote only acts as an extra action button, with the only motion detection through a waggle that executes an action. Games like Super Mario Galaxy only use it to attack with a little light gun aspect tacked on. Other than that it plays like an N64 game, although it is saved by it's superb automatic camera. Now for example, the way I would implement controls for a game like Twilight Princess is that I would keep the camera behind Link at all time like a 3rd person shooter. The nunchuck would control forward and backwards movement plus strafing. The wiimote would control moving the camera around letting Link turn based on where you are pointing. To attack you would hold down the B button, the camera would then lock in place, and you could execute your attack with accurate portrayal of your movement (up swing down swing side slash ect.) Z targeting would be pretty much the same as before.
The Future of Controls
Now with the advent of better 3D control schemes things should improve but the future should hold for even more ways to interact with our games. Short of full virtual reality, maybe we can do interesting things with new technology like eye tracking. We could control the camera simply by looking where we want the camera to focus. Foot pads like the wii balance board could control forward and strafe movement, and maybe we can even create a controller that we can control with our tongue. I know that urinal pee based video games have been created, maybe that's the future. Wait, scratch those last few things. But there definitely is a lot of new exciting things to look forward to. Hopefully we will see these things done in the future, and gaming can become more accessible again. Just imagine controls so accessible that maybe one day that guy who just blew your head off is someone's grandma.
Now I realize that I am generalizing in some cases. A lot of 3D games handle the camera for you but the problem still remains in that we are playing 3D games like 2D games with occasional camera adjustments. I feel that with the wiimote we are going in the right direction of allowing players to do new things with a new form of input taking the stress of our 2 hands, but real 3D controls are still not well used. The only games that seem to get it right are 1st person shooters when they're coupled with a 3D input, but in most cases the extra dimension of input is sorely wasted by converting it into pointless waggle. Sure waggle can be a bit more immersive but so much more can be done with it. Here's to hoping that 2008 will push the envelope with new control style that finally give us the control over 3D environments that we've needed for more than a decade.