David Braben's latest Develop column
What is happening to our beloved video games controller?
NEW PLAYERS DON’T GET IT
In the last few years we have seen some dramatic changes to gaming, but specifically we have seen big changes to the interface for games.
Our last such change was probably the introduction of analogue controllers; a much smaller change, and before that the move from keyboard to joystick and joypad.
This time there are at least three types of interface, perhaps four: Kinect, inertial motion sensing (Wii, Move), and touch-screens – with the rise of voice input waiting in the wings.
All are quite intuitive, and we are starting to see hybrids of these like Wii U, too. The fact they are intuitive is bringing in new people, put off by controllers and keyboards, to gaming. It is also creating a raft of exciting new opportunities.
STUDENTS DON’T WANT IT
I recently attended the excellent Dare Protoplay event in Dundee. Teams of students competed to produce games in nine weeks, which are then judged by both the public and a panel of judges. The students have a free choice of what to make, and the platform and user interface system to run it upon.
The amazing thing is of the games I saw, none of them used a controller. Five were on Kinect running on a PC, one on Move, and the rest on iPad (using Unity) or Windows Phone 7 (using XNA).
As a test of mood at least, the perception amongst those students was that they want to work on something new, and, amazingly to me, the controller didn’t feature.
WHAT ABOUT DEVELOPERS?
Of the four games Frontier is shipping this year, the same applies (two on Kinect, two on touch screens). Don’t get me wrong, the controller is still an important part of our business – The Outsider, currently on hold, uses a controller – but the real change is, like it or not, the controller is now just a part of what we do.
For me personally, in the little time I get to play other people’s games at this time of year, they are still mostly controller-based – having recently finished Valve’s excellent Portal 2, and getting back to Red Dead Redemption – but increasingly I have been playing on the iPad, too.
It hasn’t reduced the time I get to spend on console games, but I have found I play at times when that option simply isn’t there, like at airports and on the train.
SO WHAT IS THE CONTROLLER GOOD FOR?
Thinking about it some more, the controller is best suited to ‘twitch’ games, especially shooters, and even then a mouse can offer much better precision for quickly changing aim direction.
For selecting a location on a map, whether it’s in Red Dead or in a strategy game, a touchpad is ideal – indeed the controller is probably the worst of our existing set of input devices for such things.
For a car racing game, a steering wheel is a great deal better, for a flight sim, a joystick or yoke is better.
Perhaps we should happily embrace hybrid systems? We wouldn’t think of using a keyboard or mouse separately these days.
I for one have a chatpad on my 360 and a wireless keyboard on my PS3 for those annoying 16 digit codes we are forced to type in, because without those, the controller is painful for text entry.
Summing up, the point of this piece is not to criticise the controller – it is a great jack-of-all-trades input device, one of the best for many things – but to draw attention to the sometimes unthinking and often childish partisanship that can happen in our industry criticising new interfaces.
We should embrace the new audiences they are bringing, and yes, not forget the existing one. I also feel I have to mention one of my soapboxes about hybrid controls – let’s see Call of Duty with lean left and right on Kinect.