A Question of Control

Are games controllers destined to become extinct?

I remember the first time I heard someone suggest that games controllers were off-putting to new players. The idea hit me like something completely new. How could this harmless, friendly little device that I knew so well, prevent people from doing the very thing that it was designed to do?

But then, maybe it’s no surprise that I didn’t get it at first. After all, I got into gaming early. At three and four years old, I’d led the forever-locked-in-a-maze Pac-Man away from those pesky ghosts. Up was ‘Up’, and down was ‘Down’, and the one button on the joystick wasn’t even used to play the game. But it isn’t like that any more.

An early attempt at a full-body controller
An early attempt at a full-body motion-controller

I look at the controller in my hands, usually forgotten as soon as the titles roll, and I find myself wondering; how many control schemes, and attack patterns, and intricate sequences have I mastered over the years? With two analogue triggers, twin joysticks, a pair of shoulder buttons, four face buttons, Start and Back (often used in-game these days), a D-pad and that big glowing X, modern controllers are complex and subtle tools. They’re as useful as ever though; I direct Pac-Man around those mazes still but the controller is still just as at home in a rich and complicated gamescape. Looking at it now, it’s obvious that so much control could be daunting to a new player.

Even if I didn’t see it, Nintendo sure did. And they set out to make the world of games a whole lot more accessible. Nintendo have declared that they’ve shipped more than 50 million Wiis and sold more than 100 million DS and DS Lites worldwide. Big numbers. And with so much at stake, it was only a matter of time before the other big players tried to get in on the act and tap into Nintendo’s magic formula of more accessible gameplay for a much wider audience.


This E3 saw Microsoft enter the game with its much-touted Project Natal (the promise of controller-free control doing away with everything but the player). And Sony has come up with the snappily-titled “Motion Controller” which comes across as a ‘wand’ closer to the Wii-mote but with added EyeToy camera recognition.

The potential is awe-inspiring. This new technology can be an easy sell to someone who’s never so much as shot down a Space Invader or circle-strafed an end-of-level boss. And it’s a whole new toolset for developers to get their teeth into and let their imaginations run wild. So why am I not more excited?


Well, really it’s this; games allow me to be super-human from the comfort of my sofa (horizontal gaming ftw), not just merely-human while I work frantically. I’ve been wall-running with Persian Princes, and I’ve turned cartwheels and somersaults down ancient corridors with Lara. I’ve defeated Sheng Long and I’ve gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. So the idea of throwing each punch, pathetically swinging my foot in a vain attempt at an overhead kick, or clumsily miming out such actions as climbing a ladder fills me with dread.

Where will my adventures and my feats of legend come from if in the end, I am only me, and not one of the many gaming heroes I’ve been through the years? I want to climb skyscrapers and swan-dive off cliffs, be as acrobatic as an Olympic gymnast and as skilled as the world’s greatest martial artist. Motion-control clearly has the potential to bring us all manner of new experiences but might it also rob me of my superhuman prowess? No amount of being able to move in-game objects with my hand is going to replace my lust for adventure.

In the end, we shall all just have to wait and see. Will our familiar controllers become obsolete icons of a bygone age, or will the new ideas of an industry hungry to expand its audience become an entry point to more established gaming, rather than a replacement? Who knows, but I say this to you, Sony and Microsoft, don’t forget us gamers in your rush to steal Nintendo’s thunder.

And whatever happens, I’ll still have to lead poor Pac-Man around that maze, and I wonder if up will still be ‘Up’ and down will still be ‘Down’.







6 responses to “A Question of Control”

  1. Tony avatar

    That last picture in your post sums up the problem for me. Look at the amount of space that guy is playing in.

    I’ve got a good sized lounge but much of the space between me and the TV is taken up by a glass table. Potential for disaster!

    What will this do to all those people who game on a small TV in the corner of their box room?

  2. MarkuzR avatar

    I watched that Natal video and was astounded… first of all I was astounded that it could be SO damn accurate (probably won’t be though) and then I became MORE astounded that anyone would actually want to get that involved with their game. I wouldn’t. I certainly wouldn’t.

    The first joystick I ever got my hands on (I don’t count the Atari one as you had no choice) was back with my Amiga 1000 and I hated it. I ended up going back to using the keyboard for all games. After trying countless sticks, I ended up using the Speedking, much to the chagrin of my parents with all that clicking going on with the microswitches. It was comfy though, very comfy.

    Consoles are new to me though, and the first console I owned since my Colecovision died is the original XBox and now the XBox 360. I hate the Sony controllers, quite liked the Gamecube controller, but LOVE the 360’s controller to bits. What puts me off are the combo controls though – I was so excited about playing Gears of War until I saw the button combos for certain moves and just didn’t bother getting into it. I’m a lazy player, I want the simplicity of Oblivion’s controls.

    If Microsoft force everyone to use this “you are the controller” nonsense with no choice to the contrary, I’ll probably have to keep my XBox disconnected from the ‘net to avoid the forced dashboard updates. I want to sit on my sofa and game… if I wanted to stand up and fight I’d go out to the pub.

  3. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    As the Atari joystick above shows, we used to have a joystick and one button to play games. Looking at the multiple buttons on controller these days you can understand why someone would find it daunting.

    And there’s no doubt that Nintendo’s Wii controllers have simplified the controls (even if it means simplifying the games too). This hasn’t hurt Nintendo thou, with millions of Wiis sold, if isn’t surprising that Microsoft and Sony want a slice of the motion sensing gameplay pie.

    As long as they don’t try and fit it into all games or take away from the franchises we already enjoy. I like to relax (ie slouch) when playing my games.

    And I can only thing what GTA nights might entail in we had motion controls, some of us might not make it to the end of the night. 😀

    Or what would happen when Kratos finds some lovely vixens and the mini game to satisfy them begins. That’s not one to play in front of the family.

    Great blog Darach.

  4. Lorna avatar

    I was very ‘meh’ about the motion sensitive nonsense at E3. I personally can’t understand the race for this particular ‘Holy Grail’. The fact that someone may see a controller as a barrier is both bewildering and faintly pathetic…or perhaps just lazy?

    Controllers have evolved to the point that they are now, as the demands of the games and gameplay have grown. As someone who doesn’t want to be lurching around like an idiot and who just wants to sit down and play a game properly, nothong more, this stuff fills me with dread. It will be too much to hope that it will be optional as far as new systems go…after all, the avatars aren’t and I hate them too :/

  5. edward avatar

    sorry can i use only one pad to play mission in nintendo wii?and which kind of pad/

  6. parikshit avatar

    i have a wii but i am thinking of selling it i wann buy ps3

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