It’s In Our Hands

It must be tough being a controller. Hatched in a factory with thousands of identical siblings, packed off to a halfway-house with your console foster mother at your side, forced to wait for a kind and wealthy stranger to carry you off to a new home, only to be torn unceremoniously from your cardboard carry-case and fondled inappropriately until your buttons cave in or your stick falls off.

If Fable creator and industry legend Peter Molyneux has his way, joypad abuse will become a thing of the past. Unfortunately for the joypads, this does not mean kinder treatment at the hands of their sweaty-palmed, rage-quitting owners. What it actually means is the phasing out of the traditional controller format, replacing D-pads and analogue sticks with cameras and gesture recognition technology.

Molyneux claims that controllers are “the biggest barrier” between console gaming and the general public, that the peripherals which hardcore gamers have lovingly caressed over the past 30 years are the very objects responsible for excluding the average civilian from all the fun. Project Natal (pictured below) is Mr Molyneux’s proposed solution to this problem: a camera on every Xbox 360 capable of recognising player movements and interpreting those movements into control commands. With Nintendo already paddling in the revenue stream of motion sensitivity and Microsoft and Sony preparing to wade in next year, we may be witness to the birth of a brave new interactive world, one where our bodies, not just our fingertips, do the talking. To find out if this really is the end of control as we know it I talk to SingStar creator Paulina Bozek, climb the joypad family tree to its highest branch and ask if Nintendo have already put the future of gaming in our hands.

Natal, Paulina and I
"Don't move. It can't see us if we don't move…"

Of course, the ability to make Sonic spin his spikey blue face off with nothing more than a carefully timed twitch of the eyebrow is a far cry from the control mechanisms offered up by gaming’s console ancestry. Gone are the days when controllers were as crude as the avatars they manipulated, when ‘Y’ was the only axis you needed to worry about, and when ‘wireless control’ meant tuning your radio to Desert Island Discs. But to find out where we are going, we must first establish where we came from. Ground Zero. Point A. Genesis.

Magnovox Odyssey
Magnavox Odyssey controller

Here she is. This is the mother of the modern gamepad, the first ever video game controller for the first ever video game console. Belonging to the Magnavox Odyssey, this unprepossessing plastic cuboid represents the beginning of the Cult of Control. Its dual knob interface – one knob for controlling movement along the X-axis, the other for the Y-axis – actually has more in common with an Etch-a-Sketch than any of its digital descendants. The only button on its surface was a reset button, used to bring the ‘ball’ back into play during the Odyssey’s tennis game. The simplicity of the unit was in direct correlation to the simplicity of the games; there was no jumping, combos or menu navigation involved in any of the Odyssey’s games, only the vertical and horizontal movement of a white square. Still, basic as it was, this little beige box brought the four most important domains in the history of gaming into Joe Public’s living room: up, down, left and right.

Fast forward a few years and change is already afoot. Two knobs have been replaced by one stick. Systems like the Odyssey 2, the Colecovision and the Atari 2600 have started utilising joystick interfaces to control their games. By mapping all movement inputs to a single stick, players are able to manipulate both axes with only one hand. This frees up the other hand to deal with that most essential (and cathartic) of control interfaces: the fire button.

Atari 2600
Atari 2600 joystick

The controller of the Atari 2600 is possibly the most beloved joystick in history. One stick, one button (red, naturally), no waiting. It paved the way for a generation of defenders, space raiders and missile commanders, all of whom where able to save the day time and time again thanks to this conceptual pioneer. Despite more complicated controllers existing at the time, some of which featured up to four buttons on their flanks and a full numeric keypad (even Atari’s less successful sequel, the 5600, incorporated these design features) it is the Atari 2600’s classic profile that haunts the gaming subconscious. Importantly, it combined the ability to control movement with an additional element: the ability to jump, throw, activate an item or fire a weapon. That little rouge circle was one of the earliest and most successful implementations of the ‘face button’, and it brought a completely new dimension of gameplay to an increasingly interested mass market.

Jump forward again. It’s 1985, two years after the second video game crash. Home computers have started to appear on people’s desks. A combination of bad games and too many systems has killed off the console industry in America. Nintendo has launched the Famicom in Japan, and are now preparing to drop a cultural bomb on the Western world. They have the answer to the console crisis in the palm of their hand, an answer that will soon be in the hands of children across the United States, Europe, and eventually the entire globe. It needs no introduction, no fanfare, because anyone who has been conscious for any portion of the last 25 years has had its iconic form burned into their retina 1000 times over. Loyal subjects, kneel before your King:

Do I need to bother?

The NES controller was the first ‘joypad’ to make its mark on the gaming landscape. It is the template, the mould from which all future controllers were cast. From the moment we took hold of that rectangular enchantress our fate was sealed. As Nintendo had decreed, so it was done: a directional pad on the left, face buttons on the right and two centre buttons dedicated to pausing your game and navigating menus. The design model is still with us to this day, still prevalent in this, the seventh generation of video game consoles. The number of face buttons has doubled and there are now shoulder buttons to compliment them, but even these enhancements are based on Nintendo’s follow-up joypad, the SNES controller. Where the NES pad established the formula, the SNES pad expanded on it. Add two analogue sticks and pair of triggers to a SNES pad and you have a Dual Shock 3. It’s that influential.

SNES & Friends
Controllers left to right: Xbox 360, SNES, Dreamcast

Of course, all these extra buttons meant new opportunities for game developers. A floodgate of control possibilities had been opened; no longer did designers have to choose between a fire button or a jump button, now there was support for both. Why not throw a run button into the mix? Hell, how about a secondary weapon? Maybe a dedicated map button? Perhaps triggering a nitrous boost is more your thing? The increasing complexity of game controllers such as the SNES and Sega Megadrive (Genesis) pads, and later the PSone and Sega Saturn pads, was reflected in the intricacy of the games themselves. Without these multi-button interfaces, this combination of D-pad and face buttons, game franchises like Mario, Sonic, Zelda and Metroid could never have existed.

As the third dimension began to creep its way into console gaming, Nintendo gave us our first taste of a joypad / joystick hybrid. The N64 controller was the first dedicated console joypad to feature an analogue stick, allowing users with nimble thumbs to try and ape the mouse and keyboard control scheme which PC owners had been enjoying for some time. For many this is one of the most fondly remembered of the console controllers (possibly a direct result of that fact that it let you play GoldenEye), but from a design standpoint it was fundamentally flawed. The problem was simple: it had three prongs; gamers had two hands. Ergonomics dictate that all buttons should be within reach at all times from a single gripping position. This issue was quickly remedied by Sony with their Dual Analogue pad. While some consoles only opted for one stick (Dreamcast, GameCube, Wii) Microsoft’s Xbox stepped into the fray with another augmented version of the SNES / Dual Shock configuration. Since then the presence of at least one analogue stick has become the industry standard for modern joypads.

N64 & Friends
Controllers left to right: Gamecube, N64, Sony Dual Shock 3

So here we are. The end of 2009. Once again, Nintendo have changed the face of console gaming, succeeded where all others have failed and brought video games to a brand new audience with their latest innovation. Motion control, the direct mapping of a player’s physical movements into a virtual game-space, is being heralded as the future of the medium. By streamlining the button count and letting users point, waggle and wave their way through sports and fitness simulators, Nintendo’s Wii Remote has gone beyond the physical restrictions of button placement in an effort to put players in the game. The recent success of the Wii, as well as casual gaming peripherals like the Guitar Hero controller and the SingStar microphone, seems to suggest that basic, intuitive control schemes are luring a mainstream audience to a previously niche pastime. I talked to Paulina Bozek, the creator of SingStar, to find out what makes a successful controller and where she believes the future of the joypad truly lies:

RU James: ‘Lifestyle’ games that replace the standard controller with their own specific peripheral (SingStar, Buzz, Guitar Hero) have managed to attract a demographic that the games industry has been unable to excite until fairly recently. Do you think the classic controller configuration alienates the casual gamer?

Paulina: If you think about it, when games and the Atari 2600 hit our living rooms in 1977, the games and control were super simple and instant fun. They were marketed as entertainment for the whole family.

Then we went through a long phase where games got more impressive graphically, deeper and more sophisticated, but at the same time much more complicated to control. Some game controllers have 12 or more individual buttons. Not only did you have to learn what each button could do, but you also had to learn special combos! You had to be a dedicated player and invest time to get something fun and rewarding out of it.

With physical controllers such as microphones, guitars, buzzers and the Wiimote, the way you interact with a game is intuitive and a lot more obvious. Alongside these controllers, we adopted the philosophy of making a game easy to pick up, play and let you have fun quickly. This has attracted a much larger audience who are now willing to give it a try. I think you have to harness the power of the computer but transcend the complexity and re-connect with the concept of ‘play’. We have been playing games for thousands of years so it’s no wonder that the audience at large finds these control systems fun and appealing.

SingStar & Friends
Controllers left to right: Buzz, SingStar, Guitar Hero Les Paul

RU James: Controllers have changed over the past 30 years from simple, single-button joysticks to dual-analogue pads with more buttons than we have fingers. What is your favourite controller to date (that isn’t a microphone!) and are there any features that you as a gamer would like to see on the next generation of controllers?

Paulina Bozek
Paulina Bozek

Paulina: I am enjoying the iPhone interface – the touch interface is intuitive and elegant. But there’s also the fact that I can carry it with me and that it is a connected device, so the overall experience is pretty amazing. Otherwise I am waiting for a controller that connects straight into the TV with a powerful web browser and games / programs streamed straight to the TV from the cloud. The reason I like that is because the web as a distribution platform has lowered the bar for entry which has increased access and innovation. If we can see that same degree of innovation and entrepreneurship on the TV, that would be amazing. As developers we could create a web interface and a TV interface and get more games into the living room.

RU James: As Development Director of the new Atari London Studio you talk of the opportunities for gaming platforms to attract a more mainstream audience. From your experience do you think the key to this lies in the software or the interface? Is it the game or the pad?

Paulina: Well, I’ve seen both. There is no question in my mind that the physical controller has been a major catalyst for games attracting the mainstream audience. But right now I’m watching social networks like Facebook attract millions of people to games which are all about playing with your friends and the control is the standard point and click – so clearly it can be both.

RU James: Motion control has been touted by some pretty big industry names as the future of game interaction. Do you see this trend as the way forward?

Paulina: I think the data you can gather through motion control has a lot of potential for many different game applications. The physical and intuitive interaction which motion control allows has been hugely appealing, as shown by the Wii phenomenon. If nothing else, seeing the three console giants (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo) all playing with motion control is going to lead to a lot of competition and ultimately drive innovation – which will be very interesting.

Wiimote & Nunchuk
Wiimote and Nunchuk

Paulina tapped into something with SingStar. Her vision of a social gaming experience with the most basic and immediate of control schemes – the player’s own voice  – has shifted million of units across multiple systems and helped bring console gaming to a completely new audience. Guitar Hero destroyed my own preconceptions regarding colour-coded peripherals. It showed me that simple interfaces can be fun to use, that ‘casual’ is not necessarily a dirty word to be whispered guiltily in the presence of ‘proper’ gamers. Each franchise inspired its own imitator (Lips followed SingStar, Rock Band followed Guitar Hero), and it appears the Wiimote has also been regarded with envious eyes.

Motion control is in vogue at the moment. It could be argued that Project Natal and the Sony Wand would both have arrived unprompted, that a hyper advanced EyeToy and a pair of black Wiimotes was where both systems were inevitably headed, conceptually speaking. Of course, it could also be argued that Microsoft and Sony are attempting to piggy-back on the breakthrough success of Nintendo’s little white box, and that both companies are doing nothing more than trying to skim a highly profitable layer off the top of the casual gaming pond.

However, Wii sales have stuttered recently. The last six months have seen a dramatic fall in the number of systems sold, forcing Nintendo to slash their profit predictions for this year. Spokesmen have blamed this dip in earnings on the Wii price cut and the mood of the market, but have also cited the lack of stellar software pushing the system forward. Mario Galaxy and Metroid have been and gone. The top selling titles for the system to date (that don’t require a balance board) are still the mini-game packages: Wii Play and Wii Sports. Attempts at more ‘serious’ games have left audiences lukewarm (MadWorld) and efforts to push beyond sports sims and crack other genres have been hampered by poor control mechanics (The Conduit, Red Steel). Is it possible that motion control is actually far more limited in its application than initially thought, that the notoriously fickle casual market is the only market that actually gives a damn? Do we really want to play Modern Warfare 3 by dashing around our living rooms, diving behind the sofa, popping up and miming a Desert Eagle with our fingers? Are Microsoft and Sony jumping onto a bandwagon that is already beginning to grind to a halt?

We have fought, flown, jumped, boosted, crept, climbed and blasted our way through 25 of the most exciting years in media history. The joypads we hold in our hands at this very moment are the result of a quarter of a century of refinement, of tried and tested application across a myriad of consoles and genres. There may be a day when the dual analogue controller is laid to rest, when the D-pad is nothing more than a memory, when light and air are the only elements required to transport us to interactive nirvana.

I do not believe that day has come. Where Molyneux sees a barrier, I see the same thing I have always seen: a doorway.

So come on in. Make yourself at home. I have a feeling we’re going to be here for some time.

Open Door







Leave a Reply