Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Evolution Of Games Controllers

This post was originally written for Forces of Geek on Thursday 18th October. This post was a miracle in that, I'm amazed I had the time and energy to get it done on time what with all the editing and premiere planning for Unlocked (the web series I make with Cheesemint Productions). Needless to say, it's been a hectic two weeks but if you haven't seen the first episode yet then check the link in my last blog post. You won't be disappointed... I hope!

Say 'games controller' and the definitive image that pops into your head will probably be a pad with directional controls, a few letters or shapes and a start/select button. Add an analog stick and shoulder buttons if you like but what most people will describe is essentially a classic gamepad. 

Or for those of you with more retro tastes - or *cough* you oldies *cough* (I'm sorry!) - there's the classic joystick. Aptly named, too! For what child or adult was without joy upon hearing the waka-waka-waka of Pac-Man?

Being born in the mid-80s I have vague recollections of joystick controlled games, mostly on the Atari 2600 and I still have strangely vivid memories of being taught how to play chess on a ZX Spectrum by my Dad.

Memories aside, the evolution of the classic gamepad style controller has been incredibly cyclic. The Sega Master System and the NES controller's for example, both evolved ergonomically when their successors emerged. Remember those little red indents on your palms where the corners had imprinted their shape onto your hand? Well with the advent of the SNES and the Mega Drive (Genesis) both controllers became more rounded and comfortable to hold for long periods of time without denting your hand or causing The Claw. Back then, these next-gen controllers felt like luxury compared to their predecessors and those of us lucky enough on the Christmas of 1990 (or 89 in the States) were the envy of our peers.

Years later, the fifth generation of gaming had arrived and the almighty analog stick was born! Well.. it was less almighty and more underwhelming and weird. Nintendo were first to make the leap - as they usually are.

Sadly, the placement of this analog stick was less useful and when the Dreamcast followed suite, improving upon the design by moving the analog stick to the left, sadly the clunky size of the controller and faltering sales meant that even learning from Nintendo's mistakes didn't help.

It was only when Sony launched their dual analog controller for the PlayStation that the definitive design for the gaming controller was introduced.

The PlayStation and PS2 controllers were the ones I became most familiar with as I pretty much spent my teens playing Resident Evil, Silent Hill and any other survival horror I could. When the Xbox launched I was intrigued and having heard good things from a few friends about Halo, I invested in my first Microsoft console. My initial thoughts were mainly the size. I was surprised by its beast of a controller and it took a lot of getting used to. It was humongous, though the design did match its equally loud and bulky console.

Couldn't find the author of this image but it made me chuckle!

Then the next gen consoles arrived with one major selling point: wireless controllers. No longer would you be tripping over trailing cables or suddenly wrenching your console onto the floor! No, with this science fiction upgrade you could sit, stand or walk around anywhere in the room and the console would be able to see you. Amazing. Who could improve on such a necessary upgrade?

Nintendo have often led the way in terms of innovative gaming controllers, first with the analog stick, the touch screen and with motion sensor controls. Of course being the first means that others can modify and improve upon the original. Take the Nintendo Wii controls. I absolutely loved them when they were released, they felt new and exciting. I enjoyed how comfortable they felt and how they were designed. 

The game that truly sold them to me was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess - using the motion control as a sword whilst holding the nunchuck control as a shield felt incredibly natural and both were utilised with ease and felt intuitive. Then, what followed were games that came with extra peripherals to purchase or games which only ever seemed to require the use of the main motion control stick. The novelty had worn off for me and I no longer had the excitement for potential 'sword and shield' controlled games.

Then Microsoft got one up on Nintendo and launched Kinect which had no controller except the player (arguably - there's also the PlayStation EyeToy - remember that? Probably not, huh?).

On the release day, I went to a friend's house to sample its delights and felt like I was in Minority Report. Though I'm glad Microsoft introduced it as a peripheral because although it's impressive, the technology still has a way to go. Saying "Xbox Play Game" is still more work than pressing a button and having to recalibrate it every time I played Dance Central because the light had changed ever so slightly was a little annoying. Whereas Nintendo want to embrace change and expect the world to embrace it with them willingly, Microsoft and Sony know that their analog gamepad designs work, so why change them too much, if at all?

There's one controller I haven't made mention of and it's been around since the beginning; the steadfast dependable keyboard. If I say 'WASD' or 'ESDF' only a handful of you will know what I'm on about. Those handful would be PC gamers and I'd go as far as to say that referring to them as a mere 'handful' is quite the understatement. PC games like The Sims franchise have had over 50 million sales to date and MMORPGs are still hugely popular. During University - when I mostly played Counterstrike - those keys in particular were so used that they were the first keys to wear down the letters on my keyboard.

Despite it's longevity, if your graphics card isn't up to the job then there's no point even bothering and the keyboard and mouse combo can hurt your hands after a while, plus I don't need to be a doctor to know that sitting so close to a screen for long periods of time is bad for you.

Which is why my favourite controller is the latest Xbox 360 controller: durable, wireless, simple, beautifully formed and surprisingly comfortable, especially during those long all-night gaming sessions. Granted, they aren't that dissimillar to the PS3 controller but having both analogue sticks in the centre causes a symetrical and somewhat unnatural horizontal thumb thing that can tend to produce soreness - fact*

It's easy to talk about which controller I like best but some people don't have that choice or ability. There are some tailor made consoles out there that allow the disabled to play alongside the able-bodied and some of these adaptations an the technology employed are quite simply incredible. Here in the UK, we have the charity Special Effect which make video games compatible for the disabled. They've worked on numerous projects but the one that strikes me as amazing is something they call StarGaze Plus which is a program allowing the player to control a game based on gaze alone... and there I was thinking Kinect was impressive. However, rather than being a gimmicky peripheral, these are inclusionary devices that allow those who would previously be unable to join in, a chance at the action.

Yet, despite the various developments, leaps and bounds made in the advance of futuristic hand/eye/body motion control, that big chunky piece of plastic will always be the star of the show and how its designed will continue to launch debates and divide gamers.

*where 'fact' read 'wild speculation'

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