Just add more buttons.
As the latest generation of consoles shipped, much was written about the hardware evolution.
The increased power being the most obvious topic, but also the inclusion / decoupling of camera peripherals and the subtle improvement to the controller designs. The targeted trigger rumble of the Xbox One’s pad and the fine tuning of the DualShock 4’s size and stick placement being the most obvious points, it seemed like everything was about gentle evolution.
Yet, there was one exception, where a backwards step in the technology stakes was taken, and that was the return by Sony to digital face buttons. It was hardly a selling point for the PS3 - their pressure sensitive nature was only really heralded by Gran Turismo players who failed to acclimatise to the triggers - but it raises an interesting question.
Beyond the finer details that differentiate them, has pad design reached its logical conclusion? Or are we simply waiting for the next big gaming leap to propel us beyond this impasse?
Well, this return to digital buttons doesn’t have to signify a regression as such. It could be seen as a simple financial move. The consoles themselves are expensive to produce and any elements that aren’t being utilised will need to be cut out. Money dictates what’s needed, and even good features can fall by the wayside - everyone remembers being told that rumble was last gen technology, and thus unnecessary in the Sixaxis.
However, the fact that the loss of the analogue buttons is barely worthy of mention makes it a fine example of where technology progresses past what can be reasonably implemented - or indeed what players want - in game design. And history tells us that game design and pad design are intertwined.
The bubble of controller technology has expanded, but is it starting to contract in line with the staples we’re now comfortable with? The Wiimote has come and gone, the Wii U’s GamePad is looking unloved, and the homogenisation of controller layouts is almost accepted for the sake of accessibility and ease of development. Beyond the arguments over asymmetrical layouts, there’s a received wisdom in the standards of the number of buttons, triggers and sticks.
For many years the pad has been growing and evolving, through additional input methods to the modern obsession with ergonomics, the focus has usually been on creating a way to give the player the maximum amount of control over in-game actions. These steps go hand-in-hand with the increasing complexity of gameplay standards. But the game design has to coincide with the technology, if not drive it. When it doesn’t you get gimmickry, such as the GamePad.
The evolution hasn’t been straightforward, and for every step that adds in complexity, there’s one that strips it away. However, the focus on subtlety in movement control has often been at the forefront, from paddles to D-pads and beyond. The inclusion of the analogue stick on the Nintendo 64 pad was a Rosetta Stone moment for game design. Nintendo may not have discovered the idea, but none had come to it with a first party studio and gaming auteurs eager to orchestrate their wares around it.
When you first picked up the strange trident pad and pushed Mario around his three dimensional world, the concept of varying degrees of speed in movement was a heady concept that hinted at a bright future where controller innovation and game design converged. And it was that same sensation that propelled many to pick up the Saturn's analogue controller just for the opportunity to play NiGHTS Into Dreams in the way it was intended.
Yet, while we’re now in an era where D-pads for character control are anathema, ask yourself how many games still implement a run / sneak button, and use the left stick in a vaguely binary fashion?
Perhaps complete speed control via just the stick was a bridge too far for most games, the spindly example on the N64 pad seemed to offer great flexibility, but it was long and willowy, and it would be hard to imagine many modern titles migrating well to its lack of resistance. Nintendo would take the fight for analogue supremacy to its logical conclusion with the Wiimote, which aimed for the very essence of subtle control, as speed and acceleration of an on-screen pointer was wholly determined by the user. A reason why PC gaming has struggled to find an adequate replacement for the mouse and such games designed for one rarely port perfectly to consoles.
The Wiimote is gone though, and the standards for pad design are once again established. Even to the point that people moot the possibility of Nintendo throwing their Wii U tablet under the bus and bundling the console with a Pro controller. With this common approach to pad design, may come the increasing possibility that the games themselves will fail to evolve. When was the last time you picked up a pad and felt the control scheme was totally alien, only to be won over by its uniqueness?
The truth is the two dominant forces in any one generation tend to converge their controller design; it makes sense to ensure multi-format games aren't better on a competing system. During the 16 bit era, Nintendo used 6 buttons, and Sega followed suit. Later, analogue sticks became a given and were hastily added to both Sony and Sega's designs, and now we're just waiting for the next evolution. The issue is, considering both Microsoft and Sony have a history of polishing innovations others have created, do they have it in them to make that leap without a third company forcing their hand?
It seems strange that one of the the last hopes for true pad evolution comes from the PC market, to act as the third competitor, yet it's a market that's always been there. Considering how entrenched the keyboard and mouse combo is, it’s here that we see Valve making strides to try to not only replicate it for a couch PC gamer, but also to sidestep the well worn route of lazily cloning what has come before. Dual trackpads that offer momentum of sweeping gestures and haptic feedback could be the makings of the ultimate analogue input device. Could be.
So, while the design war for console pads seems to be reaching a cease fire, with both Microsoft and Sony happy to settle on something that allows for easy third party development and little innovation, it’s worth remembering that the technology that has fallen by the wayside - such as analogue face buttons - wasn’t poorly conceived, but simply superfluous to what was necessary at the time. They preceded gameplay innovations, and were left waiting for a use, rather than being driven by them.
However, sometimes what’s unneeded today can underpin the gameplay leaps of tomorrow. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sony’s move into the world of Virtual Reality, Project Morpheus; utilising a camera peripheral that was unbundled, motion sensitivity that was gimmicky, and a light bar on the pad that most want turned off. Maybe the pad has a few evolutionary leaps in it yet, but which comes first, the new pad, or the new game?
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