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Monday, January 09, 2006

Revolution Pressing the Right Buttons

Revolution Pressing the Right Buttons

"The Revolution is a revolution in the sense that it goes all the way back to the beginning. Next Generation looks at the history of game controllers - especially Nintendo's - and the fascinating evolution that has resulted in the company's new, big idea...

There's only so much you can do with a button. You press it, something happens. You don't press it, something doesn't. If it's an analog button, and you press it even harder, maybe that thing will happen even more: maybe you'll run faster, or you'll punch with more vigilance.

Maybe if you hold down a second button when you press that first one, something subtly different will happen. Instead of lashing out with a whip, say, the little man on the TV screen will throw a boomerang. Either way, he still attacks; the second button just changes how he does it. Those are more or less our options: do something, do more of something, or do a different kind of something. It's all very straightforward. So too, then, is the history of game controllers...

Changing Shapes

Since 1985, the history of videogame controls is a history of finding new, creative places to put new buttons. The SNES introduced shoulder buttons, ostensibly to provide rotation controls for the system's "3D" Mode-7 chip. The real advantage to shoulder buttons, as time has shown, has been in our natural grip reflex – making them perfect for held actions and state shifting (see option three, above).

Shoulder buttons allow designers to map similar actions to the same button, doing away with clutter and keeping the player's mind on the game instead of the controls. Though they'd existed for years, the N64 reintroduced analog controls to the formula, all the better to navigate 3D space. The difference for players was between sailing over a cliff and tiptoeing up to it as intended.

That was ten years ago, this year. Since then, the biggest challenge we've seen to the status quo is the GameCube pad, and the "home position" theory behind it. The GameCube gives us a huge "A" button for the primary action in every game (be it jumping, shooting, or what-have-you), and a smaller "B" one for any secondary action. Any less-critical tertiary actions (menus, smart bombs, toggling this or that) are assigned to less and less prominent buttons, further and further from the natural bend of the player's thumb. The idea is, the primary actions available to the player in any game will always be readily available and obvious, making the basic action of playing as intuitive as possible.

The plan hasn't worked out so well, in part because it doesn't really address the problem it pretends to: that modern gamepads have way more buttons than they probably need, that developers don't know how to design controls properly, and that, as a result, chances are the end user does not have an ideal experience. Instead, all Nintendo accomplished with the GameCube pad was universal confusing – developers, end users, and game journalists alike." [more]

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