Designing controller input – the obvious, the reasonable and the extraordinary.

1. The obvious

Playing a video game means perceiving information on-screen, interpreting these information, concluding and finally executing. The controller is the execution-tool of the player. His or her lawgiver. Like the mean but necessary lawgiver weapon in the Judge Dredd movie, the controller has to lie comfortable in the hands of the player, giving him the feeling of total control and power. As I cannot influence the input devices – yet – I will concentrate on the options of giving the player the feeling of control and power with the existing input devices. No matter, which type of controller.

2. The reasonable

As soon as the player is putting the game into the console and grabbing the controller, it’s up to us whether he or she feels in charge or not. By sticking to the following basic rules, we can avoid the most common mistakes.

The first and plainest rule is to care about the player’s habits. For us humans, habits are one of the most important things. Familiar places, objects, rules and controller layouts make us feel comfortable, secure, and make us more efficient. So take a close look at your references and competitors. If you are designing the controller inputs for a cover to cover shooter, look at Modern Warfare, Gears of War and other top-notch shooters.

Perception & explicitness
If you have fancy controls or a non-pro target audience, explain and show the controller layout. You can use the loading or splash screens to make the basic controller layout clear. The Graphical User Interface is not your enemy. It’s your friend! Use the GUI to show controls (not regularly used). Even the most common controls (e.g. B = back) are not 100% clear for everybody. And where is the problem in showing it? Especially when it comes to the next point, explicit communication of the controls is necessary.

Avoid modalities
Using one button for different actions is always unclever! Unfortunately we have to assign different actions to one button, because our products are too complex. Hmm, but why? A short plea to all the designers out there: keep it simple!
If you have to use modes, you have to make sure that the user is aware of these modes. A way to achieve that, is by forcing the user to push and hold a button (like the SHIFT key). In this case, the user is aware of the mode because there is a constant stimulus (muscle). That’s why aiming, by pushing & holding the Left Shoulder Button, is an acceptable mode.
If does not make sense to constantly push & hold a button during a mode, the second – less effective – possibility is to clearly communicate the mode (auditive, visual and/or tactile). For example by changing the angle and height of view while crouching. To give a bad example, the CAPS LOCK key fails in clearly showing its mode. Nobody sees the small green light, far away of the locus of attention, before the MISENTRY has happened.

Consistence and monotony
Similar to the habit rule, it’s very important to setup a consistent button layout. If the A button is mostly used to confirm something, it should always confirm or activate something. Wouldn’t you go crazy, if the B button on the Xbox 360 controller is not used to close or deny something?
Furthermore in most cases it makes no sense to offer more than one or two ways to accomplish a task. This will make your controls monotone in a positive way. If you have too many options, you will consider them preconscious and lose time and performance. The only reason to neglect the monotony rule is to support as many player habits as possible. That’s why MS Word provides four ways to copy text. Not because it make sense, but to support the users’ habits.

3. The extraordinary

Finally, we will always have people with different, uncommon needs or characteristics. Lefties – like me – for example. Never forget to think about left-handed people, or people who just have very uncommon habits or preferences. Give them the possibility to change the default controller layout according to their needs.

All the mentioned rules should make it easier for a broad audience to handle your game. But there are people out there who like to get tortured. They like it, if it’s hard work to handle and finally master the controls. Or, the fancy controls are the reason for the outstandingness. But I’m not a big fan of making a product outstanding just by making it difficult or “different”. to me the real challenge is to design something that is easy to use and excites through its special gameplay.

4. Further information and references

PS: Happy new year everyone!

3 Responses to “Designing controller input – the obvious, the reasonable and the extraordinary.”

  1. 1 Gustav Ziolkowski
    January 1, 2010 at 22:48

    Great post and enjoyable read. It shines through that this is your area of expertise. If somebody is remotely interested in the topic, your post is a great way to get started. You should add some references or recommendations though. Would let people dive deeper more easily.

    Would read again!

  2. January 1, 2010 at 23:13

    Gustav, you are absolutely right! I just added some literature und a link related to my post.

  3. January 3, 2010 at 15:10

    “Wouldn’t you go crazy, if the B button on the Xbox 360 controller is not used to close or deny something?”

    Actually, no. Because of what you yourself mentioned: Habit.
    Back in the days I was an avid player of Japanese RPG’s on the Super NES, in which it was most common to Accept on the button the right, and cancel/back on the one to the bottom.

    So either way works for me, and I’m used to switching. A/B or B/A doesn’t matter.

    It’s just like you say, we all have different references of play.

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