A Standardized Controller

by L.B. Jeffries

24 November 2008


During a blog debate between Michael Abbott and Iroquois Pliskin on the indie game Braid, Abbott made the observation that the game was extremely hard to follow if you weren’t a gamer. The game relies on numerous inherent assumptions that come from playing Super Mario Brothers, solving game puzzles, and knowing how to learn how to play a game. Jonathon Blow, the game’s creator, pointed out in the comments that we expect someone to know how to read if they want to understand a book. Mitch Krpata added in the comments that Braid is inherently founded on this aspect of gaming to the point that it’s off-beat to even criticize it…but it does raise the issue. How tricky should learning how to play video games actually be? Setting a barrier for experiencing a game also limits the number of people who will play it. If the best way to get at the heart of a game is a pre-existing skill at games, just as being able to read lets you understand a book, how do we make that process easier for people? How do we make it so every time you play a game, any game, you’ll be able to pick it up and start playing? Why not have a standardized method of control?


Think for a minute about what happens when you play a game for a few hours, do something else for a week, maybe play another game, and then go back to it. You have to re-learn the controls. Which button is crouch, which one is jump, how do I talk to people, how do I run? Contrast that to the idea of having to relearn how to watch a film or what to do when you pick up a book. It seems ludicrous that the fundamental mechanics of either media would have to be re-taught every time. It’s true that both film and books require several years of engaging with them before one becomes used to them. It’s easy for people to forget this stage of our development, but watching a six year old ask what’s going on during a movie over and over reveals this process. You have to learn how to watch or read, but you also only have to learn it once because those mediums use those skills over and over. There will always be the necessary changes from game genre to genre, an RTS obviously can’t work the same way as an FPS. Other mediums also have shifts that require some personal tweaking: stream of consciousness literature takes a while to master and numerous post-modern films require a different mental approach. But that’s still incredibly minor compared to engaging with an entirely new control scheme for a game that’s in the same genre as another. Why does Halo 3 need a different control scheme from Call of Duty 4?


Then again, there are lots of reasons these games have different controls. One game has vehicles in it, the other lets you call airstrikes. But these are game design issues, rules for the player to learn, not controls they need to master. Why would an artistic medium whose foundation is player input insist on screwing around with that aspect so much? It’s not as if games don’t already mimic one another’s interfaces or consoles by featuring similar control schemes anyways. They even made a universal controller during the last generation of consoles, to give you an idea of how similar they all are. Nor are the needs of various video games all that different. A brief review of the development of game controllers reveals one fundamental driving force: what is the best way to control an avatar moving in a virtual space? The Atari joystick led to the D-pad to maximize 2-D control. 3-D meant adding the analog-stick and then another one to control the camera. Balancing these issues is where to place the buttons in relation to this scheme. Not to harp on the Wii-mote, but it’s essentially another step in more precise avatar interactions in a 3-D environment. I want my avatar to do what I just did with my hand. Surely we’ll finally hit one method, one player input, that’s the most efficient of the bunch for a decent period of time?


There have been examples of standardized input systems before, chiefly in the adventure games of the late eighties and nineties. Numerous games were built using the text parser system under Sierra-On-Line and their variation in subject matter is indicative of how empowering a standardized input can be. From King’s Quest to Leisure Suit Larry, you could have a huge variety of games and activities using one single method. The icon system is just an extension of that. Refined and simplified, countless other games were created with the icon interface. Westwood Studios and their Lands of Lore and the Kyrandia series were all one click systems. Lucasarts was always screwing with their interface for some reason, but their best games all used the verb system to great effect. You had games about huge fantasy worlds, parodies of fairy tales, or gory voodoo mysteries. The exact same interface for blowing up a space ship was used for a game about saving the princess. And best of all, you could pick up any of those games after playing one and immediately know what you were doing. You knew to look around, hunt for items, and the other basic skills they all relied on. With the exception of the extensive sequels that have been coming out lately, what games coming out do you not have to sit down learn how to play every time? All of those companies making adventure games picked a way you interacted with their games and just stuck with it. As a result, huge variety in content and game design sprung forth because they were working within the confines of a set system of expression.


So basically, all I’m saying is that all games should have all their buttons be one particular set of buttons. This will shift from genre to genre, but even within that context each genre should have a standardized control scheme. It makes it so I can pick up any action game and start playing immediately. You wouldn’t need a tutorial because game design elements like what a gun does or how to use your special powers would be a self-explanatory menu system. Enforcing this would be a rather unpleasant affair (as is the reaction people would have), publishers would have to bluntly force any developer using their console to adhere to such a system. But the potential for games to start focusing on content and creating interesting experiences makes this a reasonable price to pay. Mitch Krpata once made an observation while trying to review a game whose genre he wasn’t use to: “When I play an action-adventure game, I’m drawing on decades of experience with that style of play. I can zoom right up the learning curve, without getting hung up on the basics.” Think of the enhanced artistic potential of games if players could do that with a game from ten years ago just as easily as a game today. In order for the medium to advance in complexity, it has to start with a simple foundation that is used repeatedly.

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