If you’re a gamer, you can pick up a controller and know how to play a video game.
Even if you’ve never played that particular game, you pick it up and jump right into playing. You get a rough feel for the genre. Gun, okay, it’s a shooter. Your fingers naturally rest on the thumb sticks and buttons, second nature to somebody as experienced playing games as you are.
This is a problem in gaming. I know, this seems like it’s coming out of nowhere. Shouldn’t knowing what to do make it so that we can make more complex games, better experiences? Complex does not mean better, especially for gaming as a whole. We should be trying to break the system, trying to eschew the idea of standard controller schemes, for the good of the form.
Before we talk about the present, we really should go back and think about the evolution of controllers. I’m going all the way back to before consoles – the only way to place inputs into the game was a keyboard. It was obtuse, with the player needing to know the exact and specific commands. So they simplified things. We got the joystick and either one or two buttons. This was the hey-day of arcades. Anybody could walk in and start playing, because it made sense. If you moved the joystick up, you moved up. You pressed the button and it would do only one thing. It was easy to learn and pick up, simple and clean, something that you can learn quickly without getting too frustrated.
Then things started to get muddier. Let’s jump to Nintendo consoles for a second. The NES had a directional pad, 2 circle buttons for actions and two menu buttons. The controller was clunky, hard to hold, but there were very few controls. You can pick it up, and learn without too much difficulty. Then the SNES came out, where they added shoulder buttons and 2 more circle buttons. Then the Nintendo 64, with a joystick, two more circle buttons, and a button on the back. In 13 years, Nintendo added around 11 different inputs to their controllers (not counting the non-directional zones in the joystick). They went from a relatively simple control scheme, with very few buttons, that is easy to pick up to a convoluted, impossible to hold controller that very few people could intuitively understand.
Before I bring up why this is bad, let’s go over to the Xbox controller as a contrast. The Xbox controller has not changed between consoles, it has been hailed as the ‘best controller ever designed’. Nobody feels the need to change it, everybody has only universal praise for it. But it is, for lack of better words, obtuse. Two thumbsticks, each serving as a button, 8 face buttons, 4 bumpers (and then 4 additional buttons if you have the Xbox elite controller, which really only copy the other buttons), a home button and two option buttons. 17 glorious buttons that have not changed and are almost universal in their deployment.
This, readers, is the issue. We have stagnated, and as anybody who has ever experienced mosquitos before, anything stagnant is bad news. Going back to the start of the article, playing a shooter is intuitive for the modern gamer. But try giving that controller to somebody who isn’t a gamer, who hadn’t grown up with the same controller scheme. That intuitive understanding is gone, the gaming audience has become far too genre savvy. Like with horror movies, there is formula. There is form, we expect the jump scares and when we get them, we are delighted. We expect the specific controls, and the studio knows that the way to make the most people happy is to just do the same thing.
And if they don’t need to change the controls, , why do they need to change anything else about their games?
It’s all standardized, catered to the gamer’s gamer, obtuse and impossible for somebody unfamiliar with gaming to get immediately.Gaming is inaccessible. And it’s dying.
Game developers are making games for the stereotypical ideas of gamers. They are what they believe is the core audience, those who have incredible familiarity with gaming and the nuances of the medium. So game developers do not try anything different, they don’t stretch their imaginations, they play to what they know will sell, and they become stagnant.
I want to look at VR games as an example of what all of gaming could be like if we made controls, not easier, but intuitive. We did not simplify, but instead made the controls into something that you can be familiar without having played games for an extended amount of time. VR games are a diverse crowd – from cooking simulations, to stealth games, to paintball shooters, there is seemingly no limit to what you can play. Perhaps the best part about these games is that there is often no tutorial per se – I don’t mean that the game does not teach you how to play, but rather you don’t need to reteach yourself every time. If you want to crouch, you just crouch. Picking something up? Pull the trigger as if you’re grabbing it. How do you cook an egg? The same way you do in real life. And that’s the beauty of it; anybody can play these games because we all understand the language of the controller. We all understand how our bodies work; we don’t have different control schemes per person, if we want to move around, we just move around. If all games were this easy to understand, then the user base could be anybody. Games would be designed to stand out, to make ripples, to do something unique and different, to innovate the medium and bring it to a new and exciting place.
We are alienating the very people who could help us change the industry, in favour of adhering to form. We need another perspective, before we implode again.
A game designer, producer, production designer, writer and editor, Jason has dipped his toes into many creative fields, perhaps too many. He lives in Toronto, writing, making games and thinking about dogs. Follows Jason on Twitter at @jwestonwong.