Today's Xbox One presentation might have placed a lot of emphasis on the new and improved Kinect, but I for one expect to spend the majority of my Xbox One time with a controller in my hands. At first blush you could be forgiven for assuming that the new Xbox One controller represents little more than a cosmetic reimagining of the Xbox 360 controller. Having got my hands on one though, as well as met with some of the folks responsible for designing it, I'm pleased to report that significant improvements are being made to what is already a great controller.
When looking for ways to improve upon the Xbox 360 controller, Microsoft's in-house design team quickly identified three issues that they were determined to address. They're seemingly minor things that, even after hundreds of hours spent with an Xbox 360 controller in my hands, I'd never really given much thought: the bulky battery pack, the screw holes, and the join between the front and rear pieces of plastic that your fingers often come to rest on. Those three perceived problems are all addressed with the Xbox One controller, and purportedly so are around 40 more.
One of the most needed improvements, I imagine many of you will agree, is a better d-pad. I didn't get to play any games with the new controller, but using the d-pad to navigate between tech demos I can at least report that it's comfortable and--unlike the current controller's d-pad--never gave me cause to doubt how it was going to respond when I used it. That alone makes it a marked improvement over the Xbox 360 d-pads that we've been stuck with for the past eight years, though it remains to be seen how well it will perform with fighting games and such that demand precision.
Similarly, the Xbox One controller's analog sticks improve upon their current-gen counterparts in ways that might not immediately be apparent. Their positions haven't noticeably changed, but they're slightly smaller, they incorporate a grippy "micro texture" around the top, and word from Microsoft is that they have a significantly smaller dead zone, meaning that they can offer a greater range of inputs depending on how far you push them. That's assuming developers take full advantage of the new sticks, of course.
The purpose of the hands-on session wasn't to demonstrate the benefits of the new controller's d-pad or the analog sticks, but rather to show off the rumble functionality of its trigger buttons. Several different demos did a good job of illustrating how rumbling triggers might be used in games; a heartbeat caused one trigger to vibrate more strongly than the other, a gun fired right-handed made only the right trigger jolt, and feeling the starting-up and subsequent revving of a car engine in my fingertips was a convincing sensation on a par with just about anything that I've experienced with the Xbox 360 controller. It seems reasonable to assume that the newly announced Forza Motorsport 5 will put this tech to great use.
Holding the new Xbox One controller, it's easy to take its ergonomics for granted. During a tour of the Xbox Campus, though, I got to meet some of the designers responsible for its creation and check out some of their early mock-ups. The mock-ups are created using a powerful precision 3D printer that takes around four hours to create each controller, and over 200 were made before the design was finalized. I also got to see firsthand the kind of testing that Microsoft is doing to ensure that the new Xbox One controllers are as reliable as they are refined. Robot arms were swinging the controllers up and down as well as moving the analog sticks around, while in another area there were dozens of controllers having their buttons tested by a machine that's designed to push every button on every controller around 20 million times. It's an impressive setup for sure, especially when you consider that said machine can be adjusted to test steering wheel peripherals and other accessories in the same fashion.
The Xbox One controller might have been overshadowed by other new hardware at today's unveiling, but that doesn't mean that its development is being taken any less seriously. I'm excited to put it through its paces playing some Xbox One games at E3 next month, and curious to see if it still has any surprises in store. Be sure to join us as we cover E3 starting on June 10 to find out.