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Is the games industry looking for control innovation in the right place?

The Importance of Control...

We are all aware of the constant arguments over which gaming platform is superior - the PC, the X-Box, the PS3 or the Wii. Everyone has their own opinions on what they prefer and what they don't like. That opinion is often driven by something as simple as what sits in your hands when playing the game. Ignoring graphics, sound, internet connections, physical storage and pure aesthetics, the point of this article is to put my own view on what works, what doesn't and what is next on the table - in the hope that a few people agree, a few people find some interesting ideas and a few people disagree - after all, a healthy debate is really what makes this kind of thing interesting!

Firstly, it needs to be said that I do have my preferred gaming platform, as I imagine the vast majority of people do. For me, most of my gaming hours are spent either on my 360 or my PC. I have a PS3 and I've enjoyed a few games with it and I've played the Wii a fair bit at friends houses, to varying degrees of enjoyment. A lot of what guides this choice is down to the control method. In reality the 360, the PS3 and the Wii are all consoles, they use the same means of interacting with my eyes and ears (IE an HDTV and surround sound system). I find that the different controllers for each has a drastic impact on my preference. With that said, I'm sure my preferences will come across in the article as bias - I do try and keep things as balanced as possible, I do try and see the good and bad of everything - so I apologise in advance for any obvious offenses!

The PC sits outside of the above group, because it is its own unit. Having established that the 360 and the PC are my favourites, in most cases there is still a choice to be made about which to buy a multi-platform release on and that too, is often guided by the control type. So I guess, in essence, this article is about buying motivators.

The easiest place to start is PC Vs Console as that is the debate that has probably been raging longest. I use my PC for strategy games, MMOGs, some RPGs and FPS's that I know I intend to play online. I use a console for everything else. If you look at that list of archetype, you can see that really it's the control method that is dominating that reasoning (perhaps not with RPGs - but then I also play plenty of those on the consoles).

The mouse and keyboard offers an unmatched number of buttons to press and the mouse has a level of precise control that is simply unobtainable with a joystick. This is why for the most part, it is accepted that the first person shooter and strategy game are only really able to truly shine on the PC platform .

The consoles have made some inroads in this area, it has to be said - one of the reasons Halo was so successful, despite still being clumsy by PC standards, was that it offered an acceptable level of playability and control, that die hard PC enthusiasts (like I was at the time) could accept. The dawn of the third person shooter, which for me started with G.R.A.W. was a great day for console gaming. In fact, now I think about it, it was playing Halo that made me decide it was worth getting an X-Box and playing G.R.A.W. that made me trade in that X-Box and my PS2, for a new 360. The third person/first person hybrid system offered by Rainbow Six Vegas, is where I think the immediate future of the genre is. The systems works brilliantly for a control pad, and removes much of the downside caused by the intrinsically clumsy joysticks.

I think a large part of why high profile games like Haze and Resistance struggled so much, is that they remind many of us, at what first made us cringe when playing FPS's on consoles. I've just gotten Killzone 2, and some of what I've seen of this game has impressed me, but ultimately the controls are still off and it's preventing me from really getting into it - and I've seen and heard plenty of similar comments.

The problem here I think, is down to the Playstation controller. If you look at what Nintendo and Microsoft have gone through over the years, you can see obvious changes in their controllers. The Wii talks for itself in this regard, motion based controls were a brave leap from control pads. Microsoft were forced to learn the hard way - the original X-Box controllers had numerous problems, most obviously, their ridiculous size. They eventually released a completely new design that was greatly improved, and another completely new design for the 360, again a big improvement. I can't think of what has changed for the Playstation. Ok they are a different colour, there are rumble and sixaxis modifications, but the design and shape of the controller hasn't really changed. That can't be said of any of the other platforms (look at the shape of mice now compared with ten years ago to see the PC orientated design changes).

Did Sony really get it right, first time around, where everyone else didn't? In my opinion, definitely not and it is high time they had a serious look at this area. The joysticks are too weak, the pad is too small - games that require you to use the shoulder buttons a lot, are simply uncomfortable to play for a lot of people. The D-Pad works well.. which is great except there is only one genre that really uses it.

This sixaxis addition is largely pointless and the fact it is there, often causes developers to make poor design decisions, just to include it. There have been some good uses though - the freefalling sections of Ratchet and Clank, its use for games that require you to balance your character (such as Mirror's Edge) and for the little character flourishes in Little Big Planet. Too often though, its inclusion (and this covers the Wii as well), often in the name of "immersion", jars awkwardly. Some people seem to think that having to twist your hands about, to simulate things like planting bombs and opening doors, keeps you immersed in the game. Well, not for me, in fact it ruins the immersion by reminding you that you are not "in the game" you are on a sofa, waggling a piece of plastic around like an idiot.

I have bought a lot of cross platform games over the last year, but where I've had a choice, it has always gone to the 360, and that is simply because of the controller - if Sony really want to compete for my money, they've got to sort their controls out.

With all the success of the Wii over the past couple of years, it has to be blindingly obvious just how important control systems are. I personally dislike the Wii controls a great deal, but many millions more decided they liked it, or at least thought it offered something interesting to them. I think the Wii controller will turn out to be the downfall of the Wii in the long run. Much has been made of the Wii's long term future and I'm certainly not going to go into all the arguments, for or against here.

My problem with the Wii controls, again focuses around the precision they offer, or rather, they don't offer. There can be no argument over that really, even Nintendo have admitted that their controls are not as precise as they originally intended. The result of this is that many games I've played on the Wii, have been decided over who aimlessly waggles hardest. If things don't change, the console runs the risk of being completely relegated to the category of novelty toy. Therefore, a lot of people are eagerly awaiting the Motion Plus add-on, to finally offer them the control precision they desire.

Personally I think it is too late for these add-ons to make a difference. People have already had to spend a lot of money buying their Wii controllers and nun-chuks in most cases several of them, to allow for the party gaming that is the consoles forte. Forcing people to spend yet more money on these will add insult to injury. The vast majority of their new fan base, or these "casual gamers" - can you really see them rushing out to the shops to buy these additions? I can't. That means that what the Wii offers to developers - a massive install base, is largely redundant when it comes to designing games to take advantage of the new precision controls. If they want their game to be open to the majority, they have to design it for the lowest common denominator. Nintendo have made a vast sum of money out of their new control scheme, but what saved them from obscurity, could well be huge liability in a few years time.

It is time to start wrapping this up, where do I think we are heading? Hard to say, but I see the most potential with the PS3 and 360 markets. If I was someone senior at Games for Windows Live or Nintendo, I would be investing heavily in research; specifically on how to play to my strengths and cover my weaknesses. There are a lot of issues around the PC side of things that are not related to controllers (piracy, screen size, playing environments - bedrooms instead of living rooms and the problems of having diverse hardware requirements), control is perhaps the one area that is not a real concern and new innovations are unlikely to make much of an impact.

Similarly with the Wii, they have backed themselves into a corner with their controls, changes they make are unlikely to improve their fortunes. In fact they may end up just highlighting their weaknesses, adding confusion to future games development and extra cost to new and existing players alike. They need to focus elsewhere to stay on top of things and make the best of what they've got now in order to do that.

So the two organisations that stand to make the most of building on their control methods are Sony and Microsoft. The biggest games for those consoles have mostly been first person shooters - Halo and now Killzone being the darling of each console. I've mentioned how my preference for the 360's more ergonomic controller, with slightly more precise joysticks, has strongly influenced my buying decisions, but for Sony, simply changing those areas won't be enough. They've fallen behind on control, now they need to go one step further than just levelling the playing field. I'm sure there are people in both organisations thinking long and hard on this, although I suspect they are looking too long and too hard at the Wii for inspiration. They need to play to their strengths and their strengths have been first person shooters. What platform does the first person shooter best? The PC.

Both the 360 and the Playstation can learn a lot by looking backwards, rather than forwards. Clearly a full mouse and keyboard is not going to work. The PC rules the fps, the MMOG and the strategy genre, hands down. The most lucrative being the MMOG, although there is a lot of money to be made in all these areas. There is a lot of debate around the MMOG issue, specifically on how is anyone going to compete with the mighty World of Warcraft? Well.. launch a high quality MMOG on the consoles.. obviously. The problem is, MMOGs require communication - the keyboard allows this, you can't use voice for a socially open game.. and the thought of having to listen to the kind of foul mouthed abusive children you get online, in an MMOG setting, makes me shudder. The 360 did launch a keyboard add-on for the controller, but it has a low take up and was barely advertised. There are issues with PSN and Live that would need to be addressed for handling the player volumes, but if a good MMOG were to come bundled with a simple keyboard attachment, you've won half the war.

There are also big gains to be made in the FPS and Strategy genres - even if they are making lots of money on FPS games, there is always more to be made. As above, the imprecise controls of both the PS3 and the 360 are preventing real growth for them here. Looking at the PC, the difference is in the mouse. Having a mouse for a console simply wouldn't work, how and where consoles are played is not conducive to having a flat surface at a comfortable location for the use of a mouse. Looking back on my days playing Quake 2 competitively, reminds me of one the best players in the clan I ran. He was a consistently strong "Railer", the railgun being his favourite weapon and one that required pin-point accuracy. He won competitions and consistently scored highly in top level competitions. It was a great shock to all of us, when we found out he played using a trackball.

You may not have come across a trackball in your time - they are essentially an upside down ball mouse, your thumb is used to manipulate the ball directly, rather than moving the whole unit around a pad. They were never really popular on any mainstream system - the mouse is generally more comfortably and intuitive to use. What they were designed for and what they are used for now, is for allowing precise control, in areas where space is limited - typically industrial and military systems. What else can you think of where space is limited but precise control is desirable? Oh yes.. a gamepad.

Sony.. Microsoft.. one of you surely has got to make a move on the control front - replacing that right joystick with a trackball has got to be a no brainer? There may be some issue here I'm not aware of, that prevents a trackball working in a gamepad type environment? Even if the trackball is a terrible idea, I would hope that thinking about this, demonstrates just how important the design of that piece of plastic in our hands is. There must be a lot of simple ideas out there that have great potential that have not been taken up, I just hope that all the fuss about the Wii, doesn't delay their introduction and end up hurting the core gaming industry as a whole.

I'd love to hear feedback from other gamers on this issue - preferably of the non rabid fan boy variety. Do you think this issue is important? Are there solutions you have thought of that seem to be inexplicably missing currently? Motion controls - good or bad? I know a few people that have quite strong opinions and ideas in this area, so there must be plenty of others out there - in fact a thanks to Ryan for reminding me of my thoughts and opinions here!