The Evolution Of The Xbox Controller
GameSpot may receive revenue from affiliate and advertising partnerships for sharing this content and from purchases through links.
From Xbox (2001) to Xbox Series X
The Xbox Series X is the successor to the Xbox One, and Microsoft has big plans for it to be a substantial leap forward. The next-gen console will improve the experience of playing games in many ways with its ultra-fast SSD, support for higher frame rates, and a stronger push for 4K gaming. In addition, Series X also has unparalleled access to present and past games from the vast Xbox library with Game Pass and the newly revealed Smart Delivery feature--allowing those who purchase select games on Xbox One to upgrade to a next-gen version free of charge.
Regardless of the Xbox Series X's powerful hardware, which features a 1TB SSD and 12 teraflops of graphical horsepower, one of the most important parts of any console is the controller that players use to connect with their games. With the reveal of every console, the one thing that fans are always eager to see is the controller. Throughout its history, Microsoft has made some interesting strides in the development of its many controllers, setting a new standard for gaming on the console in the years that followed.
With this in mind, we're taking a look back at the history of Xbox and its innovative use of controllers and peripherals. Starting with the early years with the most infamous controller in Xbox history, we lead up to where we are now with the upcoming controller for the Xbox Series X.
For more on the latest with Xbox Series X, and what could be next, be sure to check out our roundup of the latest announcements.
- Sam Lake On Alan Wake 2: "There Was Never A Time When I Felt Like It Would Not Happen"
- Cyberpunk 2077 1.5 Patch Notes Reveal What's New In The Massive 50 GB Update
- New Xbox Store Sales Discount Classic Games And Horror Gems
- The Halo Story So Far -- Catch Up Before Halo Infinite
- Where To Find Candy In Fortnite
- Halo Creator Shows Off Unreleased Weapons From Combat Evolved
- Cyberpunk 2077 1.23 Patch Notes Include A Lot Of Bug Fixes
- Xbox's Free Play Days Continues With 3 New Xbox Titles You Can Play For Free This Weekend
- Apparently, I'm An Xbox Bro Now
- Fortnite: Catch Fish At Camp Cod, Lake Canoe, Or Stealthy Stronghold Locations
The Xbox Controller AKA "The Duke" | Release Date: November 15, 2001
The controller that would define the early years of the Xbox came about as a compromise. Former Xbox designer Seamus Blackley, whose previous works include Looking Glass Studios' System Shock and Thief, and artist/designer Denise Chaudhari produced the initial concepts for the original Xbox's controller. The features of the controller possessed many aspects from the latest trends in gaming around the turn of the millennium, which included two analog sticks, an 8-way directional d-pad, six face buttons, two analog triggers, and two slots for add-ons like memory cards. Due to a variety of factors, which mostly point to bulky internal parts, the released controller was a noticeably large device, which would give the console something of a negative reputation.
While it was known as just the Xbox controller, the device would receive many unofficial names over the years. The one that stuck was "The Duke," which was named after project manager Brett Schnepf's son. In an article from engadget breaking down the history of the original controller several of Xbox's key architects detailed the key moments leading up to the launch of the console. During production, talks with Japanese manufacturer Mitsumi Electric--which produced the PlayStation 2's DualShock 2-- fell through, which meant that potential designs that were smaller weren't possible to produce prior to the US launch. Microsoft went forward with a design that was ultimately more bulky and larger in size compared to other controllers on the market.
When the console and the controller were revealed at CES 2001, with both Microsoft head Bill Gates and former wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson introducing the new hardware, all eyes were glued to the device meant for the player's hands. The original Xbox controller would not only go on to become infamous for its massive size, but it would also become the Guinness world record holder at the time for the largest gaming controller ever. Despite the reception that the controller would have at launch, it did find an audience of players who took a liking to the added size, making it more of a comfortable fit for them compared to the more compact Dual Shock or GameCube controllers.
In 2018, the massive controller had a minor resurgence when Microsoft and third-party manufacturer Hyperkin issued a re-release of the controller for modern Xbox consoles and PC, allowing fans of the console and the original controller to relive the early Xbox days. While The Duke was the controller that most players got to experience with the Xbox in its first year, the Japanese market would see a different controller when the console launched in 2002.
The Xbox Controller S | Release Date: February 22, 2002 (JPN) / Spring 2002 (US/EU)
Following the reception from the Xbox's launch, which saw heavy criticism for a sparse selection of games and a bulky, oversized controller, Microsoft went forward with plans for a more compact and approachable device for its launch in Japan. Codenamed the "Akebono," the Xbox Controller S was closer to the intended design for the console's main controller. Compared to "The Duke," the controller was a bit more slender and sleak. It also repositioned the black and white auxiliary buttons to the bottom of the controller and made the trigger buttons more loose, making it a bit mor. It was also generally a more comfortable controller to handle compared to the original. This device would see its first release in Japan at the launch of the console in Spring 2002. While the Xbox would eventually be considered a failure in Japan throughout its lifetime, the Controller S was viewed favorably by critics and consumers. Because of this, Microsoft made plans to bring the controller to Western markets.
The Xbox had a remarkable killer-app with Bungie's Halo: Combat Evolved, yet the console struggled for much of its first year due to the lackluster library and the stigma with its oversized hardware. The second and third year of Xbox would be a turning point, which saw more high-profile console exclusives like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Microsoft eventually lowered the price of the console and made the Controller S the new standard controller. Combined with the budding online infrastructure of Xbox Live taking shape, the console would go on to find success with its second wind, and Microsoft took this momentum into the next console generation.
The Xbox 360 Controller | Release Date: November 22, 2005
The compact and sleek Controller S for the original Xbox would lay the groundwork for all future Xbox controllers. Releasing more than a full year before the Playstation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 would become a massive success, ensuring that the console was at the forefront of public consciousness for the then-next-gen. Speaking to the design of the controller, it added some fundamental changes such as turning the Xbox's black and white buttons into additional shoulder buttons for the 360. Moving away from the previous controller's use of slots, a new audio plug-in for headsets and other add-ons like the messenger kit was placed on the bottom of the controller. The 360 controller also came in both wired and wireless variants, the latter of which used disposable batteries to power the device.
The real game-changer of the controller was the guide button placed in the center of the device. With four LED lights around the circular 360 logo, it would not only signify which player number you were by a single lit quadrant, but it would also flash when the batteries would begin to run low. The guide button itself was tied to the next-gen experience of the 360, allowing players to travel the console's hub to check up on friends, switch to other games, and interact with different apps on the console, such as the Xbox Marketplace and the budding movie-streaming service Netflix. Unlike the original Xbox, the standard 360 controller would last throughout the console's 11-year lifespan, even with the launch of the upgraded console, the Xbox 360 S.
Another part of the controller's legacy was its impact on PC gaming. With the continued rise of its gaming division, Microsoft sought to create a bridge between consoles and the PC marketplace with Games for Windows, bringing the Xbox experience to PC. With the 360 controller, users could plug the device into Windows-based PCs via USB or a wireless dongle. While many games on the GFW service were traditional PC games meant to be played with a keyboard and mouse, other titles came from the 360 library, like Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto IV, which were more optimized for controllers. Games for Windows would ultimately be short-lived, yet the 360 controller, which was pushed heavily for the service on PC, would go on to be a popular alternative to the keyboard and mouse setup for PC games. Beginning with the 360 controller, all subsequent Xbox controllers would be usable on both Xbox consoles and Windows-based PCs, making the Xbox-branded devices one of the more popular alternatives to the keyboard and mouse.
Kinect | Release Date: November 4, 2010
Kinect was Microsoft's first attempt to capitalize on the success of the motion gaming craze in the wake of the Nintendo Wii's release. Initially called Project Natal, the device was eventually called Kinect, which was a mixing of the words 'connect' and 'kinetic.'. Released nearly five years after the launch of the Xbox 360, Kinect was an advanced camera, audio, and motion-tracking device that would plug into the console. It allowed players to use gestures and voice commands to activate the console's features and games. This hands-free and full-body approach to motion-gaming was a significant departure from the traditional format that general audiences were used to, which added a certain mystique to the new piece of hardware.
Kinect aimed to give players more direct and natural control of games, without the need for physical hardware serving as the input--the user was the controller. At its launch in 2010, Kinect released many exclusive games, such as Kinect Adventures and Harmonix's Dance Central, which were among the more accessible games available. Kinect had a successful launch and garnered praise for its advanced functionality, but the device would receive criticism for its complicated setup and the troubleshooting steps to resolve issues. Kinect wouldn't outright replace the controller, but it did supplement the 360 experience. Several mainstream and traditional games included added Kinect functionality, and Microsoft would continue with this dual-pronged approach of motion-gaming and traditional gameplay into the next wave of new consoles.
The Xbox One Controller | Release Date: November 22, 2013
With the Xbox One, Microsoft positioned the console as the nexus for all entertainment in the user's home. Like for the console's predecessor, the Xbox One controller--along with the compassion peripheral the Kinect--would be the main way to dive into the different pillars of the console. The original Xbox One controller would stick closely to the design of the 360's controller, yet it featured many improvements focusing on the areas of player input and feedback. In addition to improved response times of the button inputs and analog sticks, it included haptic feedback for the triggers, adding more a kick when playing games from the shooter and racing genres. The device also included access to more features that allowed players to capture images and record gameplay on their console, letting players share that content with friends online.
However, one change that would draw the ire from longtime Xbox users would be the downgrade of the d-pad, which brought back the design to the classic + shape. In a 2013 article from VentureBeat, Xbox general manager Zulfi Alam stated that the reason for this change was to offer more precise inputs on the d-pad by having more dedicated buttons for up, down, left and right, as opposed to the tilting disc-style d-pad from its predecessor. Like the 360 controller, the Xbox One's device was usable on consoles and Windows-based PCs.
Kinect on Xbox One | Release Date: November 22, 2013
The launch of the Xbox One also saw an upgraded version of the 360's Kinect. While the previous Kinect was an optional add-on for the 360, the peripheral came packed with launch-era Xbox One units and was a mandatory part of the console throughout its first year. The peripheral featured an improved camera and motion-sensing technology, making it easier to distinguish between different individuals in the room. It also offered improved voice commands, allowing users to activate the console by saying "Xbox on," or saying the name of the application you want to switch over to--such as the popular Netflix. However, it would still run into the same issues with its predecessor's overly sensitive user tracking and sound tech, which made it somewhat cumbersome for the average user to get accustomed to. In a particularly odd case, Microsoft's Xbox One commercials touting the voice features of the Kinect would unintentionally activate consoles for viewers who owned the system. This raised concerns about privacy from the press and consumers alike about the nature of the Kinect's constant use of recording video and audio, which likely steered people away from the console altogether.
At the console's reveal event in May 2013, Microsoft outlined plans for the Xbox One and Kinect, which included the need for the Xbox One to be connected online at all times to utilize the features of the system--even for features that didn't use an online connectivity. But after online backlash following the reveal of the console, this requirement was dropped before its launch. This would end up being the first step toward the demise of the Kinect, which needed the online connectivity to send feedback to Microsoft engineers for updates. Due to the negativity surrounding the Xbox One at launch, which featured a lackluster launch line-up and steep launch price at $500, the company would pivot to making the console more accessible. Microsoft would eventually drop the Kinect from the Xbox One's packaging to lower the price to $399 in the console's second year. Presented as an optional peripheral, consumers favored the controller, and fewer games utilized Kinect functionality. In 2017, Microsoft would end production of new units for the Kinect on Xbox One.
Xbox Elite Controller | Release Date: October 27, 2015
The Xbox One found steady success following its second wind after dropping the Kinect. Microsoft revealed the first iteration of the Xbox Elite Controller at E3 2015. As a more advanced version of the traditional controller, the Elite featured a rubberized grip and a customizable d-pad that could swap in an 8-way input, along with added haptic-feedback triggers, interchangeable analog sticks, hair-lock triggers, and paddles on the rear of the controller. These additional paddles could be tuned in the Xbox One's interface, allowing players to program the functions for each. It would go on to become a solid success for Microsoft, finding a following with enthusiast users looking for more ways to customize their way of play.
Xbox One S Controller | August 2, 2016
In 2016, Microsoft released the console's first revised model, the Xbox One S. In addition to a smaller console itself, the standard controller also saw an upgrade. While mostly similar to its predecessor, the Xbox One S controller added Bluetooth connectivity, allowing it to sync up with additional devices and with Windows-based PCs without the need for a wireless adapter. Available in white, black, and additional colors, the S controller would become the new standard for Xbox One consoles going forward. In 2019, iOS and Android added controller support for the bluetooth enabled Xbox One controllers.
Xbox One Adaptive Controller | Release Date: September 4, 2018
In 2018, Microsoft would release the company's most unique controller in its history. The Adaptive Controller was an experiment that presented a device that was fine-tuned to offer players with a wide range of disabilities the means to engage with more games on the market. Developed in collaboration with charities supporting people with disabilities, including AbleGamers Foundation, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Craig Hospital, SpecialEffect, and Warfighter Engaged, the controller had extensive customization options, allowing users to add on additional peripherals and modules to the controller to allow for comfort and ease of access to mechanics. The Adaptive Controller is a device that's usable on the Xbox One and on Windows-based PCs.
With a standard d-pad and face buttons, the centerpiece of the Adaptive Controller was two massive buttons that could function for whatever the player wanted. Shortly after its release, Time Magazine named the Adaptive Controller the best technological innovation of the year. In the time since its release, developers have continued to offer support for the device. Most recently, Blizzard Entertainment announced that World of Warcraft would support the Adaptive Controller, giving players with disabilities more means to jump into the MMO on PC.
Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2: Release Date: November 2, 2019
Microsoft would release a more advanced version of the popular Elite controller in 2019, known as the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2. Sticking closely to the original design, the second version of the Elite controller added even more ways to customize the device. In addition to altering the analog sticks--letting users alter tension and pressure for each stick--the upgraded controller included Bluetooth support and multiple profile settings, which saved unique configurations for users. Taking cues from the Xbox One S controller, the Elite 2 also included Bluetooth functionality, offering users the means to connect with additional devices and pair to consoles and PC wirelessly.
Xbox Series X Wireless Controller | Release Date: Holiday 2020
The new controller for Microsoft's Xbox Series X continues nearly 20 years of development. According to the official Xbox Series X website, the new wireless controller will feature textured grips and triggers, an enhanced hybrid d-pad, and a standalone share button--allowing you to save screenshots and videos of your game sessions and upload them online. While the Xbox One had the option to share video and screenshots from your sessions, this is the first time an Xbox controller will have its own dedicated button for saving and sharing content on the controller for it. The newest controller will also feature continued USB and Bluetooth support, making it usable for PC and even the current Xbox One as well.