Sunday, February 19, 2006

Design with Intent

To my mind, an odd thing seems to be re-appearing in the world of console gaming. Custom controllers and other game related peripherals. I'm not just talking about all the third party controllers, memory cards, and add-on doodads that make their appearance to lure your dollar away from the core manufacturer with minor hardware design differences. I'm talking full blown controller replacements like the Guitar Hero guitar.

This post is sort of a response to Chris Bateman's (Only a Game) second entry in February's Round Table. It's also the second idea I had for my own entry. The first one just barely made it. This one was less important (and less thought out) so it goes here. Basically, Chris talked about how a fishing rod controller for the Dreamcast made playing a fishing game not only fun, but more than just a solitary event.

For Hardware's Sake

The odd thing is that companies are still trying to design games and controllers in conjunction. Nintendo is probably the biggest proponent of the odd controller. Or at least they come to my mind first. Think back to the cool gear you could buy to extend the play experience of your Nintendo Entertainment System or SNES. I can think of two, off the top of my head. In fact, I can remember wanting both the NES Power Glove and the Super Scope 6. At the time my mind thought all about how freeing the alternate interface would be. Now, it just seems like a weird reason to build hardware.

You see, as far as I can tell, the reasoning for making the hardware in the first place was very “Field of Dreams”: build it and they will come. They being the game developers with ideas of how to use the alternate hardware for more immersive games. The problem is that this thinking is backwards. Sure, they were able to partner initially with a developer or two to produce games for the launch, but that was because they were able to bundle the games with the hardware, ensuring the sale. The Power Glove had a total of two games that were enabled to use it. The Super Scope did a bit better with a total of 12 (two came bundled with it on a single cartridge, another two used it as a bonus feature).

Some might claim that poor execution of design made the hardware difficult to use, but this is only part of the problem. It goes deeper, and has to do with the intent of the hardware. It was never designed for a specific game. It was designed to provide a certain kind of interaction. Hardware (or software) that does this is fundamentally limiting. It makes for games that fall into a particular genre, or style. It makes for un-inventive play. It also makes for a poor investment for game developers. Who wants to make a game that can only be played (or played to the fullest) on hardware that the user has to pay extra for. It makes your game cost that much more to the consumer. The initial games get bundled, but later titles either have to be re-bundled or released separate with the disclaimer that you have to go buy something else to make it work. No one wants to get a toy and find out that the screws that hold it together have to be bought separately at your local hardware store. So, hardware designed for the sake of hardware (with games in mind later) doesn't work.

Well, there is one notable exception. The Nintendo DS. But this is a very odd case because Nintendo has done two main things. Firstly, they have provided a standard interface, so if you want to design a game and ignore the weird touchy-feely screen in the center, you can. The second is that the odd hardware is part of the underlying platform. There are no extra bits needed. So designing for it is a free option. If you look at the early lineup of games, few truly caught onto using the touchpad to its full usefulness. Only after a few games showed what it could do, and how it could be different, did designers catch on and begin experimenting with play. And some of them still get it wrong, but at no more cost than not using it. There is no loss because the price to play is the same.

Rock Out With My Guitar

So what about hardware designed with a specific game in mind? This would be the Guitar Hero example, or the Dreamcast Fishing Rod example. Actually, this is the arcade argument. Because arcade game designers have been doing this since forever. It's actually where a lot of the in-house console controllers hail from. Let's look a bit into the history of Arcade Cabinets.

The first arcade game, Computer Space, used buttons as an interface. Pong used dials, because everything was hardware anyway, so the interface might as well be intuitive; you have to build everything anyway. We begin to see joysticks appear, followed by the trackball (in 1978). By now, the idea that you design your interface hardware to match your game became well accepted. Sure, most arcade games fall back on the staple joystick and panel of buttons, but this was because conventions allow for interchangeability and mass distribution. More creative titles always found a way to make the interaction with the user interesting.

This progressed through Light Guns (which spawned their own branch of games), steering wheels (for all that virtual racing) and even more. In recent years you would be hard pressed to walk past an arcade that did not have at least one Dance Dance Revolution machine. And for those arcades that are into the cool stuff from Japan (world leader of the odd arcade game) you'd probably also find drum machines and guitar games. There are so many more, but there isn't enough room here, and I need to get back to my point.

Hardware that is designed for a specific game is designed specifically to enhance the play of that game. Again, this is me being obvious (at this I am a master). Play of a title is so much better when you can interact with it in a way that is intuitive of the actions you are performing in the world. If you can also receive physical feedback, then you can gain a new level of control over your input. Arcade games have been using this to suck people in and keep them pumping in quarters for a couple of generations already. Make the game more interesting you can get better replay. It also just makes it more fun to play, especially in a social setting.

So why are we seeing this show up in the world of console games? There are a few reasons, but most are pretty easy to see. People have more free income to spare. Dropping $30-40 extra to get a cool piece of hardware is nothing these days. Plus, people are playing more games in a social context in their own homes. The experiences that they used to get from going to the arcade are being replaced by smaller, closer knit groups playing in someone's living room. If the neat hardware can come home, then the game is more fun to watch and play with everyone. You can get granny pulling power cords and rocking out, something you'd never see at your local game hangout.

Do the controllers do well? Sure, they work well with the titles they are designed for. Do they extend to other games? No, not usually. Sure, maybe a sequel or two, but at some point you need the new controller with the extra buttons and the new features. The game evolves and the hardware becomes obsolete as well. It is designed to narrowly support an idea; if the gameplay changes there is no room for it to change as well. Will we see this more? Sure, they are fun, they are social, and they are the arcade's natural successor.

Steer Me Right

The last class of hardware is far more generic, and genre based. This is hardware that is designed to fill a need in existing games. Thing like steering wheels, complicated joysticks, flight yokes, and anything else that allows for you to play a game better than the usual hardware you use. Gamers have been playing racing games for years. The first were, of course, on steering wheels in arcades. This made sense to the player and was intuitive, you turn the wheel and the car turns. It's like driving. But as the games moved home, they had to give up the nice hardware and replace it with, well, keyboards. Or the gamepad. Or something else that was not quite as easy to use as turning a wheel.

Gamers, initially, were of a hardcore nature. This makes them overlook the wrongs of the interface and design and extol the good. So we looked past the digital control buttons and lame finger movements in favour of the visual simulation in our own homes where we could master every corner without going broke. Modern systems have analog control sticks which are better. But nothing quite matches having a steering wheel in your hand as you screech around the blind s-curve and shave the critical 0.5 seconds off your time.

The steering wheel won't play Doom well, or let you manage your resources and defeat the Zurg any better. But if you are as interested in getting a better experience in your favourite racing game that you will spend the money on a new controller, then chances are you will play more than just one racing game in your career. So the controller fills a need for interface within a genre. By design then, it also needs to work will all racing games. It has to be designed to fulfill the needs of the user, no mater how they may change or develop. This, in my opinion, makes them just broad enough to survive.

Designers have to look at the needs of the consumers when making choices. They have to look at the spectrum of games that they are servicing, and games they might service. If they can't fill a large enough portion of the market, then something that does will take the majority of the market share. Steering wheel controllers (and their ilk) have been around for a long time. They will continue to be made (in plentiful variety) so long as they remain a viable interface for a spectrum of games. Or until a better way to drive is invented. They look to a need and fill it, and it makes them that much better.

The Next Generation

The most interesting thing to see in the next few years is what Nintendo will do. More than their competition, they are striving to innovate new ways to play games. This is at the core of their mission and at the core of their next system. We don't know much, yet, about the Revolution. But we have been given some hints, and shown the controller. The controller fascinates me,and makes me wonder what kind of innovation it will lead to. We know, for instance, that it will support real movement as an interface. It doesn't have to (like the touchpad on the DS), but there will be no extra cost to the functionality.

We also know that the main controller can be expanded by attachments. There have been pictures of an analog joystick. This makes sense, the analog stick is now firmly part of our common gaming convention. It is used for movement and view control. We understand it. But what else could be on the horizon for add-ons? I can only hope that Nintendo flings wide the doors to third-party developers and allows anyone who can to make new hardware. It could change the dynamic of design specific hardware in uncharted ways.

I see a few things happening. Initially, companies will design neat doodads for their games. Why? Just because they can; no other system has made it as possible for developers and designers to change the very interface of the home hardware. This will mean that the basket of controllers you keep will have to get a bit bigger as more games ship with extra hardware.

Next, third-party developers will make hardware that fill in interface gaps. Stuff that simply makes games easier to play. They do this all the time already, controllers with rapid-fire buttons and special toggles. This time though it could be more focused on making whole genres of games simpler to play. Lastly, there is actual room for innovation. Someone will come up with a new way to play games. They will stumble upon something that is truly better and it will change how we play games.

The last is a hope, something to keep us pushing on. Custom game hardware is not going away. It has always been a part of video games, for better or for worse. It makes games better, so long as it is designed with the right intent. Design the hardware backwards and you wind up with something that no one will buy and no one will make games for. People are looking for new ways to game, new ways to connect to their virtual worlds. The doors are open, we just need the right controller to walk us through.


The rest of the articles in February's Round Table on “Control Issues” can be found by using the drop down box below. This article was written afterwards and is not part of that listing.


  1. The Revolution SDK will cost 2 grand, which is affordable for indies. I also think it'll work well with ID (interactive drama, ID is a good concat I think), based on two interfaces I've seen.

  2. Do you have a link to more information on that? I've heard that Nintendo is traditionally very rigorous in choosing who may develop for their systems. They will not endorse (or allow the release) of games that do not achieve certain levels of quality.

    To produce a game, with any hope of distribution (which, for a platform, would be crucial) you first need to become a licensee. This process requires approval from Nintendo. See here for a basic list of things they have needed in the past. This is not really conducive to indie developers. Though, there have been games that tend that way anyhow (Cubivore, anyone?).

    The solution would be a Live-esque sort of marketplace. Developing for the open community would demand less rigorous checking of developers.

    Hmm... this gets me thinking.