Controller Design: Ergonomics pt.7
Monday, August 22, 2011 at 10:59PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Clean Design, Dynamics, Learning, Motivation, & The Mind, Mechanics, Skill, Super Smash Brothers, Variation

part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5. part 6.

With the terms established in part 6, we can now look at a theoretical player. Let’s call this player Theo, who loves to play FPSs (get it? Aiming reticle). To sync up with, focus in, or to become immersed with gameplay, Theo looks for a continuous stream of action-reaction pairs. As soon as Theo feels the buttons depress under his fingers, he looks to the game to give him the feedback. Depending on Theo’s knowledge of the game and his expectations, Theo will anticipate certain reactions while filtering out other stimuli. For example, when Theo presses the trigger, he ignores all the HUD elements around the sides of the screen. He does this to focus on where his shots land. Already Theo’s interactions are quite complex.

Upon repeated tests, the biggest determinants of how precise or responsive a mechanic feels to a player is the software side of the mechanics design and feedback design, not the controller design. Yes, the input devices shape our expectations initially, but mechanics and feedback design make up the vast majority of influential elements. When the feedback we receive goes against what we anticipate, that's when there's a problem. When gameplay interactions have hundreds of complexities (rules) that govern the outcome, there's certainly more potential in the code for the player to mis-anticipate than with the controller. Though the devices I analyzed in this series range from simple (the button) to very complex (voice and motion controls) the complexities involved with these devices are just the tip of the iceburg compared to the complexity of emergent gameplay. Think about it this way, you can hit one button in Smash Brothers and yet activate an attack that has 23+ complexities involved!

Notice how each number hits differently. 5 = fire. 6 = electric. 7 = food. 8 = ice. 9 = death. 

For example, Mr.Game&Watch's side+B attack in Super Smash brothers is the JUDGE hammer. Activate the move, and a random number between 1 and 9 is chosen, which determines how strong the attack is. A player who doesn't understand how JUDGE works may think it's imprecise. After all, something different happens every time. Furthermore, the various numbers have different shield stun, knock back, and other effects (see data here). These differences can go a long way in throwing off your timing and therefore your feelings of how responsive the mechanics of the game are. Refer to the 2nd and 3rd part of the article series Complex Time Simplified for a detailed analysis of how players can develop a warped sense of time with fighting games based on their expectations and design features like hit stun.

The responsiveness of mechanics inherently depends on a game's feedback. Keeping in mind how reflexes work, we know that sound effects are the type of stimulus recognized most quickly by the brain. Technically touch (rumble) is faster but this communication channel gets easily overloaded. So, regardless of how fast a controller input registers in the system, it can be more important to the player for some kind of sound effect to play as soon as soon as possible. Without proper audio/visual cues players have to basically memorize scenarios and interactions one by one. 

In a similar way, the more complex a game and its mechanics are, the more information players have to analyze and strategize with to continually perform better at increasingly difficult challenges. With any learning task, expectations and attitude are huge factors. Sometimes this information is about how gameplay actions interact with level elements. Sometimes it's about gameplay dynamics. But sometimes players have to study and experiment with how they manipulate the controller. While this is a perfectly legitimate way to design a gameplay challenge, many players think otherwise.

For one reason or another some gamers see having to study or practice a game as a flaw. This is especially true for studying and practing controller manipulation, which is negatively referred to as performing "finger gymnastics." Such gamers who feel like they have mastered holding and manipulating a particular controller tend to become irritated or offended when a game requires that they upgrade their skills. They also think that because they have mastered some other control scheme for some other type of game, they shouldnt' have to learn any other way for any other game. Such views somewhat foolishly try to separate gameplay and emergent strategy from the foundation that is controller and mechanics design. I explore this topic of controller standards and controller feel in greater detail in part 8. 

We all know that just because you hit a button that doesn't mean the corresponding action will activate in a video game. There are all kinds of modes, stances, and limited states (like hit stun) that prevent certain actions from activating at specific times. Though potentially troublesome when trying to design clean games, cancels will certainly give a game a more responsive feel simply due to their nature. To reiterate, instead of limiting the use of another move until the first move times out, cancels cut in and activate right when the player inputs the move. The more cancels in a game, the more likely the mechanics will respond exactly when the player inputs and according to what the player expects. You can see how such a design can feed positively back to the player. When players don't have to worry about when and how they'll be locked into animations, the player's expectations are met and feelings of mastery and control are soon to follow. Cancelable mechanics is perhaps why many players feel more competent with a combat system like in God of War or Devil May Cry versus Bomberman or Zelda. 

If your goal is to design mechanics so that players quickly feel completely in control, then know that controller input devices shape player expectations first. When we see buttons we anticipate individual actions. With analog sticks we anticipate varying degrees of actions; e.g. with slight touches we look for subtle reactions. With touch screens we anticipate direct control and visuals that respond to our specific touches. With pointers, we expect the system to keep up with our hands which race to keep up with our eyes. We expect microphones to work just as well as human ears. And we expect motion controls to capture real life motions. Whether you embrace these expectations, ignore them, or meet the player half way, know that regardless more complex games create more complex adjustment and learning processes for the player.

So to conclude this part of the article series, let's revisit my criteria for evaluating video game mechanics. A mechanic's directness is largely an issue of ergonomics in which we examine how the potential physical manipulation of the controller influences player behavior and expectations. The intuitiveness of a mechanic is a measure of how ergonomics and learned behavior align with the complexities (specific rules/parameters) of the mechanic. Being believable or relatable are also considerations in this category. A mechanic’s dynamic quality looks entirely at the software side of a system and the emergent possibilities (how the mechanic interacts with other elements). And a mechanic's individuality considers its cleanness, which is important for sustaining clear action-reaction pairs between inputs and outputs so that the trial and error process of self teaching goes more smoothly.

I can’t think of anything to add to my 4 part criteria of mechanics design. I was onto the right track over three years ago. There's still much more about controller design to discuss. In part 8 we’ll consider controller function versus feel and how controller design innovation isn’t always about more sensitive technology.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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