Controller Design: Function vs Feel pt.8
Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 11:05PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Controller Design, Misc Design & Theory

part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5. part 6. part 7.

The video game industry rides the technology wave of the future. Our industry not only adopts high end technologies, but we push the wave along with our billions of dollars. For example, the demand for PS3s creates a demand for multi-cell processors, which go into mass production, which brings down the price and feeds the industry. From glassessless 3D screens to higher resolution monitors to ultra sensitive controllers, video games help bring the future home. It's time to start asking ourselves some tough questions about this curious relationship.

Do we need to ride this technology tsunami? "Need" is a very loaded term. Certainly Super Mario Bros. only needs NES hardware and it's one of the greatest games of all time. And I personally believe that intelligent design is only minimally limted by hardware. So, maybe we shouldn't ask ourselves if we "need" to ride the wave but what we want from technology. The hardcore technologist theory is a unique theory that works to explain the core driving force behind the demands "hardcore" gamers. According to this theory the hardcore gamer is not most devoted to gameplay experiences, quality game design, or artistic expression. Rather, the hardcore gamer is most devoted to technology. The faster, more powerful, thinner, lighter, and brighter, the better. And for controller technology, fewer wires, longer charges, new sensors, and more sensitivity is what the hardcore gamers have gravitated toward. Even if you don't fully accept the theory, it is useful for framing the struggle of two ideologies in the realm of gaming controllers. The issue is between controller function and feel.



Function vs Feel 

In the previous article of this series I thoroughly explained how the bulk of mechanics design is in the software. I also explained how player expectations play an important part of the player experience at every step. With this in mind I considered how sensitive controllers have to be. As I've outlined previously, modern games use the sensitivity of various current generation controllers to varying degrees. In some cases analog sticks have been programmed to function like a button. Or in other cases the sensitivity range of input is divided into a few, easy to discern stages (e.g. tip-toe, walk, power walk, run). Put simply, mechanics are often times not designed to use the maximum sensitivity of their controllers. Likewise, there are very few games that use every button and analog trigger, stick, and sensor on a controller to the fullest.  

From a hardware designer's perspective, designing controllers with many features with large sensitivity ranges is a great way to create a controller that's compatible with many types of games. But from a game designer's perspective, the sensitivity, speed, and even precision of inputting (function) may not be most important. Controller feel, the feeling of manipulating a particular controller, is a frequently overlooked aspect of controller design that can be just as important as function.


image by restlesswillow

In terms of gameplay challenges there are 3 ways to challenge a player; moral-emotionally, physically, and mentally. Gamers with a preference for non-voilence might have a very difficult time playing a game like God of War. Or, players might struggle with the idea of taking time out of their holidays to play Animal Crossing. These example fall under the moral-emotional category. Inputting into all gaming controllers falls into physical category. The sub facets of dexterity skill cover this category thoroughly. And all the rest of one's DKART skills fall under the mental category. Any one of these methods is a perfectly legitimate way to design a video game challenge. Yet, some players only want and respect mental challenges. Controller feel falls under physical, yet there is more to it than just ergonomics.

Controller feel includes everything from the physical act of pressing buttons to more engaging motion controls. It includes holding the RUN button and rocking the thumb over to JUMP in Super Mario Bros. It includes spinning the control stick and hitting A to spin attack in Zelda. And it's the distinct feel of inputting Street Fighter special attacks. Controller feel is the result of a designed control scheme and the emergent sequences, combinations, techniques, and grips players develop to play. Some mechanics are designed more intuitively than others so that everything meshes. Flying as racoon Mario in Super Mario Bros. 3 is a great example. Having to repeatedly hit the button to ascend matches the feel of inputting with the fiction. 

Mechanics design isn't necessarily about making mechanics that are as easy for players to execute as possible. Games with little to no dexterity challenge (mostly turn-based games) are generally designed with easy to execute mechanics, but for most games the potential is wide open for supporting easy to nearly-impossible-to-execute moves. Obviously, game designers have to take input difficulty into account when they balance their games. Sometimes the controller feel is prioritized over function. Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, and Rock Band are perfect examples. These games can be played with a traditional gaming controllers, which some gamers find easier to use. But most who play these games greatly prefer playing on the specialized instrument controllers. The feel of holding a guitar like object or actually hitting drums cannot be matched on a traditional controller. I feel the same way about Donkey Kong Jungle Beat's bongo controller. Virtual On's twin stick set up. Steel Battalion's legendary controller. Or even the classic toy Etch 'n' Sketch. As a graphite and pen&ink artist, drawing with this toy severely handicaps my abilities. But there's nothing else that feels quite like the dual knob drawing. 

Bringing the conversation to Nintendo, I feel that I have a good understanding of how Miyamoto and his co-workers design games. With a history as toy and card game manufacturers, Nintendo developers put a high priority on the uniqueness and novelty of controller feel and gameplay experiences. In the Iwata Asks interviews, Nintendo developers describe sharing hardware prototypes with each other driven by the "oh, well isn't this neat" factor. Just being a neat interactive experience seems to be enough for Nintendo to develop a game around the feeling. So, it doesn't surprise me that Nintendo has a long history of not adopting the highest end technology modules simply for the sake of keeping up with the tech wave. They act differently because they think differently from the DSi/3DS low resolution cameras, the lack of a "W" button on the Gamecube controller (opposite the Z button), the Virtual Boy, the lack of multi-touch support on the Wii U controller, to the vitality sensor.


Controller Standards

I've never been a big fan of game design "laws" or rules of thumb presented in absolute terms. For example, "never not reward the player for exploring an area." In general I can easily think of counter examples where a successful game breaks such "rules." And secondly, I'm not comfortable with limiting the scope of what a video game can do and how it can do it by default. Even on this blog, I try to explain the effects of design decisions and how they may cause unwanted or unpopular consequences down the line. With that said, I want to address the topic of controller standards.

I do not believe there should be standards to the way games map mechanics to controller inputs. Even if an FPS ends up having the same configuration as Modern Warfare or Halo with a max of two weapons, red exploding barrels, and regenerating health, I would like for the developers to have chosen these conventions because they couldn't find a better alternative. One of the best arguments for controller standards is the control scheme of the best or most popular game becomes a kind of common language. Such a control scheme then influences the actions and expectations of players especially for games in the same genre. So, instead of forcing players to learn a new language for each game, why not tap into what they already know. It's less about being original and more about ergonomics.

My counter argument to controller standards is best addressed in part 9 where we'll look at the topics of customizable controls and controller redundancy.  

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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