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Controller Design: Recap & Rebuttals pt.10

part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7. part 8. part 9.

We've come a long way since the beginning of this article series. A lot was discussed, so here's a recap. 


  • Controller design is a part of mechanics design, which is the foundation of video gaming (an interactive medium). The word "controls" refers to the physical input device or method. While the word "mechanic" refers to the hardware-software bridge of player actions.
  • [Good] controller design takes into account ergonomics (player expectations) and input device pros and cons while significantly influencing the mechanics design and feedback design.


  • Buttons are the simplest input device because of their binary on and off states. The spring action helps the user know exactly when the electronic "on" signal is sent. Buttons are relative input devices that have common side effects of button-mashing and double-tapping. Buttons are great for actions that are activated and deactivated from shooting, punching, jumping, and confirming. 
  • The analog stick is a 2D relative input device that springs back into a centered neutral position. The stick is great for controlling 2D analog movement whether of characters or aiming reticles. Sticks are not so good at controlling 4 or 8 way digital movement because of a disconnect between the expectations of the stick and the actual mechanics. Dead zones, auto aim, and motion tweening are common analog stick design issues.
  • Touch screens are direct input devices that allow the user to interact with the visually displayed elements. Relying largely on hand-eye coordination, players have to focus on the elements they manipulate especially because there is no tactile feedback between an interactable elementand a non-interactive section of the screen. Stylus based touch screen controls tap into our handwriting fine motor skills for the most versatile and sensitive input method. One drawback is that the screen is obscured when in use, which gets worse with multi-touch design. 
  • Triggers are 1D analog buttons. Since their physical design falls somewhere in between a button and an analog stick, the types of mechanics that they are best mapped are somewhat limited. Considering that in real life there are few devices that utilize analog triggers, there are few in gaming.  
  • The mouse is a 2D relative pointing device with high sensitivity. By using finger and arm muscles to move the mouse, players generally have a lot of control dexterity skills to match the high sensitivity. The Wiimote and the Playstation Move areexamples of 3D direct pointing devices with high sensitivity. Typically, pointer input is coupled with buttons so that the pointer indicates and the buttons selects. The UI for pointer based controls is similar to that of touch screens.
  • Motion controls vary in complexity and technology. While tilt motion controls are fairly simple, controls that detect force and direction are harder to develop. The lack of tactile feedback of makes understanding the limits of the motions or what the controller can sense difficult. especially with no tactile feedback. Calibration is another potential issue. The pros include greater control due to more muscle involvement, high accessibility and redundancy potential (ie. you're always in position to make a motion), huge variety for new game feels, and tapping into existing motions intuitively (ie. 3D control of 3D actions and other familiar motions).
  • Microphones can tap into a more accurate and descriptive language than motion controls. And it's all hands free. Like with any other analog input device, mechanics can be designed to use a mic simply (detecting just volume or a tone) or in a highly complex way (voice commands). General issues include enunciation, word recognition library, and filtering out ambient noise. Another issue is language requires a lot of mental focus. This human limitation makes designing challenges where players have to simultaneously use voice controls and another method problematic.
  • Camera controls, like voice commands, take advanced software and processing power to achieve the same kind of precision and responsiveness as more traditional control devices. Lighting lighting and adequate space are new factors for designers and players to consider. Cameras can recognize faces, objects, motion, or any other visual element. Their versatility runs from a user sign in, to 3D controllers, to augmented reality. 


  • Precision, responsiveness, and sensitivity are the most common and most important elements of quality mechanics design. Though these elements are complicated by player expectations, the consistency and lack of delay between the player inputs and the game response is the crux of the bridge that allows the player to sync up and become immersed in a game.
  • 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 controls design.
  • Controller feel is the physical sensation of manipulating a particular controller, control scheme, command, sequence, or other input method. It can be just as important to a game's design as precision and responsiveness; or more so.
  • Controller feel is also a consideration when tweaking the difficulty of dexterity challenges. Mechanics design isn't all about making inputs as easy for the player as possible. Otherwise we wouldn't have games like Street Fighter.
  • Consider controller standards with caution. Overall, the issue is not so important because of customization options and redundancy design.
  • More often than not different control schemes for the same game merely offer a different combination of pros and cons. It's really difficult for one scheme to be superior across the boards to another in the categories of controls design (precision, responsiveness, etc.) and game feel. This is especially true because parts of these considerations are the result of player preference.


The following are rebuttals and arguments addressing popular topics concerning video game controls.


To Invert or Not to Invert



This is actually quite a sophisticated issue. I've witnessed many gamerstry to debate the topic with little success. To clarify, in many 1st and 3rd person video games (mostly shooters) the camera view and aim is controlled by a 2D input device. Some use sticks (Halo), some mice (Half-Life, TF2), some touch screens (Metroid Prime Hunters), and even buttons (Perfect Dark N64). Regardless of the input technology, there has historically been an option to invert the vertical or y-axis view controls. This means that left and right move the view left and right respectively. But with inverted controls, up moves the view downward, and visa versa. Gamers have argued that one is backwards while the other way is "normal." And despite how the options are worded in option menus (normal vs inverted) this debate is stuck in a bitter standstill.  

The answer to this quandary is not that some gamers have gotten used to flight simulator controls where down is up and up is down (as it is with real planes). Nor is the answer as simple as each person just picked a side and has gotten used to it. Rather, the solution is an issue of the ergonomics of each individual player's reference point. Imagine holding a sub machine gun with two hands. To aim this imaginary gun you could keep the gun level (parallel to the ground) and move both arms around together. If you aim this way you'll not only waste a lot of energy moving, but you'll awkwardly swing through a lot of space. This method also has a limited aiming range making it a poor option. To hit targets higher and lower to your position, it's more efficient to rotate the gun. By rotating you can keep your arms from moving so much and achieve a greater aim range. You should understand all of this from first hand experience even if you're not a fan of guns or have never held a gun.

So, here's where player point of reference comes into play. If you visualize yourself holding a gun like the on screen character, you play with inverted controls. If instead, you abstract the action of aiming so that you only focus on your aiming reticle you play with inverted off. In other words, your preference depends on whether or not you think the input device controls the hand holding the gun or the reticle sliding across the 2D screen. There is no right or wrong way. Even if you think inverted is the "right" way because imagining yourself as the game avatar seems to be the best fit, just remember that video games are abstractions.  To create a bridge between the abstract virtual world and the real world where the player exists, we learn mechanics and manipulate controllers. Each bridge is different because we make and strengthen connections naturally and somewhat randomly. In other words, we make it up and stick with what clicks for us. What matters most is whether or not the player can control the game well. Whether the player thinks the right analog stick controls the muscles in the avatar's wrist, hand, arm, or the reticle itself hardly matters. This inverted/not-inverted issue falls under ergonomics > psychology > behavior > expectations.


Shooter Controls: Mouse vs Stick



Both the mouse and the analog stick work well for shooters on the PC and consoles respectively. For proof, look to the immense popularity and financial success of the shooter genre. But if it's a question of which input device is better for shooter gameplay, we have to use a full spectrum of critical analysis to form a proper answer. At the foundation of gameplay we have controls design and mechanics design. We already know the limitations of mouse and stick input devices. Ultimately, a mouse allows for players to exert more control dexterity skill because there's no resistance when moving the device and more muscles are used to finely adjust its position. But there's more to it.

As I've explained previously, sensitivity of an input device isn't everything. The feeling of playing a game is also important. Because the feel is largely the result of how the rest of the game is programmed and the emergent possibility it allows, we have to consider how the superior sensitivity/control of a mouse influences the design of a game versus an analog stick.

It's simple really. All great shooters are tuned for balanced gameplay where, for the most part, one gun or one simple playstyle isn't the dominant strategy. So designing around an input device with high sensitivity and control, PC shooters are generally designed with quick character movement speeds. After all, if everyone moved too slowly tactics like dodging, running away, and flanking would be severely hampered because of how effectively players would be able to target each other. Though aiming may be lightening quick, shooting (or any other mechanic) isn't necessarily so. There are many factors that slow down the attack rate of players regardless of how quickly they aim. Reload times, fire rates, recoil, and slow moving ballistics are just a few of the factors that are tuned to give different weapons different timings and feels. In these ways the core gameplay of PC shooters (aiming and shooting) is tuned around the controls to allow a variety of different weapons, tactics, and strategies to exists so that beginners have to practice, experience players have fairly consistent success, and the best are near flawless.

It's the same situation with console shooters. Because aiming is a bit harder with an analog stick, aim assist is generally implemented. By no means does this feature do all the work for the player. To further tune the gameplay, the movement speed of the characters may be turned down or the damage output of the weapons turned up. Like on the PC there are shooters where you can die quickly (Call of Duty, Counter Strike) and there are shooters where you can generally take more hits (Halo, Section 8, Team Fortress). Either way, the core gameplay of these shooters (aiming and shooting) is tuned around the controls to allow a variety of different weapons, tactics, and strategies to exists so that beginners have to practice, experience players have fairly consistent success, and the best are near flawless.

From a strategy standpoint, the mouse doesn't necessarily allow any more strategy or depth than an analog stick. It's the game mechanics and the rest of the overall design (balance, interplay, variation, interesting choices) that most shapes the emergent gameplay. You can have a very accurate, precise, responsive input device and a very shallow game. Or you can have a very deep game and play on an N64 controller like my favorite FPS Perfect Dark. The more you understand how players learn, develop their skills, and how the metagame truly evolves, the easier you'll see that under fair, consistent conditions, the controls (hardware) hardly makes a difference to the strategic gameplay.

The issue of which takes more skill to use is moot as well. The reason it's moot is not because players will eventually get used to playing with either device. It's because the input device differences can only impact the dexterity part of the skill spectrum. Even without considering that both games are tuned around the pros and cons of each device, any difference between the skill floors and ceilings between mice and analog sticks would be small. After all, aiming a 2D reticle using a 2D input device isn't complicated. In general, the bulk of what it takes to be competent in an FPS is knowledge skills; then timing, reflex, adaptation, and then dexterity. Though each device tends to stress a different combination of dexterity skills, recall my theory that all competitive multiplayer games take the same amount of skill to be played continually at a high level. So between games and between devices in the same genre the differences in skill ceilings are negligible.

Personally, I prefer console style shooters because generally the slower movement and aiming makes for a much cleaner gameplay experience. As great as the mouse is, I believe that most developers leave their gameplay open to support as high a sensitivity and speed as the player wants. The way that many developers tune the gameplay to compensate for mouse controls leads to many design trends and emergent outcomes that I greatly dislike (see FPShuffle). I wouldn't design a game with options that would let players adjust their view/aim so quickly the screen it looks like a hard cut is made between looking at one thing and then the next. It's not an issue of what players want. There are many things a player may ask for or want that ultimately work against the quality of their own gaming experience. We know from my An Examination of Skill series that faster gameplay reduces the skill spectrum variety and the skill ceiling of gameplay. So I tend to avoid mouse based gameplay that detracts from a game's to cleanness, skill spectrum, and works against the shared mental state between the player and the game.


In the 11th and final part, I'll end with a few more rebuttals. 

« Controller Design: Rebuttals pt.11 | Main | Controller Design: Customization pt.9 »

Reader Comments (5)

Very interesting article and I agree with you on all points. I have been fascinated watching how people choose to invert or not invert controls for some time:

September 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

@ Rik Newman

Nice article. It's sad that you didn't get enough data, but there's always hope for the future.

September 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Hey Richard, just writing to say that (as usual) I enjoyed this series immensely.

I generally agree with your ideas regarding inverted vs. "normal" controls. You are certainly right to describe the difference as a question of perspective.

Personally, I've always preferred inverted controls but for a slightly different reason than the one you describe. I take a more general view of what is going on when you press DOWN to look UP. To me it is not the arms that are moving, but the neck. When we look up (e.g., at a skycraper) we generally need to pull our necks "back." Meanwhile, looking down (e.g., to tie our shoes) requires us to "push" our necks forward.

Therefore it makes sense to "pull-back" in order to look up in a first-person game, regardless of whether we are holding a gun, because that more closely mimics the action one would need to take in real life. I realize, of course, that this conception makes more sense when you are playing a first-person game with dual analog controls.

Tellingly, I am far more willing to compromise when it come to games that use the d-pad or mouse to determine where one is looking. Those two input-types feel a lot "flatter" to me, so the difference between inverted and normal control seems far less significant (unless we are talking about a flight game such as Pilotwings for the SNES, in which case I have trouble conceiving of the "normal" input method).

But when it comes to a dual joystick input, I'll always prefer inverted controls. Not because it makes ergonomic sense or because I got "used to it" as a kid, but because I see the second analog stick as a mini-representation of my own neck.

Hence, even if the game in question happens to be a first-person version of Harvest Moon, I'll probably choose inverted controls.

Speaking of which, what do you think of games (usually third-person Japanese games) that also offer an inverted x-axis option? I really cannot get used to that, though it makes a kind of sense if you see it as an interpretation of the "camera's" movement. Part of me also wishes that I could play like that, if only to piss off my younger, normal-control-loving friends even more!!!

September 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose



"But when it comes to a dual joystick input, I'll always prefer inverted controls. Not because it makes ergonomic sense or because I got "used to it" as a kid, but because I see the second analog stick as a mini-representation of my own neck."

Indeed. But remember, ergonomics includes your perspective and preference/expectations. So while some think they're controlling the hand, the neck certainly follows the same logic.

Inverted X-axis? I've seen this option before. If you think of camera control as pivoting around a fixed point (that point usual being the avatar) then it makes sense.

Another crazy example is the menus from Metal Gear Solid 4 and I think 3. Depending on whether you think you'er rotating the wheel or moving the cursor, the results can seem backwards.

September 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Ah very true, thanks for the clarification on ergonomics. Also, I know exactly what you mean with MGS4! That problem happens a lot on the iPhone. Usually we swipe up to move the screen down when browsing a webpage or a game menu. But some games don't follow this rule, which makes it extremely disorienting.

I'm fascinated by the concept of "camera." As far as I can tell, this idea was pioneered by--who else?--Shigeru Miyamoto and Nntendo on Mario 64. Of course, in that game, the perspective that we manipulate is LITERALLY a Lakitu's camera!

The genius behind that is breath-taking. I can imagine the Mario 64 team trying to figure out how best to explain this new perspective to players. The Problem: how to communicate to players (in a non-threatning way) that in this new versio of Mario they would have two control not one, but TWO separate entities at the same time. As if keeping Mario alive weren't hard enough, now we also have to worry about controlling the angle through which we see him. The Solution: make this invisible entity something tangible, like a Lakitu with a camera.

It is a stroke of genius that we take for granted every single time we use the word camera....I wonder if there would even be such a thing as an "inverted X-axis" were it not for Lakitu.

September 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose

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