Controller Design: Recap & Rebuttals pt.10
Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 9:44AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Balance, Controller Design, Interesting Choices, Interplay, Metagame, Misc Design & Theory, Skill, Variation

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. 





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. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
See website for complete article licensing information.