A Potted History of Video Game Controllers

The launch of the Wii U and most recently the PS4 announcement has reminded us how important controllers are.

They define the games we play, far more than the actual black boxes powering those games.

When interviewed by the Guardian, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida (the president of Sony’s Worldwide Studios), made it clear that for him there was no problem that the actual PS4 was hidden from view, as the priority was the controller and how it will allow us to play in new (and familiar) ways.

If we think back to the most recent generation, this rings true with the Wii and it’s remote styled motion controller. The abilities of the controller opened up new opportunities, but the form factor too made a huge difference. The narrow, ‘pointer’ friendly shape, mixed with motion controls and IR based targeting encouraged a plethora of games which offered gameplay built around those possibilities.

However, controller innovation did not start with the Wii. Let’s take a potted look back in history….

The Computer Keyboard:

Yes the trusty QWERTY keyboard has always had a place for gaming. The earliest games were on old school ‘server like’ systems at defence buildings and universities. They were controlled via keyboards and games were developed for them. Nowadays a quality mouse and keyboard is still seen as the pinnacle of control for PC gamers (even though many are starting to use console controllers with their PC setups). In addition the home of the MMO is still the PC due to the keyboard (and mouse).

Paddle for PONG:

Pong was the first proper, mainstream console game for the home. It was a simple, top down, 2D version of tennis (well kinda). You moved a knob left and right to move your on screen ‘bat’ up and down the screen. It was simple, and the controller was purpose built for the gameplay. It was limited in that it could only be used for Pong and it showed that controllers were key to gameplay.

Atari 2600 Joystick:

This is the joystick that the masses remember. Sleek with an omni-directional control stick. The unit also had a trigger button and opened up arcade style gaming at home. The style was widely copied, such as onto the popular Spectrum series of computers. However as time and the complexity of games increased Commodore and Spectrum gamers demanded more. They got more.

The Competition Pro 5000:

It had two buttons for choice and an extra sturdy and solid control stick. This became the choice for many home computer enthusiasts as it could take a good bashing (still a quality people look for in their controllers). Other varieties became available, ideal for slight sims and shooters such as the Quickshot Pro

SpeedKing:

Out of the Commodore 64/Speccy/Amiga generation one of the joysticks which is remembered fondly is the good old Speedking. This was unique for it’s time as it offered a control stick in the palm of the hand. No more placing the controller, with suction points, on a table. This sat in the palm of your hand and offered precise control. Once again, build quality was really impressive, with the trigger quite literally being placed under your trigger finger. Many of the ingredients in current console controllers can be referenced to the SpeedKing.

Famicon:

Nintendo through their Game and Watch range and home consoles, such as the NES introduced the Dpad. This steered away from the idea of a control stick, hence avoiding the size (and associated production costs) with a micro-switched pad which you could rest your thumb on. For platformers (Nintendo’s speciality) it offered a precise and exact form of control, with the right hand having access to two buttons, an A and B, increasing types of actions players could execute within the gameplay.

As time went on Sega produced their own versions and between them Nintendo and Sega added more buttons, to give a wider range of actions the player could trigger, emulating the arcade cabinets which by this time had many buttons accessible to the player.

N64 and Sony Dualshock:

Now we move onto familiar territory. This was the generation where control sticks came back to the mainstream. Nintendo added only one, something they would repeat in later years with the 3DS. Sony on the other hand, initially launched with none, but then altered their PS1 controller to include two, sitting side by side.

Buttons increased on the front, and triggers were added on the rear. FPS games already existed a-plenty on PCs, using mouse and keyboard solutions. Whilst the dual sticks were never considered by purists as nearly as accurate, they did allow these types of games to make their way to consoles. Quake 2 on PS1 is a great example. The Dual stick also led to the third person shooter, which started on the PS1 generation but came to the fore with the PS2 onwards.

Microsoft and Gamecube:

When the Xbox was released it introduced two control sticks, with the layout being offset (similar to how we produce our own Gioteck controllers). The overall shape of the controller was similar to the failed Dreamcast (perhaps as Microsoft were involved in the Dreamcast), but the size was huge. It was so huge that you would think that it would replace the harp in the gamers version of Jack and the Beanstalk. This was a huge problem for the launch of the device in size conscious Japan. Microsoft soon replaced it with the controller S (s for sensible perhaps), which bar a few buttons which have been lost on the 360 controller, is easily recognisable today as an Xbox controller.

The Gamecube also launched with offset control sticks and was a superb and light controller. It’s crime though was not having enough shoulder triggers to allow the full range of FPS games being made available on PS2 and Xbox to easily convert to the world of Nintendo. This was an example of a great controller, which didn’t innovate, but also didn’t keep up and hence locked Nintendo OUT of certain gameplay styles.

Present day:

Clearly the Wii controller unlocked a lot of potential. It allowed ways of playing games which had never been approached before, or in some cases referenced the earliest types of controllers such as the Pong Paddle or the Amiga joypad. Turned on it’s side it also mimicked a traditional Famicon/NES setup which so many consumers still knew and understood how to use. It was so successful it led Sony to develop its competing (but ultimately failed) ‘Move’ technology (which is being built into the PS4 in a different format) and Microsoft to release…..

Kinect:

Kinect was interesting. One of the reasons why the Wii controller was so successful was in part due to the ability of the technology to empower the gamer. The gamer could play the game as they would in the real world. Hence bowling was very similar to bowling a real ten pin bowling ball, or swinging in a golf game was very similar to actually swinging a real golf club.

Microsoft took the lesson one step further. Why hold anything? Why not just become the controller? To be honest whilst the implementation was very different, the concept had already been brought to the market as part of the PS2 ‘Eyetoy’.

As with all cutting edge tech, the marketing was ahead of the ability of Kinect to deliver and whilst Kinect dance games have done well, the technology has failed to offer the level of control promised. Kinect completely missed it’s target at bringing ‘motion based’ control to hardcore gamers whilst the ‘casual’ and youth market are more involved in tablet based gaming. Yet, with the soon to be announced successor to the Xbox, Microsoft are sure to increase the ability of Kinect to meet the original marketing speech. Peripheral eye movement during FPS games? Finger based motion? The ability to use it whilst sitting down – you’d think that would have been in version one – but it was a ‘stand up only’ device!

Touch Screens:

We are mentioning touch screens as their own format, as they are now everywhere. The first time they became used in gaming, for the mainstream, was with the Nintendo DS. There was a time when phones did not have touch screens! It wasn’t the first of course, Apple’s Newton and Palm’s devices had always had basic games on them. However the Nintendo DS allowed a much greater fidelity and accuracy, along with the games and graphics one would expect from a gaming system. The DS also allowed you to use a touch screen alongside traditional buttons and a Dpad.

Since the DS, we have seen the explosion of touch screen phones and the rise of the tablet. This has resulted in new gameplay mechanics (Angry Birds for example) or in some cases new workarounds as people try to bring traditional games to touch devices where they don’t really belong (virtual control sticks being one awkward solution).

Ironically the impact of the touchscreen has resulted in the traditional console companies now incorporating them into their offering. The Nintendo WiiU has a touchscreen at the heart of it’s controller. The PS4 will have a small touchpad (not screen) on it’s new Dual Shock. Microsoft already allow the 360 to work with tablets and it’s sure to increase this functionality with it’s new consoles.

What Next?

Well the controls will keep evolving, and the gameplay will keep adapting. With the costs associated with making top quality games spiralling out of control, it’s important for developers to try to have a commonality between systems. Hence if one platform differs (and it seems all three will) it will be important that any customisations are easy to implement and cheap to adhere to. Meanwhile the base functionality of the controller must be standard. Hence the new Dual Shock will work like the old Dual Shock if the developer chooses, and the WiiU pad can also be a Dual Shock style controller. Nintendo has even gone one step further by supporting an old style ‘Pro-Controller’ for FPS games.

Advancements with the world of Kinect or its competitor Leap will improve motion control. Touch screens are not going anywhere and there is now technology which can ‘raise’ the glass to give tactile control and then lower again when not required on the fly. Meanwhile the traditional Dual Shock or Xbox (with offset control sticks) along with a mouse and keyboard will be here for many years to come.

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