Saturday, July 28, 2012

Building a Better Controller - XBox 360 and Sega Saturn

Designing a quality video game controller is a difficult art.  That much is certain if you spend a little time looking at the many controllers over the years, and even more so when you want to design one of your own.  What makes a particular design work?  What are the strengths and weaknesses?  And how can you create something that isn't merely a cheap ripoff?

Right now, Microsoft's Xbox 360 controller is probably the king of game controllers.  Its ergonomic design is very stylish, it's very comfortable to hold, my hands never get tired, and the symmetry allows for a clean look, which is very important for a gamepad with 16 buttons.  This is an excellent controller and I like using it very much.

When you look at recent attempts to create a gamepad, like Ouya, or Apple's recently-leaked patent design, or any number of PC controllers, the goal is to copy Microsoft.  Just make it look like Xbox.  The only current alternative is - surprise - to steal from Sony's Playstation design.  Sigh.  We can do better than this.

Let's say, for example, that I'm designing the main controller for Project Phoenix.  The first pass is to simply use the Xbox 360, maybe with a better d-pad, but nothing more.  Most publishers would take this route, just to save costs and get the thing out the door.  However, there's one major problem, and it's one I highlighted in my previous post - your controller is your identity.  It's a symbol for your hardware system.  And when you offer a copycat controller, no matter how solidly built, it says to the world, "This is a copycat system.  Don't take us seriously."  This is unacceptable.

The second pass would be to simplify the number of buttons to Dreamcast's design, but keep the 360's look; that would mean removing the second analog thumb stick, the two digital triggers, and the Back button.  This is a good improvement, as I feel simpler, more iconic game controllers are critical.  Most people are intimidated by gamepads with 15 (or more) buttons.  It alienates and scares potential customers away, and that's the last thing we need now.  We need to expand the video game market and attract new customers.

So this second pass is better.  But it's still essentially a copy of an established brand (Xbox 360), which sends the wrong message.  So we need to address that problem.

Let's next take a look at the Sega Saturn controller.  Many people consider this to be the definitive 2D gamepad, thanks to its compact size, it's perfectly curved design, and Sega's legendary d-pad (which has never been bettered).  It's especially popular among fighting game fans, thanks to the six-button layout.  This controller is the result of many years of design improvements, and it is now refined to perfection.  If you enjoy 2D video games, the Saturn joypad is the best ever built.

However, it has one critical weakness, one that Sega was never able to successfully overcome - Analog Control.  When the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 dropped, it was obvious that 3D graphics and analog control was the wave of the future.  2D and digital were out-of-fashion, and Sega responded, not by revising or refining the existing Saturn design, but scrapping it completely.  Sega's 3D controller was a monster, round and fat and bloated and not very much fun to hold.  The thing is just a damn tank.

I will give Sega credit for making a good analog thumb stick, which was unique in that it employed magnets.  They also introduced analog triggers, which is that controller's legacy achievement (I can't imagine a racing game without these).  But the controller lacks the intuitive comfort of Saturn's 2D pad, and it never really feels right.  If we ever feel generous towards this design, it's only because the Dreamcast gamepad is even worse.

So now we come back full circle, to our proposed Project Phoenix and the quest for a better controller.

I don't think the Xbox 360 controller is perfect.  First, the d-pad is universally derided, and deservedly so.  I never use it for emulation and indie games on my PC; I prefer to use the analog stick instead, which isn't ideal, either, but at least it's better.  Second, the four face buttons could also use improvement.  When you press these buttons, they fall completely within the controller shell.  These buttons should still rest slightly above the frame when pressed.  There should be a firmness when pressed, a sense of durability.  Third, and I hate to keep harping on this point - there are too many damn buttons!  The upper (digital) triggers are fairly uncomfortable to press, and my fingers naturally rest on the analog triggers, anyway.  Like the d-pad, you have to tilt your hands slightly, and takes your grip out of balance.

If I could find a way to add an analog thumb stick to a Saturn controller, maybe add some curves for comfort, maybe swap out the digital triggers for analog ones, we could have something good.  We'll have to decide on the number of face buttons - four or six? - and decide whether or not to use a "Home" button (which is fairly standard today).  The analog stick is the biggest challenge.  The controller has to be comfortable and attractive, and symmetry is always important.  Are the Saturn's buttons too large?  Should the d-pad be smaller, shrunk down to 360's size?  Should the casing be larger, at the size of the Genesis 3-button pad?

This is where access to a 3D printer becomes essential.  We need to build some prototypes and test them out.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Building a Better Game Controller

Remember when Reggie Fils-Aime traveled the country in 2005, giving lectures on the state of the video game industry and why it was in decline?  One of the key lessons was that game controllers had become too bloated, too complicated, and too intimidating for the general public.  Nintendo's answer to this problem was the Wii Remote, which became a spectacular success.  The game industry, however, has done everything in its power to ignore these lessons, burying themselves ever deeper into their "hardcore" cocoon.

In this business, 15 buttons isn't enough for a video game joypad.  We must add even more.  And so the Ouya controller is unveiled, which is essentially an Xbox 360 controller with a touch screen in the middle.  I really don't understand what the point is, and I suspect Ouya's designers don't, either.

The Ouya is an Android-based console, one that promises to bring smartphone games to the television.  That means simple, easily accessible titles like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja.  There's no need for more buttons than you have fingers.  What, exactly, would all 15+ buttons and knobs be used for?  This will only serve to scare away the Expanded Audience, who will prefer to stay with their phones.  It's aimed instead at the "hardcore" PS360 crowd, the ones who are lining up for Call of Duty 9 and Halo 8 and Grand Theft Auto 11 and Madden 22.  In other words, it's a completely different scene.

The Ouya controller tries to thread the needle, to attract both audiences equally, but it's a confusing strategy.  It lacks focus.  Your controller defines your video game system.  If its design is confused, unfocused and lost, chances are the system itself will follow suit.  Think of all the failed consoles over the years, and how they compare to the successful ones, the Nintendo's and Sega's.  A solid, focused, and inventive controller is a key reason for that success.

I don't think Ouya quite knows what it wants to be, other than another platform for indie game developers to sell their wares.  It seems to follow the same PC paradigm as the bulk of the industry (Playstation and Xbox are really PCs for the living room), and yet it also wants to be a home for mobile and indie developers and gamers.  It doesn't seem to acknowledge Nintendo at all, or the lessons of the Wii, which is just dumb.  I do like the $99 price point - that, and the push towards indie developers is where I strongly agree.  Beyond, not much.

I'm spending a lot of time thinking about game controllers lately.  Today's joypads are far too complicated and have too many buttons.  With Project Phoenix, my goal is to simplify the controls as much as possible.  The gamepad would be based on the Sega Dreamcast (sans VMU) - one analog and digital thumbpad, four face buttons, one pair of analog triggers in the back.  Even here, I'd like to simplify more if that were possible.  For example, we could have a single space for the analog/digital thumb pad, and you could pop one out and replace with the other when needed.  However, some DC games use both analog and digital (like the 2K sports titles), so we're stuck.  Too bad.  I think a Saturn joypad with swap-able thumb pads would be really cool.

In fact, I'd like to simplify even further, and introduce "one-button" controllers, like a joystick and trackball.  We can promote select games with a special "1 Button" badge, so people who are afraid of the alien pod controllers can use a simpler device.  Remember that Sonic the Hedgehog is such a game.  So are many iOS games.  Maybe this could work as an iOS controller?  We'll see.

Offering multiple control options is a valuable thing.  Atari had the joystick, the paddle controller, and the keypad.  The NES had the joypads and the NES Advantage stick.  The Wii offered with Wiimote, Nunchuck and Classic Controller.  The lesson is simple: Don't build an all-purpose game controller.  Offer choices.  Ouya should split the buton/touchscreen design.  Why couldn't you use your Android phone as a controller?  Apple is planning just that for their Apple TV (of course, they're also designing another horribly bloated PS360 clone, ugh).

Seriously, Ouya, fix that controller.  Simplify, simplify!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ouya's First Challenge

I'd like to write a bunch of posts regarding the newly-announced Ouya video game system, which is a $99 open-source Android machine that is scheduled for a March, 2013 release.  My interest is piqued, but so is my skepticism, and I'm curious to see how it plays out.

That said, I have many questions, first and foremost illustrated by the above photo.  A console that plays Android games is interesting, but it's something that any tablet and smartphone can achieve right now.  I can play Fruit Ninja on my TV today.  So why invest in the Ouya?  That's going to be the new company's biggest question, and one they must successfully answer if they are to have any chance at success.

I am sympathetic to Ouya's aims, as it runs parallel to my own Project Phoenix idea.  There must be a low-cost alternative to the PC/PS360 monopoly, for consumers and developers alike.  What is that alternative, what does it look like, and how do we get there?  More questions, more challenges.

White Japanese Sega Saturn

Look what finally arrived in the mail yesterday...nice!

The white Sega Saturn is a later model from Japan, and never seen in the West.  It's something for the diehard gamers who love their classic video games and wish to score a few bonus style points.  The inner hardware is identical to the US Saturn, aside from the region coding (which thankfully can be defeated with the 4M Pro Action Replay cart).  All I now need is a special chip sold by Racketboy, which allows me to play backup discs without the "swap trick."

A word to the wise: the Sega Saturn "swap trick" will burn out your disc drive fairly quickly.  The effect is like learning to drive a stick-shift...CLUNK...CA-CLUNK.  If you're playing backup Saturn discs (and until you see a Project Phoenix at your local store, that's exactly what you should be doing), you're going to need Racketboy's override chip.  Now for some Metal Slug action...