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.