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!

No comments: