Thoughts on Control Schemes

Out of the many aspects of a video game’s design that can “make it or break it”, there is one element that is most important.  A game can have a solid story, plenty of things for the player to do, be the best example of its genre—but if the controls are lacking, the game–and the players–will suffer for it.

I’ve been thinking about control schemes lately, as I watch video games become more and more complex.  This is an issue that continues to be addressed, and it needs to be continually addressed.

Jump, then jump again. Simplicity.

Back in the earlier days of gaming, controllers had fewer buttons—because they didn’t need many.  Take the primary “faces” of previous gaming eras—Mario and Sonic.  In Super Mario Bros., you could jump, shoot fireballs, and run faster.  That was it.  Later titles may have added more abilities, but they all revolved around that simple control scheme.  Same with Sonic: In his earliest title, you could—jump.  That was it.  In his second outing, they added the ability to “rev up” the spin dash by mashing the jump button.  Later they added different abilities through different shields, which—just used the jump button.

The key to why such simple control schemes worked is more than just that the games themselves were simpler.  The key is how the player interacted with the game world.

For a more recent example, take Spider-Man 2 for the PlayStation 2 and X-Box.  Most of the glitches I mentioned in my review were a result of how the game code allowed the player to interact with the game world.  That’s not a point to be understated—how the player interacts with the game world is a very important, perhaps the most important, element of video game design.

Whether a side-scrolling platformer or a three-dimensional sandbox, the player needs to feel like they’re always in control of the character.  No matter what the controls are, once the player learns them, they need to be nearly instinctual.  This was easier to do in the older days of gaming, and this is partly from the comparative simplicity of the games themselves.  It’s becoming more of a problem as games grow more complex.

The more a video game can do, the more developers try to let the players do.  This is a wonderful idea, but we only have so many fingers, and we can only wrap our heads around so many control scheme quirks and specificities.  As games grow more complex, by necessity they rely on things like context-sensitive buttons, where you can, for example, use the same button to fire a weapon, talk to a non-player character, or cycle through inventory, all based on where you are and what other buttons you may be pressing.

This can lead to odd control schemes, or, worse, controls that don’t actually let the player feel like they’re in control.  We’ll get to the odd control schemes in a moment, but first let’s talk about control.

With the growing number of open-world/sandbox games out there combined with the growing popularity of creating a Parkour-like movement system for said games, this becomes an ever more important issue.

When it works, it's GRAND. When it doesn't, roommates hear, "OH BLOODY <bleep>!"

We’re focusing on that specific example because it’s arguably the most important.  The basics of how it has to work is that the player can climb, run, and crawl on anything.  That—is incredibly difficult to code into a game, in no small part because the coding representing the player’s avatar has to know how to interact with the game world.  It has to know that the avatar can climb on this model, and run on that one.

That’s nowhere near as easy as it may sound; when it doesn’t quite work, players run into bugs and glitches—things like being unable to climb over a waist-high barrel and getting into places they aren’t supposed to go.  These can be game-breaking, making it difficult to enjoy the rest of the game.

As mentioned at the start of all this, the story might be wonderfully-presented, rich and complex yet understood without a lot of guesswork necessary on the player’s part, the game world might be truly beautiful to simply look at and run around in, but if the controls don’t work, if the player gets frustrated because they tried to have their avatar run past a barrel and the avatar ends up jumping off of it and onto an N.P.C.—worse, if this is a common occurrence—then the player can stop caring one whit about the story or the game world.

Now, as well as bad control schemes, we also mentioned simply odd controls.  Consider the “waggling” motions in most Wii titles—especially ports from other platforms—as one example.  Interestingly, though, this one is actually almost as old as gaming itself.  There have been “odd” control schemes for decades—for example, the arcade version of Pong used the classic “dial”, while the arcade version of Centipede used the equally-classic track-ball.

The control schemes were simple—for Pong, you twisted the dial to slide your paddle; in Centipede, you rolled the track-ball to move your ship.  There have been many games with those controls, some with different control schemes used by them.  Take Marble Madness; it also used the track-ball control, but with a different scheme.  The game attempted to apply wight, mass, and velocity physics to the marble, resulting in an indirect control—the player spun the track-ball, and the effect wasn’t immediate.  The marble had to build up speed, for example.

Those were contrasts; how games used the same controls with completely different schemes, but there were subtle differences, too.  Compare Marble Madness with Crystal Castles.  There, the player’s input was applied more directly to the avatar, but still not instantly.  It made the player think about the game a little differently.

First known use of a track ball in the arcades&mdash;Atari's "Football".

The difference between an “odd” control scheme and controls that don’t let a player feel like they’re in control can be a subtle one.  Take, again, Marble Madness.  To the inexperienced player, especially one of the era who would be more used to a direct, instantaneous reaction to his or her input, controlling the marble could be difficult at best.  However, the difference there was in the mastering.  Once a player understood what the game was asking him or her to do, how to approach the game, playing became more intuitive.  (That isn’t to say it became necessarily easier, though.)

It’s the intuition that marks the line; it was true then and it’s true now.  It makes sense, for example, on a Wii game to simulate a sword strike by swinging the controller.  It might take some time to figure out exactly how the game wants you to perform the motion, but unless the coding is super-strict on the matter, it should be intuitive once the player knows what to do.

Game design, as I’ve said many times, is not an easy thing.  I think developers are not now and have never really been given the full credit they so richly deserve for their arduous work.  That said, with players thinking they know specific things that they want out of their games, with publishers—the ones paying the developers—thinking they know specific things that players want out of their games, it’s all too easy for an “odd” control scheme to become a broken one, or at the least one that makes playing the game more of a chore than a challenge.

It can make one dangerously nostalgic for earlier games, and though dangerous, it’s understandable.  The controls for, say, using one of Sonic’s shield-based powers was intuitive—a far cry from some of today’s games.  We just have to remember that it’s not easy making a video game, and, further, that every game is a step in the hobby’s evolution.  A control scheme that’s a chore now will get fleshed out later.  As usual, we just need patience.


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