The death of the joypad
Posted at 23:51 on 28th October 2009 - permalink


When computer games first took off in the 1980s, there were only two input devices in common use: joysticks and keyboards. It wasn’t until late in the decade that mice joined the party, having had to first achieve market penetration (as late as 1990, many entry-level home computers didn’t ship with mice as standard) and then wait for developers to figure out how to use them effectively (instead of just crudely emulating a joystick).

The mouse and keyboard hybrid control scheme (“WASD”), having undergone many gradual refinements, is now the standard for most contemporary PC game genres. In Consoleland, joysticks were usurped by (digital and later analogue) joypads, at first for reasons of cost, but with later iterations outstripping joysticks in terms of the functionality and comfort they could offer.

Today, the advantages of keyboard & mouse and dual analogue stick joypad controls over their predecessors seem obvious. If there was any outcry in defence of old-fashioned keyboard and joystick controls at the time, it has been lost to history.

Now we’re undergoing the next paradigm shift in controller technology, from analogue thumbsticks to motion tracking pointing devices. A shift that in my opinion is long overdue.

Even in its relatively crude first iteration (the Wii Remote), motion control has already dramatically proven to offer huge benefits in terms of accessibility. Controlling a pointer directly with the hand and wrist, rather than by translation into direction and acceleration via a thumbstick, requires almost no learning and allows for a greater degree of subtlety and precision. A motion tracking controller is in effect a mouse that you can use from the sofa, or as near to that ideal as makes no difference.

(You can immediately disregard any screed against the evils of motion control that goes on about “arm waving” and “exercise” as having entirely failed to grasp this concept. The only motion control technology that sees this kind of interaction as its primary purpose is Microsoft’s marginalised-by-design Project Natal.)

While some have embraced the technological advance of motion control, in other quarters it has been met with confusion or outright fear. I can still remember back in 2005, prior to the Wii’s launch and long before MS and Sony’s motion controller announcements, when Epic Games’ Mark Rein held aloft an Xbox 360 controller and declared that there was “nothing wrong with it“. (There was nothing wrong with one-button joysticks either, for most Amiga games in 1989.) More recently, Frank Lantz of Area/Code applied the logic of a sheet music salesman decrying the rise of the phonograph in this nostalgic article:

“Sorry to sound elitist, but I like that not everybody understands how to play games, and I doubt that I’m alone (…) That games require effort and a particular kind of tricky literacy is one of the things that makes them cool. Would pianos be better if everyone could play them? Would punk rock sound better if your grandparents liked it?”

There’s no need to apologise for elitism when it’s applied in a useful, justified way (most expressive forms benefit from rigourous standards, see e.g. the Royal Academy of Arts) but trying to argue there’s an upside to obstructively flawed controls is just conceited bullshit. The move to motion control does not limit the amount of skill that can be demanded of players if so desired, or dictate that content for every game has to appeal to different audiences.

If a franchise like Call of Duty can routinely draw 10m+ users, the prospect of broadening its control options is not going to compel Infinity Ward to change the content into a series of party minigames. For the overwhelming majority of users (there will always be a few who simply can’t adapt to any other control method that the first one they learned – instead giving up gaming altogether as controls became “too complicated” for them), motion control expands the options available without taking anything away.

Allowing a broader base of users access to games with more complex interactions (without first punishing them with countless hours of unrewarding training to learn anachronistic interfaces) doesn’t only result in healthier profits (as we’ve seen with the Wii), it ultimately expands the talent pool. What percentage of students, artists, writers and inventors currently think it’s even possible, let alone worthwhile, for them to get involved in game development? Anything that helps raise that number should be seen as absolutely critical to prevent games from becoming stagnant.

(Another puzzling thing about that article is the assumption that motion controls can only be applied to literal, real-world, 1:1 scale human body motions. There’s nothing preventing motion being used as abstractly as joystick and mouse input. There are many games that don’t involve humanoid avatars or simulations of real-world control interfaces. Motion sensors could allow the same to be done in true 3D space, beyond the capabilities of 2D thumbstick and mouse interfaces.)

The misconception that motion control should be about jumping around the living room has resulted in the improvements that they bring to more traditional control schemes being largely overlooked. Super Mario Galaxy‘s controls are derided for having the player shake the Wii Remote to perform a spin “when it could be mapped to a button” (indeed it could, at the expense of the tactile feedback from swinging around vines, etc. etc.) or “not using the cursor enough” (except for the pull stars, which would be impossible to implement without it). Metroid Prime 3 and Resident Evil 4 are criticised for “making aiming too easy”(!). It already feels jarring when the accelerometer’s physical connection is absent – hammering a button to use the Batclaw in Batman Arkham Asylum, or performing telekinesis with a joystick in Dead Space both feel faintly ridiculous and not at all immersive.

Being able to track motion in 3-D space (as with Wii Motion Plus and the new Sony and Microsoft systems) starts to really put clear water between motion tracking and joypads. Being able to ‘reach into’ the world lets us do more interesting things with physics. It’s more intuitive, and it’s more satisfying.

Take for example the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2. While this tool allows the player to manipulate objects in the world in a fairly physically realistic way, it also highlights how inadequate a mouse on a 2D plane (or worse, clumsily prodding a stick) is for replicating the range of actions that can be performed by human hands. This kludginess brings to mind the last generation of keyboard-centric FPS (such as Duke Nukem 3D and Dark Forces), which did things like using the ‘PgUp’ and ‘PgDn’ keys to tilt the player’s view because the technology (and player’s expectations) hadn’t quite reached the point where mouselook made sense.

Some will argue that their unsuitability for certain genres will prevent motion controllers replacing joypads as the default pack-in peripheral for new consoles. It doesn’t work like that. The commercial focus will simply shift to genres that motion control can support. The Sony Playstation had few successful RTS, FPS and point-and-click adventures due to its lack of a mouse.

The only genres where motion controllers are seriously deficient at present are fighting and racing games. Fighting games are already more of a niche pursuit than they were five or ten years ago, and will probably continue to be released alongside arcade sticks. Racing games will probably fare better with the arrival of more advanced motion systems than the Wii Remote (although the Mario Kart wheel is borderline acceptable already). For every other genre that can be played at least passably well with a joypad, motion control is as good or better. (Keyboard and mouse control has spottier genre support, still offering the best method for playing FPS and MMO games, while being more or less useless for racing, fighting and platform games.)

Motion control is not the only challenge to its ongoing relevance that the joypad faces. Already a large segment of games sold across all three consoles don’t use joypads at all. Most obviously there are the music games (Guitar/Band/DJ Hero, SingStar, Rock Band) but the trend for specialised peripherals is growing outside of the music genre, too: Wii Fit, Shaun White’s Snowboarding, EyePet, Buzz!, and (erm) Let’s Tap. As games retail fights for life, we can expect many more oversized plastic replicas cluttering our games cupboards.

Then there are the cheap/free/freemium PC, browser and iPhone platforms, where all games are designed for control with keys and/or a cursor, and where a game’s inability to adapt to a joypad is not seen as a major failing. (It doesn’t seem to have dented World of Goo or Flight Control’s fortunes.)

The joypad has had a good innings, but progress marches on, and controller technology still has far to go even once motion control has become established. I’m sure ten years from now forums will be full of angry gamers threatening to quit their hobby if direct neural links start to take market share away from traditional motion wands.

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