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Design: The control system difficulty barrier.

As gamers we have been brought up with various control methods in games. It has become second nature and this can reflect in the games that we design today. This post looks at the difficulty that is posed by traditional control methods to new gamers.

Benjamin Hill, Blogger

January 26, 2011

4 Min Read

I remember that fateful morning when I awoke to the Christmas present that was set to steer my future career. I made my way downstairs to the joyous site of a Sega Megadrive beneath our humble television set and was bewildered by the fantastic graphics and smooth game play of Sonic the Hedgehog. I picked the simple control pad up and after a few missteps I managed to pick the control system up easily enough, after all, all I needed to do was push forward to run and the B button to jump; a simple control system for a fantastic videogame.

18 years later a similar picture unfolds in my parent’s living room, yet this time the person receiving the games console for a Christmas present isn’t myself, but my Dad. Now, make no mistake, my Dad is not a newcomer to the videogame scene. When I first got my Sega Megadrive I watched in bewilderment as he blazed through Ghouls and Ghosts twice to reach the final devil boss, something that I have never seen anybody else do. He also recently completed Resident Evil 4 on my 17-year-old sisters PlayStation 2, a game which he is so satisfied with he has unlocked many items including Leon’s “pimp suit”. Yet when he set up his PlayStation 3 and placed Uncharted: Drakes Fortune into the silvery disc tray and powered the game up we came into a problem. My father could not control Nathan Drake properly, because the right analogue stick controlled the camera.

Now when my Mum told me she had seen a PS3 bundle and wondered whether he would enjoy the game I automatically said “yes” when Unchartered was mentioned. After all, he loved playing Resident Evil 4 so much and although the game’s themes are different, they both involve shooting and adventure. Unfortunately I had not thought as a designer that he might for a second have any troubles with the control system.

So we sat down and I tried my hardest to get him accustomed to the control system that was set in place for him to use, yet he still struggled to control both Drake and the camera at the same time. At this point I could see my Dad was getting frustrated with the game, yet, as an old gamer he desperately wanted to enjoy the game. He then turned to me and said, “This doesn’t feel natural to me” “Its not how I would control myself in my head in real-life”. He then said “People should be able to change the control system to something that they feel comfortable playing, especially when they spend so much on a game”. It then dawned on me that he was correct in a way. The twin stick control system isn’t one that comes to us naturally as when we move around we control ourselves as one unit and choose to look around with our head as another, something that is replicated, albeit clumsily, in Resident Evil 4; a control system that my Dad found easy to adjust to. 

So I came home to Manchester after Christmas and started to ponder my Dads reaction to Uncharted’s control system and what he said about choosing your own control system for a game. I thought about whether implementing several control systems into a game for players to choose from would be beneficial to a games accessibility or whether a control system that is ergonomically designed for maximum accessibility would be better and less time consuming. After contemplating the issue I realised that as the main fundamentals of design, if we are to achieve ultimate accessibility in games, simplicity in control systems needs to be achieved and at this moment in time I don’t think many games have quite hit it on the head. I loved Uncharted and I found the control system easy to use, yet I have been playing games from the 16-bit generation through to the current one and have grown up and evolved with videogame controls. Gamers who haven’t, such as my Dad, feel overwhelmed by the complexity of our modern day control systems which do often demand a certain skill set to play.  

I can understand why motion gaming has become so popular with the casual gamers, not because motion controls particularly offer a simpler route for designers (if anything it can be more complex), but because it is a new control method for us as well as the consumers. Similar to that of Mario and Sonic all those years ago with their 2 button combos it is a young control method and that reflects in the audience that it attracts. Yet it is our duty as designers in the future to make mainstream games as accessible as casual games, because if we cannot achieve this then we cannot achieve that overall art status we seem to desperately want. My Dad can sit down and watch any film, he may not like all of them, but there are no barriers there to stop him. That is something we have not yet achieved in the games industry.


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