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Game Design And Control Ergonomics

In this post I take a look at games with control schemes that fail from an ergonomic perspective - which goes a long way to impacting the game, since the last thing we want our games to feel like is work.

Xbox 360 controller

I have to start out this article by noting that I'm a somewhat unique case. Despite being relatively young, I have carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists - one of which is already post-surgery. This means I'm more sensitive than most to ergonomic issues, but I can't be alone here when I say this: I hate holding buttons.

Often times, holding buttons is a necessary aspect of game design, but I've recently played two games that could have used a different control layout to much better effect. The designs still 'work' but ergonomics is an overlooked part of game design, because the last thing we want our games to feel like is work. In order to keep things focused, I'm going to stick to the two games I have in mind and conclude by offering a third game as a positive example of good ergonomic consideration in control design.

I recently played (and reviewed) Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed II. Largely speaking, the control scheme of the game is well-conceived, but there is one issue I found particularly annoying from an ergonomic perspective. Ezio, the game's protagonist, has three movement speeds (walk, run, and free-run). Especially during the game's excellent beginning where tension is at its peak, walking around the city at the slow default speed is surprisingly fun - something I can't saw about most games with slow default movement speeds.

As the game's setting gets old, players spend a lot of time holding down (on the Xbox 360) RT to run. This is nothing new, though holding the trigger is slightly more annoying than holding down A (as in basically all of the Rockstar games). The issue becomes when Ezio needs to free-run. This activity is a major component of the game, and it requires holding down RT and A at the same time.  Considering that players very rarely have a need to run but not free-run, Ubisoft would have been better served taking the middle movement speed out and making RT (or A) the only button needed to engage parkour mode.

The negative impact of this becomes even more apparent during the game's badly conceived 'open-world' Tuscany region where Ezio must ride a horse in order to travel at anything approaching a tolerable speed. Here again, the horse has three movement speeds (walk, run, and gallop) with only two being truly useful. I never once found a sequence where I wanted Ezio's horse to run and not gallop, making a two-button hold necessary to move in the region.

I admit the horse part annoyed me considerably since I played Assassin's Creed II after Red Dead Redemption. Any game from now on will have a difficult time coming up with a horse-riding control scheme that is any better than RDR's simple 'tap A spur horse faster, hold A to maintain current speed' scheme. It's still a button-hold yes, but at one button it's manageable. Moreover, there are frequent parts of that game were having the ability to fine-tune how fast the horse is moving is quite nice to have - something absent from AC2. At the risk of diverging from the topic slightly, I also want to note how more games should examine RDR's brilliant scheme for matching NPC movement speed (logically, by holding A). It is, quite frankly, ridiculous how many games that involve following or escorting NPC's do not implement something as basic as having the player-character and NPC's move at the same speed.

A second game with largely acceptable controls but (at least) one glaring flaw is BioWare's Mass Effect 2. I'm not going to rehash the Mitch Krpata's solid critique of the game's interface (here and here) but I am going to touch on the worst aspect of the game in my book: the planet scanning. That, more than any recent game I can remember, felt like work. In fact, like this comment it made my hand hurt. 

There are other issues with the planet-scanning mini-game (like being mindless filler), but the biggest one is the one I want to cover here. What do gamers spend 99% of the time doing in the planet-scanning interface doing? Scanning planets. Why do we then have to hold a button to engage the scanning? With the rare exception of needing to select a landing zone when an anomaly is found, players run the scanner the whole time a planet is on the screen. 

There is a need for two modes (scanning and non-scanning/landing zone selection) but there is no need for the primary mode to be engaged with a button hold. A simple toggle on-off would have been much more sensible. It wouldn't have fixed the problems with planet-scanning, but it would have gone a long way to improving the experience. I, for one, would not have found myself saying 'okay, my hand can take three more planet scans before I have to quit playing for the night'. 

Contrast my complaints with these two games with something I recently started playing: the PC version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. (I realize I'm late to the party here, but until recently I haven't had a computer capable of playing even this modestly demanding title.) Compared with the console version, I've seen a number of improvements in controls like the ability to use proper hotkeys instead of the horrid Xbox 360 d-pad, but the PC version of Oblivion has a magic button: like Morrowind before it, 'Q' is a life-saver. 

For those unfamiliar with at least the two most recent Elder Scrolls titles, players spend a lot of time moving in a more or less straight line. A lot of time holding forward on a console controller's analog stick gets tiring - and holding a key down is just as bad. Bethesda solved what could have been a significant annoyance by introducing an 'auto-move' mode engaged with a simple tap (by default keybinding) of the 'Q' button. Tap Q, start running forward. Tap Q again (or press any other WASD button) and stop. This is an example of good, ergonomic control design. 

In the interest of keeping this article focused, I'll leave it at these three examples. If you have any schemes to praise or rant about, though, feel free to add in the comments! I'm all hands, er, ears.

[Note: This has been cross-posted with my recently launched blog, The Acerbic Gamer.]

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