The “QWERTY” Game Controller
Several years ago in my class on the Psychology of Video Games and Entertainment Systems, I predicted that the generic game controller, epitomized by the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers, was already here to stay, perhaps for generations into the future, just like the QWERTY keyboard.
I was giving a lecture on the human factors of game controllers. We looked at the timeline of controllers from the Atari 2600 to the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers. One of the main points of the lecture had to due with the human factors involving button to function mapping, number of buttons, controller complexity, and the ergonomic layout of the buttons relative to the human hand and digits.
The design of the controller is to maximize throughput of human intention to game input. How much information can the gamer push through the controller to the console or PC? There is also the issue of consistency in mapping between games using the same controller and between different controllers. Game designers have to make some hard decisions and the game players have to live with them.
As a metaphor, I explained the history behind the typewriter keyboard. Around the 1880’s a number of different typewriter companies were trying to figure out the best way to organize the letters on the keyboard. They sought to maximize typing speed by placing the most frequent letters directly under the fingers of each hand to minimize movement time. But they had another problem: jammed keys caused by two hammers hitting so close to each other that they hit and stuck together.
The QWERTY keyboard apparently had the best layout. It was introduced in 1874 by the Sholes & Glidden Company. It then became the standard for over 50 years. Every typist learned touch typing knowing each finger movement would result in the correct letter. But when typewriters went electronic and no longer had hammers, the issue of jams was irrelevant. In response, an alternative keyboard was designed purely for human typing speed by August Dvorak in 1930’s.
It has been estimated that in an average eight-hour day, a typist’s fingers travel 16 miles on a QWERTY keyboard and only one mile on a Dvorak keyboard! In addition, common letter combinations are positioned so that they can be typed quickly. Despite the advantages of the Dvorak keyboard, it has not been able to displace the QWERTY keyboard and QWERTY has become “the de facto standard layout for communications and computer interface keyboards” (Alden, Daniels, & Kanarick, 1972). Every effect change to the Dvorak keyboard has failed for one reason or another.
Figure 5.24. Two alternative computer keyboards (Top: United States QWERTY; Bottom: Dvorak)
Now the development of the game controller is a bit more complex because in the early days there was no alphabet of game functions. The Atari 2600 started with joystick and one big button ignoring the reset, select and start buttons and the on/off switch.
Over time, games required many other buttons, triggers, and sticks. To make a long story short, we have converged on today’s generic standard embodied in the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 controllers. They have become in a short period of years but a massive number of gaming hours, the de facto QWERTY keyboard of controllers.
So the question is will a more efficient game controller come along that will replace this convention? I think not. Oh there will be minor tweaks moving the buttons around, how they are labeled, and feel of the thing just as keyboards come in different styles and ergonomic configurations, but this is now the convention that gamers have learned and expect for each new game that comes out. Those who depart from it will be sorry. And there are at least three cases in point.
The first case and its announcement at E3 2012 is what really prompted me to write this entry. Nintendo announced a secondary controller for serious gamers who prefer the more traditional/conventional control method (Link 1). Dubbed the “Pro Controller,” the wireless peripheral has a remarkably similar shape and button layout to the standard Xbox 360 controller with a duo a of evenly-placed joysticks and Nintendo-focused function buttons.
So even after Nintendo’s wild success introducing the Wii remote pointing controller with Wii Sport’s, it has succumbed to the gamer market forces. Nintendo caved into serious gamers even switching to black. The mass population of gamers imbedded in the conventional two hand controllers have weighted in.
The second case, now more historical than current is the Playstation 3 Move controller. While Sony might have liked to see more games take advantage of the Move and even depart from the standard controller, they did not. Game producers generally made it optional, and without having the numbers, I suspect that most gamers, including myself opted for the standard controller and left the Move to gather dust.
The third case in point is, of course, the Xbox Kinect. It introduced full body motion capture with no hand held controller at all. While perfect for dance and exercise games, terrible for FPS and RPG. The Kinect peripheral itself seems to be used for all kinds of interesting human-computer applications except games. Serious games are aimed at the Xbox controller.
Here is the final case in point and the real clincher. We seen have the introduction of tablets such as the iPad and a whole new device for playing games. These systems have introduced touch and gestures for game control. Again, no hand held controller, all is on the screen. But that means using up visual display space for controller surface.
Your hands obscure the view and your vision must switch between viewing the action and viewing the virtual control buttons. For serious gamers this is not an option. So once again, we will see the entrenchment of the conventional controller take effect as Apple and others come out with there own instantiations for games on the iOS and Android systems (Links 3 and 4).
Development of new interfaces for games and innovation in game controllers has been very interesting, but it has come to an end. It is dead!
Long live the QWERTY game controller!
1. "Apple developing a game controller for the iPad?" Posted: 02 Apr 2012, 13:31, by Scott H.
2. "The Apple iPad Review" (2012) by Vivek Gowri & Anand Lal Shimpi on 3/28/2012 3:14:00 PM
3. "Nintendo teases Wii U Pro Controller, black Wii U hardware (update: video)" by Joe Pollicino posted Jun 3rd 2012 6:25PM