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Opinion: Controls, Simplicity, Focal Interest, and Contextual Sensitivity

In this thought-provoking opinion piece for Gamasutra, Nayan Ramachandran discusses the philosophy of game control design, suggesting that "players should feel in control the most when they are doing the most important thing in the game".
[In this thought-provoking opinion piece for Gamasutra, Nayan Ramachandran discusses the philosophy of game control design, suggesting that "players should feel in control the most when they are doing the most important thing in the game".] In my column Controlling the Future, I talked about changes in controllers in our current generation, as well as future generations, from touch and gyroscopic control, to pressure sensitive buttons and analog sticks. There are two parts to the equation, though. Once developers have controls in front of them, how do they utilize them for their games? It’s no surprise that every developer has its own design philosophy when it comes to how their games control. Nintendo is famous for creating their games to be as accessible as possible, while still allowing for complex moves and actions if the player is willing to invest the time. Companies like EA’s Tiburon studio steps farther and farther away from the line of accessibility in each installment of Madden, making use of every button on the controller in increasingly complex and complicated ways. Games like Sony’s Siren overused certain buttons for a variety of actions, making the controls clunky and frustrating, when they could have been intuitive and simple. This really is not an argument of casual gamers versus hardcore gamers. Not all casual gamers find multiple button presses too much to handle, and not all hardcore gamers welcome the ever-increasing complexity of game controls. There are a number of factors to consider when designing the player's controls; perhaps some of them many gamers do not know of. Mood, tactile interaction, demographic and focal interest are all important factors when considering the control method for your game. Addressing each in order could mean the difference between beautiful intuitive controls, and a jumbled, frustrating mess. Demographic Let's first address the most obvious of factors when considering a control method for your game. Demographic can have a number of effects on the controls for your game. Let's take a Sudoku game, for instance. Who would be the general demographic for a traditional Sudoku game? Likely, your largest buying audience would be those who already enjoy Sudoku, either in the newspaper, or in dedicated puzzle books. Sudoku players are usually older, and would rather their experience not be drastically different in control from what they're used to. With this kind of information in mind, it seems an obvious choice to provide a touch pen interface for the game. 02.jpg Tactile Interaction This might seem like another obvious factor at first, but readers will be surprised when I don't lay thick praise on the Wii remote in this category. Tactile interaction is largely to do with a players connection to a given action based on the action performed on screen, and the action performed with the controller. This doesn't necessarily equate to 1:1 movement, nor is button pressing automatically less immersive. Take for instance, a fighting game. One button is the kick button, while one is the punch button. Each time the player hits the kick button, the character on screen performs a kick, and the resulting hit to the opponent is felt through the force feedback in the controller. The precision with which a player is able to execute a kick is directly in parallel to the precision a trained martial artist would be able to perform and duplicate a given move. This kind of connection helps to make the player's connection to the world stronger, despite the fact that his button press visually does not match that of his character's kick. Holding a button to grab objects is also a fantastic example. Even within the Wii's own dashboard OS, users can grab a channel monitor by squeezing the A and B buttons (simulating a pinch), and then move the object by moving their arm. This is largely excellent application of 1:1 movement, and could be used to greater effect in situations like adventure games, where slight, methodical movements are favored over frantic, fever-pitched motions. Using the Wii remote in every game is not the answer to interactivity, but it certainly improves immersion in certain situations. Focal Interest Gaming has a very simple tenet that must always be followed: players must feel in control. Even in the case of adventure games with long cinematics, providing simple decision making can give players an amazing feeling of control over their environments. With game controls becoming more and more complex, developers are using context-sensitive controls more and more. A single button press does a different motion depending on the context in which the character is currently interacting with the world. If near a wall, hitting the A button might make the character hide, while pressing A in the open might make the player jump or roll. 04.jpg While context sensitive controls help to alleviate the issue of increasing complexity, it also impedes the tenet we set forth earlier. When a single button press does a variety of motions, the player's interaction lessens, and the game begins playing itself more and more. How do we stop this from spinning out of control? We do it by establishing focal interest. Every game has a focal interest: It is the main action or feature that the game is built around. In First Person Shooters, it is the ability to fire the gun. In an action game like Devil May Cry, it is ability to swing the character's sword. In a puzzle game, it is the ability to perform the most simple action that garners points for the player. Game control is successful when the focal interest is the action with the most tactile interaction. That is to say, players should feel in control the most when they are doing the most important thing in the game. This seems almost elementary when reduced to simple terms, but it is still surprising how many developers misstep in this regard. Tertiary or unimportant actions can be relegated to context sensitive controls and the like, so long as the focal interest remains involving and interactive. Mood A game's mood might be more important than any other factor when considering the control scheme for the game. Simplicity isn't always the answer, but neither is complexity. Mood is a difficult thing to pinpoint and illustrate, as well as a difficult thing to predict. For a developer, the best course of action might instead be to design the controls around intended mood. To illustrate, let's choose two existing games with entirely different moods: Bit Blot's Aquaria, and Devil May Cry 3. 05.jpg Mood-wise, Aquaria is a tranquil game of discovery, taking hints from Metroid, Ecco the Dolphin, and even fl0w. Peaceful but troubling music plays in the background as the main character swims smoothly through the environment, sometimes fighting sea creatures that block her path. The game has its moments of tension, but it is largely a relaxing game. It's no surprise that Bit Blot chose to use a simple mouse-only control scheme that's both fluid and intuitive, allowing casual gamers to pick it up, but still engage hardcore gamers in a way that many of today's blockbusters cannot. Devil May Cry 3 is diametrically opposite in almost every regard. The game is about as tranquil as a punch in the face, and that's just the way any fan of the series wants it. The game uses all the face buttons for various actions, and button presses are quick, staccato, and other than movement, the action does not exude fluidity. In both of these situations, though, their individual control schemes are totally viable for their given situations, but would probably suffer if they switched control schemes.

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