On The Evolution of Input

Originally published in [crude] Magazine’s Summer 2009 issue.

Like many gamers, it was Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64 that introduced me to the analogue stick. After years of exclusively gaming on 8 way directional-pads, it took some hours before my thumb grew accustomed to this novel new input method, during which time Bond lurched towards enemies in lazy left and right arcs, spraying bullets wildly in a manner that suggested he had indulged in a few too many martinis.

I share this simple anecdote because it’s one I often have to revisit when I hand my girlfriend a dual-analogued, twelve-buttoned, vibrating lump of plastic and wonder why she needs to be told the controls for the umpteenth time. Over the years, to give the impression of advancement, designers have given their new controllers all number of accoutrements, grafting on extra buttons, analogue sticks, shoulder buttons, and analogue shoulder buttons and being adopted as industry standard – even the practice of cramming buttons under the analogue sticks themselves is now de rigueur!

Nintendo made joysticks obsolete in 1983 when the NES controller featured a D-Pad. The Sega Megadrive upped the standard face-button count to three in 1988, and the Super Nintendo upped the ante with a fourth, and introduced shoulder buttons to the industry in 1990. When the Playstation launched at the end of 1994, Sony needed to show that it was more advanced than its predecessors, so it stuck two additional shoulder buttons onto the basic design of the Super Nintendo, and Sega followed suit with the Saturn. It was the 1996 launch of the Nintendo 64 with its quality analogue stick and Super Mario 64 that prompted the industry-wide epiphany that fluently navigating 3D spaces required analogue control.

Sony responded quickly with the Dual Analog controller, (which later evolved into the Dual Shock, heralding the practice of putting buttons under the stick). Dual-analogue controllers have been a staple of modern controllers since, relegating D-Pads to surrogate face-buttons in the majority of 3D games. Before bowing out of the console race, Sega’s Dreamcast introduced the world to analogue triggers in 1999, which seem destined to outlast their parent console by several orders of magnitude.

When the Xbox 360 released in November 2005, it seemed as though every possible bell and whistle that could be included without the need to grow a second pair of hands had been implemented, and so the controller was instantly familiar to those who held a controller of the previous generation. Sony were set to follow suit, unveiling a prototype of their new boomerang-shaped controller for the PS3 which featured the same basic layout and features of previous controllers. It seemed that game controllers were finally out of the explosive evolution stage, as the major players were focusing was on improving the ergonomics rather than upending the tea table, but Nintendo had yet to show their hand.

After months of hype, and promising a ‘revolution’, Nintendo unveiled the Wii Remote. A device no more daunting that the TV remotes that inspired it, it featured motion sensing capabilities and few intimidating buttons, making it an instant success with the casual market that immediately reversed Nintendo’s fortunes. By flouting input conventions, Nintendo succeeded in lowering the bar for entry, selling millions of consoles to a new generation of gamers happy to flail about in front of their TVs. Doubts about longevity have persisted in the face of sales momentum – novelty input devices have always been a staple of gaming, ensnaring casual gamers in a way that traditional games can’t by providing a more immediately visceral control experience, whether via buzzers, dance mats, power gloves, or abstracted musical instruments, but Nintendo is the first company to take such a gamble by using a novel controller as the primary input.

By all accounts, this seems like a strategy that’s here to stay. The Nintendo DS handheld, which uses an unconventional touch-screen system just broke 100 million worldwide sales, and the games released for Apple’s buttonless iPhone are reaping serious revenue. Industry competitors are taking note too, as Sony rushed to put rudimentary tilt sensing into their traditional controller before the PS3’s launch, and Microsoft recently made headlines when they entered talks to purchase a company specialising in motion-sensing technologies.

So where do we go from here? The economics of the industry to date have dictated that parent companies make on a loss on each console sold, but make their money back from software sales – Nintendo’s courting of the casual gamer has resulted in a lower attach rate (ie: games sold per console) than its industry peers, but they’re in the unique position of making a profit from each Wii sold, and their decision not to employ cutting-edge technology has been vindicated by a market that has shown general indifference to graphics. All factors are pointing towards this being the longest console generation in quite some time, with Sony determined to make their heavy investment in the PS3 at least a 10-year commitment, Microsoft aggressively targeting the casual demographic, and Nintendo’s imminent release of the MotionPlus attachment show that the wagglin’ is just getting started.

Control ideas that didn’t quite catch on:

  • The Sega Master system featured a pause button on the console itself, making mid-game pausing quite a chore.
  • Sony has put fully analogue (ie: pressure sensitive) buttons on its controllers since the DualShock 2, but this ‘innovation’ has yet to be widely imitated as few games take advantage of it, and few gamers are aware of it
  • The Dreamcast memory card slotted into the controller and had a monochromatic 48×32 pixel LCD screen for displaying additional information, and also played basic games when not in the controller
  • The NEC TurboGrafx16 featured rapid-fire settings on its controllers as standard

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