Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Humble Controller

Gaming has come a long way in the last 20 years or so. As technology has gotten better, games have become more complex in order to handle them. As someone who mainly games on PC, I've been largely protected from the change in design that has come from the change in controllers. Now this is set to come to an end apparently. There's a push towards more interactivity, revolutionising the interface between game and user and thus revolutionising gaming. Project Natal sure does look promising, but will it really revolutionise the way we game, or is it just another gimmick?

Novelty over substance
A few years ago, my youngest brother got the Eye Toy for Christmas. Great, it was so much fun... for about a day. Then it didn't get played with much after that. The novelty had worn off, and it turned out there was no substance behind the game at all. A new, revolutionary way of gaming? Yes. It just wasn't that fun beyond the initial gimmick. But sown in that product were the seeds of the future, one only has to look at the success of the Wii to see this. But again it seems the novelty is getting in the way of substance. I found not long after getting my hands on a Wii I rarely touched it.

And that's where Project Natal seemed to suffer as well. Is this new controller going to offer substance gameplay? I hope so for its sake. It seemed to me that it was just novelty over substance, though only time will tell. Then again, it may just be that I'm not the right audience for such a product. This might be the means to get gaming mainstream, or at the very least make parents feel that their children at getting at least a bit of exercise. But as far as that announcement went, it was all gimmick with very little in the way of indicators that it can really bring a revolution with it.

Novelty sells, there's no denying it. And it can bring about innovation in the industry so even the most jaded gamer would not deny its importance. But there is somewhat of a concern that by putting so much focus on novelty that it detracts from the substance. The way we interact is what sets the games apart from other mediums of art, the control is vital for immersion. Yet making the interface more life-like does not necessarily mean a more immerse experience. There may actually be a purpose for having so many buttons after all.

Irreversible complexity
One thing that sets humans apart from our ape brethren is the fine motor skills between eyes and hands. Our dexterity comes at a cost (such as weakened wrists), but it cannot be denied how useful hand-eye coordination is to us today. The point is that using our hands as an interface is already very natural, having a controller that takes into account the complexity and dexterity that comes from the fingers is essential.

To use an analogy, think of the way you learned to type. If it were anything like me, first it was a matter of key hunting with just the index fingers. Then slowly other fingers became involved in the process, and soon there became zones. Eventually it led to being able to type a few hundred meaningful keystrokes a minute without so much as even looking down. Half the keys have worn off my keyboard yet it doesn't matter in the slightest. Practice makes perfect.

In this sense, for the beginner picking up a controller Spielberg may be onto something when he says that a controller is intimidating. And maybe there moving towards more humble beginnings in order to get them more used to gaming could be like having them learn to type one finger at a time. But as for those who are skilled, using a controller really can't be bested. And for gaming, there is a necessity to put in enough complexity into an interface because games need complex input. Because humans have a finite memory and but a few buttons, this requires creativity to map the interface between different actions.

The necessity for precision
It remains to be seen just what optical or aural input will add to the gaming landscape. In terms of efficiency, a hand-oriented controller is both natural (well as natural as any artificial device could be) and precise. Getting into the world of heuristics will only decrease precision, losing the accuracy of input is detrimental to gaming. I think of all the times I tried to do a simple tap-in on Wii Sports Golf where the ball ended up on the other side of the green, or when I tried to frantically draw a star in Black and White which the pattern-recognition identified as a house.

Maybe Project Natal will be revolutionary, maybe we are finally at the stage where we have sufficiently advanced hardware to take on the complexity of what is being promised. After all, only a few years ago the Wii promised to do the same thing, and in my opinion under-delivered. Controllers may be restricting, but they have been designed and redesigned for the last 20 years to give an optimal experience. It may not be interactive, but it does the job it was made for and does it well.

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