The console controller of today is pretty predictable.
On the whole, you can expect four face buttons, a D-pad, two control sticks, start and select button equivalents and two sets of triggers. There might be a motion sensor, or a touchpad, or a fancy light, but in most of the traditional console space, the same basic model of controller is used.
That, in many ways, is an impressive testament to the model’s effectiveness, and, as a result, its success. Dual sticks allow for fluid movement and camera control in third-person and first-person games across an impressive variety of genres. The versatile D-pad can supplement dual-stick games as a set of extra face buttons, or a movement method in of itself. Triggers and face buttons of today provide satisfying clicky feedback, and are placed strategically for your fingers’ ease of access.
But the controller in its familiar joypad form doesn’t have the dominance it once did. The rise of the PC and mobile markets have already provided meaningful alternatives to the joypad, and, looking forward, can more not be achieved in interactive entertainment without the tether of a standard input method?
Today, then, I’d like to shed light on how the joypad is not redundant, but certainly limited in how it lets us interact with games. I’d like to examine the threats the input method faces, both presently and beyond. But most of all, I’d like to explore the possibilities that could emerge in the joypad’s place, and the games and experiences that could be made possible as a result. The future, in a world with a feebler joypad, might just be very exciting indeed.
Past and Present Threats
To understand that future, though, we must better understand the controller we use today, and get an idea of how the mighty can fall.
The joypad saw a steady progression from the NES era after it replaced the then-dominant joystick of the Atari 2600 and peers- our controller of today, like the threats we’ll examine, was a radical disruptive force. Gradually, two face buttons became four, and control sticks and triggers were introduced, making new types of game possible (imagine Tetris, with its dual rotation and side-to-side movement, played with a joystick, or, similarly, something like Call of Duty). The idea of the joypad was largely standardised in the PS2 era if we discount the visionary but failed Dreamcast: the Dualshock 2 had negligible differences compared to the Dualshock 1, and the Xbox and GameCube controllers largely followed the “Dual-stick, D-pad, Triggers, Face Buttons” model I mentioned earlier.
This was the input method’s peak, but it was followed by another set of disruptive forces.
In 2006 the Wii changed long-standing perceptions of who could play games, welcoming a new casual audience. Its unusual motion sensing controller, the Wii Remote, excelled at party and on-rail shooter games, and ushered in a generation of pretenders including the PS Move, as well as some genuinely unique ideas like the Kinect. Steam’s exponential growth throughout the mid-2000s led to an explosion of popularity for PC gaming, too, giving the keyboard and mouse newfound relevance.
While it’s possible to write the controllers the Wii inspired off as fads, this can’t be done for the keyboard and mouse. The PC market continues to reign supreme today, making up some 28% of the games industry (as of 2017).
The resultant unprecedentedly widespread adoption of the keyboard and mouse from the mid-2000s onwards has undoubtedly changed our games. Its many buttons have allowed for strategy and tactics titles like XCOM and Civilization to achieve greater status in the mainstream, hotkeys and complex inputs and outputs having always linked genre and input method. Meanwhile, the competitive and e-sports scene seems to have grown proportionally with the PC space- the accuracy a mouse’s cursor can provide and the sheer amount of inputs a keyboard has have facilitated that.
There is, of course, another factor that led to the decline of the joypad’s dominance in the mid-2000s: the mobile industry.
It may not seem like it, but the mobile industry is far larger than the console and PC spaces, producing over 50% of the game industry’s revenue. This is despite it only really finding its footing in around 2009, with the first huge successes such as Angry Birds. With its advent and enormous rapid growth, it has popularised another form of controller- the touchscreen, a part of the device itself.
OK, so it may not possess the carefully tuned triggers and feedback of a joypad or the accuracy of a keyboard and mouse, but the touchscreen has allowed many genres to flourish. In particular, arcade games like Angry Birds and match-three games like Candy Crush Saga have seen spikes in popularity from new, casual audiences. This is because, like the Wii Remote, a touchscreen is instantly understandable and is able to be picked up by non-gaming audiences, as well as those who may not be devoting their full attention to a game (phones are obviously used on the move). Less involved games which provide a quick burst of enjoyment have been able to find a place within the accessible touchscreen of a phone, then, which has changed industry practices in more ways than you might expect: GameWatch talked about it before, here.
The touchscreen’s prominence changes games beyond their favoured audience and genre, though. Another reason arcade games have been able to flourish is the new types of input available that you can be tested on. Flicks, pinches and taps are all movements not possible on a joypad, and have a fair degree of variability- you’re interacting with the game in a completely different way to how you would with a joypad.
There’s also something more intimate about touching an output device to enter an input. Fruit Ninja is the best example of this; pressing your finger against the screen will result in your customised “blade” appearing there- it is like you are reaching into the game rather than simply pressing buttons to make things happen. The central act of slashing fruit in Fruit Ninja feels all the more visceral and caused by you because of it.
This is another example of the way we input a command greatly affecting the way we experience a game- Fruit Ninja wouldn’t be the same if we were moving a blade on a screen indirectly with a control stick. Indeed, in each case here a specific controller has facilitated superior experiences of specific genres: the keyboard and mouse its strategy and tactics games requiring lots of inputs, the Wii Remote its party and on-rail shooter games generally with a casual focus, and the touchscreen its arcade and match-three titles with unique possibilities of intimate interaction.
The joypad is limited in the amount of experiences it can provide on its own, then, and as a result has lost (and continues to be under threat of losing) influence in the gaming space. But similarly, a WASD platformer doesn’t feel quite right, and the less said about a mobile FPS the better. Any controller is limited and specialised in what it can achieve, and therefore there is always a space for new methods of input, and as a result new experiences, to come through. So what could the controllers of the future look like? What devices could we be using in a few years’ time that will change the way we play games?
Perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, though.
Control methods like the keyboard and mouse and joypad evidently take years to mature and be perfected, and, as the Wii U GamePad learnt the hard way, need to have a new audience to target (as with the Wii Remote and touchscreen) or come with an attractive platform (as with the keyboard and mouse and, well, the touchscreen again) to be financially viable. This is likely why, in the current risk-averse big-budget videogame climate, we’ve seen little in the way of experiments outside of Nintendo.
However, 2017 saw the birth of an attractive platform in need of a standard controller: VR.
Here, alternative controllers to the traditional joypad have a real chance to shine, and help advance the industry technologically. Many VR users will testify that an Xbox 360 controller with a VR platform is somewhat jarring. It’s to be expected, really- when you’re supposed to be completely immersed in a world, having your hand press a button in real life to throw something in-game isn’t exactly elegant.
Many platform holders have taken this as reason to dust off the motion controls. PSVR utilises the old Wii-imitator PS Move controllers and PlayStation Camera, and does so in a rather natural way; those silly lights on top allow the camera to track your movements in the virtual world largely without hiccup, and allow for a wave of VR games which demand more dexterity (surprise hit VR Worlds minigame The London Heist or the wonderful Superhot VR, for example).
Higher-end platforms have had a much larger focus on precise motion controls in recent times, too- the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift both now have PS Move-esque counterparts, albeit with greater accuracy and some future-y designs. But with each iteration they move further away from that mid-2000s template, and into their own thing.
The Vive 2.0 wands bear only a passing resemblance to Moves or Wii Remotes. They’re designed to fit the hand snugly, somewhat like a joypad, and have a touchpad comparable to a mouse or a Dualshock 4. Indeed, in many ways they feel like a middle ground between the motion control craze-era inventions and the standard joypad, but they are uniquely suited to VR, able to be used effectively without being seen, and allowing for greater immersion thanks to motion tracking. These controllers facilitate new kinds of VR games, and quietly support the up and coming platform. The hype for virtual reality may have died down, but input methods like these are advancing the industry technologically behind the scenes in a way other controllers can’t, and they’ll only grow more finely tuned and (as they become cheaper to manufacture) more widespread as time passes. Watch this space.
Let’s jump back to Nintendo, who I mentioned briefly earlier. Ever since the GameCube era and the standardisation of the joypad, the house of Mario has been marching to the beat of its own drum, giving us the audience-rewriting Wii and DS, as well as Wii U, 3DS and, most recently, Switch.
The runaway success of the Switch is thanks in no small part to its elegant controllers, the JoyCons. Like the modern VR controllers, they bear more than a passing resemblance to the Wii Remote, though are quite different, mainly due to their versatility.
They come in twos, and can be slotted into a screen for a Wii U GamePad-type affair ideal for portability, used horizontally as tiny controllers for easy local multiplayer, or slotted into a dock where they become a competent joypad. It’s this multi-use controller design that has allowed the Switch to fundamentally change the industry and our definitions of “console” and “handheld”. It’s facilitated and incentivised remarkable technical achievements, cramming huge titles like Skyrim, DOOM and Breath of the Wild onto a discontinued GPU on a bus somewhere. It’ll no doubt go further in the coming years.
If the Switch Pro Controller, a more standard joypad designed for console play, was the flagship control method of the Switch, I can’t imagine the portability, and thus remarkability, of the Switch would be nearly as fully realised as it is.
Of course, such experiments aren’t always such huge successes, and may not advance the industry technologically. This was the case with the Wii U for Nintendo, a system which offered novel interactions- in particular for asymmetrical multiplayer- with its controller with a screen divorced from the TV, the GamePad. Sadly, poor marketing of the possibilities, along with maybe too specific a speciality, meant the Wii U was a commercial failure.
Not all alternative controllers can be world-changing and ultra-profitable. Often, they’ll be too specialised, meant for one game but too expensive to manufacture on a consumer scale. They’ll tour game festivals or even museums, and offer their experiences to a limited crowd.
This doesn’t make them any less relevant, though. They still often offer an experience a joypad or other traditional controller can’t. Their relatively niche audience and lower budgets (overwhelmingly such controllers are made by indie teams) allow for greater creative freedom, and as a result specialised alternative controllers can be expected to offer genuinely one-of-a-kind experiences simply not possible at home with a joypad. Sometimes they advance the industry interactively, challenging how we interface with our entertainment. Sometimes they advance it artistically. Sometimes they do both. It’s a hidden world of non-mainstream gaming, and it’s startlingly independent thanks to its lack of a tether to one or two input methods.
One such specialised controller meant for a specific game is Line Wobbler. Touting itself as a “one-dimensional dungeon crawler”, players use a surprisingly malleable joystick-like controller connected to an LED strip (the “screen”, essentially) to move an avatar represented in green through obstacles and past enemies.
The experience goes deeper than simple directional control across this linear plane, though. “Wobbling” the joystick controller acts as an attack button, and gives a certain weight to the simple combat. And, as you play, the controller feeds acceleration data into the game which generates a sine-wave soundtrack that reacts to the player’s actions.
It’s clear the “wobble” controller is intrinsically linked to Line Wobbler. The actions possible with it are necessary for combat mechanics and the soundtrack, and Robin Baumgarten (Line Wobbler’s creator) even states on his website that the wobble action is “core to the experience of the game we created for it”- the controller made the game possible, not vice versa.
It’s a unique, involved experience where the game can climb up walls and across ceilings, and where a frustrated bash of the controller can dispatch enemies. It’s a game on fairy lights, for Christ’s sake- an astonishingly unique example of the possibilities of a close marriage of an input method and game.
Line Wobbler has proved to be one of the more popular examples in this field of bespoke controllers. In December 2017, a supersized Christmas tree version of the game was installed in King’s Cross Station in London. This September, it’ll be present in a V&A exhibition. In three years it’s toured some 77 different venues publicly.
Not all are this successful. Artistic short story Like Roots in the Soil tells a touching tale, and while it can be played with a mouse (you can get it on itch.io here) it’s preferably played with a custom plant pot controller designed to be rotated, in keeping with the game’s themes of time. It’s a smaller example of an alternative controller refining an experience, to create an elegant and thoughtful final piece.
The Joypad: Now and Later
It’s perhaps important to reiterate here that joypads aren’t going anywhere. Line Wobbler, Like Roots in the Soil and Superhot VR aren’t going to overthrow God of War anytime soon, and nor are the PC and mobile spaces going to replace traditional consoles or, indeed, be devoid of joypads themselves. Well, at least not anytime soon.
But, it’s important to understand the input method’s limitations. Just like the “wobble” controller or the Vive wands, joypads are designed for a specific kind of game. It’s good that more controllers have muscled onto the main stage, then, and good that there are others available for niche markets, because it means more varied games for us.
The joypad will always be the best way to play the traditional platformer, and the keyboard and mouse strategy games. As controllers diversify, there’ll be more and more “best ways” in the future. I, for one, look forward to seeing them.