Games controllers under scrutiny

It’s tempting to think of video games as experiences that only take place on screen. With a nation upgrading to HD TV sets and then discovering there’s little HD content to watch on them, Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox are busy evangelising the b

The past two decades have seen video game controllers turning into lifestyle multimedia objects. With Nintendo now at the forefront of this phenomenon with the Wii, Iain Simons takes a look at the potential of this once-humble device


It’s tempting to think of video games as experiences that only take place on screen. With a nation upgrading to HD TV sets and then discovering there’s little HD content to watch on them, Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox are busy evangelising the benefits of next-generation gaming through cinematic sound and graphics. Indeed, with the focus on what the player sees and hears, you could forget video games are an interactive format. Sadly, this would be to overlook that most important point: where the game meets the player.

The video game controller has become a fascinating location for design, inspiring everything from the iconic joystick and pong paddles to the slightly less celebrated Sega fishing rod. However, in the mid-1990s, as the Playstation demonstrated that the console really can be a lifestyle object, the ‘dual-shock’ controller set the baseline for complexity. As wonderful a device as it was, the industry started to consider that a device with upwards of ten buttons, two joysticks and a D-pad might be a barrier to potential new players.

Playstation Europe has driven a number of pioneering innovations with its EyeToy and Buzz projects, pushing the concept of ‘social gaming’ forward, principally through hardware design rather than software. But surely the accolade for the most inclusive design of recent years belongs to the Nintendo Wii.

‘The entire strategy was to try to attract people who didn’t play video games,’ explains Rob Saunders from Nintendo UK. Its research showed that people were unhappy with the form of existing consoles. Saunders says users found the games ‘too complicated, too aggressive, too big – people didn’t want them in their lounge’. The small, discreet footprint of the Wii unit, coupled with the motion-sensing controllers (themselves giving more than just a design nod to the familiar TV remote) opened up markets for video games and produced sales of more than 20 million units worldwide.

It’s a concept that is being developed further with two forthcoming releases. First is Mario Kart Wii, which ships with a plastic steering wheel. This allows the player to slot in their Wii remote and further translate the driving metaphor. Second is Wii Fit, which supplies the player with their own set of sophisticated scales.

When Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s visionary game designer, first conceived the Wii project, the concept of the player’s weight as a form of user input was always present. As a stream of data, the changes in a player’s weight as they move around on scales might suggest entertaining possibilities, but was fraught with practical problems. ‘Would people want to be weighed in their living rooms in front of other people? Would they really want to turn on their television and console and get weighed?,’ observed director Takao Sawano during his Game Developer Conference session on its development.

The project didn’t really evolve until Sawano observed that sumo wrestlers, because of their excessive weight, are sometimes weighed with two scales – one for each foot. The possibility of measuring shifting weight then became a possibility. But then, why not also measure front to back movement? Many iterations were developed, the core obstacle being keeping production costs to a viable level. Selecting strain gauges as the means for measuring made this possible. With a gauge on each foot, the device was capable of offering surprising accuracy in 360º of movement, and shifting weight became a viable input mechanism.

The Wii strategy has declared that the controller is an integral part of the gaming experience, but therein lies one of the threats to innovation. Rock Band, the forthcoming game from music-game pioneer Harmonix Music Systems, invites the players to form a band, kitting them out with a drum kit and guitars. The next design challenge will surely be – where are we going to put all this stuff? l

Iain Simons is director of the Game City festival at Nottingham Trent University. His book, Inside Game Design, is published by Laurence King at £19.95

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