Putting Players in Control 🎮

Jack Evans, Game Developer

The ways in which a player can interact with a video game has changed a lot since video games’ inception. The fairly standard twin-stick controller that most systems today employ was many years in the making, with plenty of questionable decisions made by industry experts along the way. Many gamers will remember the three-pronged Nintendo 64 controller and wonder how a company with such a successful history as Nintendo got to that point.

There are rules today that game designers rarely stray from, because to do so would confuse such a large portion of the player base. Movement happens on the left control stick and any camera control or alternative aiming happens on the right. Prompts are accepted with the A button (or equivalent) and declining actions happens with B. These things are so ingrained into people who regularly play games that any deviation is met with irritation – recently whilst playing Stray, I thought my controller wasn’t connected because I was pressing the wrong button to advance a conversation.

With advancements in technology, however, come advancements in the ways we can control our games. The Nintendo DS cemented touchscreen as a viable control scheme in gaming: Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass was controlled almost entirely by the touchscreen (drag to move, swipe to attack), and Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training experimented with changing the device orientation to better suit touchscreen play.

An excellent way to make players feel like they are truly a part of the experience is to have their real world movements translate to gameplay inputs. Xbox released the Kinect as a controller-free way to play games: the Kinect camera would find players in the room and track their movements in games such as Kinect Sports, where players could emulate sports such as football and volleyball in their living rooms, and Just Dance 4, which does what it says on the box.

This has been taken to the next level with the recent rise in VR gaming: with the Valve Index, each individual finger is tracked with maximum control. Players can point, thumbs up, swear at each other in games such as VR Chat, and know that the person on the other end is genuinely performing that gesture.

Some games have reached new heights when transported to VR. SUPERHOT played with an original mechanic of time only moving when the player moves, but when this is linked to staying completely still in the real world (within SUPERHOT VR), the stakes get so much higher, and player engagement is massively increased.

Of course, as phones become more and more interconnected with our daily lives, mobile game designers draw from these concepts to build games that are familiar to users whilst still being massively engaging. Racing games regularly use tilt controls because turning the device like a steering wheel feels natural. Platformers, dungeon crawlers, and shooters will display on-screen buttons to mimic the controller layouts that players are used to. Google even produced the low-budget Cardboard: a folding housing for your phone to turn it into a portable VR device.

Given that devices now support multiple touches, gyroscope and accelerometer for motion controls, compass, pedometer, ambient light sensors, proximity, and other methods of interaction, the playing field for designers is as open as it’s ever been.

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