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If you listen, which I cannot much advise, to game related podcasts or read your average gaming website or blog, you’ll find a lot of talk about “casual” versus “hardcore”, as if amongst the googolplex games released every year there is a quantifiable number of more “deserving” games. This whole attitude stinks of snobbery, but what is often overlooked is the rather heartening fact that more and more people are looking at gaming as a hobby or time sink. Personally, I don’t think it was so much the social stigma of geekery that stopped so many “normal people” from playing games so much as the increasingly disastrously designed control inputs, which is exactly why the DS and moreso the Wii has been instrumental in bringing new players to the medium and why the PC has been doing so for a while now.

In the old days, controls were simple but as the games grew in complexity extra buttons and triggers were slapped onto it to the point where usability and mapping were slaves to the accepted standard. Most controllers look fairly similar now, with dual joypads, a whole host of buttons, your start and select keys, et cetera and et cetera, and, to be frank, it is ridiculous. Even I, having played games for a fair number of years now, still have trouble with my PS3 or Xbox360 controller, am unable to remember all the combinations for whichever situation, or get confused about which direction to push the right stick to control the camera which way, and even end up crouching/hooting/whatever in the heat of the excitement by accidentally pushing down on a joystick. Show any such controller to a layperson or explain what is required and I’m not surprised so many of them think “sod this for a game of larks”.

If you read Donald Norman’s excellent book “The Design of Everyday Things”, which comes highly recommended, you’ll learn about mapping and how many objects in our lives seem to muck this up, from how four gas pips on a cooker are laid out in a square but their buttons in a row to how mopeds and motorcycles arbitrarily use twisting a handle forward or backward equates to left and right indicators or braking. Your average game controller has similar problems. How does pressing down on a joystick equal honking your car horn? Why is the SQUARE button reload in one game and jump in another? Why is the left trigger the fire button, but the little button above it a zoom button? Why is up on the controller forward in the game, but up on the right joystick is up for the camera, or down if you’re one of those inverted axis weirdos? Why do we even need a start and select button? It is outrageously arbitrary and totally counter intuitive.

What makes things worse is that none of these inputs are standardized either. Each game requires its own learning curve just for controlling it, let alone playing it. Some games don’t even allow you to customize the controls to suit your personal “standard”. On top of that there are slight variations per region too, most famously the CIRCLE button meaning OK in Japan, but the X button taking over that task everywhere else. Then the naming of the buttons is obtuse too. Why A and B, followed by X and Y? Why are the buttons underneath the joysticks L3 and R3, and why did it take me months to realize these were buttons in the first place? To muddy the waters even more are the game designers themselves who often like to add feature upon feature, clouding the control scheme with badly thought out button actions or totally unimportant ones.

The simplicity of the Wii’s control inputs are a true breath of fresh air. You want to select something? Just point at it and click the friendly round button. Reviewers like to snort with derision at what they call “waggle controls”, seemingly pointless waggling of the Wiimote to perform an action. But I ask you, would it have been better if the action was tied to an arbitrary button? The DS makes things even simpler, with just tapping the required area for your input. It’s so simple, anyone can understand it. Which brings me to the PC, which seems to be the King of casual gaming. And why? Because a lot of games require only a mouse and a single mouse button. Most people know how to use a PC, which means most know how to control a mouse. And with a single button to control a game, you can ignore the learning process and jump directly into the challenge the game itself offers.

Which is exactly why it annoys me that somehow, along the line, developers and publishers have started equating “casual” with “bright, friendly” or “shitty simple”. You do not have to make main characters pink with huge eyes, involve horses or kittens or make boring mini-game collections to make a casual game. Just make it easy to play. As films, books and television show a wide range of popular styles and stories, so, I would hazard a guess, do games. There are a lot of “casual” gamers out there who would like a zombie survival horror game or a gritty World War 2 shooting game, but would not be able to learn or enjoy the 150 button combinations needed to control it. This doesn’t mean those games would have to be made so simple a 5 year old could play them, but it would mean having a good hard think about how these players control the game, adding more contextually automatic actions and using a controller that doesn’t look like a robot with acne.

Just like last year’s cliché warcry of “we need more women playing our games” gave us a slew of pink-coloured horse-riding simulators and fashion Barbie titles, so the current paradigm of “casual” seems to be bringing us overly simplistic gameplay and cutesy graphics. I’d say if we focus on accessibility more than anything else we will have won half the battle. And the Wii seems the idea for this, but it may not necessarily be the only option.

14 comments:

  1. I had an PsOne and a PS2 and I still don't know the where the OX△

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  2. lol, play any music game as long as I have and you'll learn button configurations real quick. My friends and family have that problem though, with controls. And, because of this generally stick to playing the Wii.

    I kind of like getting the hang of new controls if the control scheme is somewhat intuitive. Games like skate. and Portal have intuitive, simple and competent controls and it makes using the controller feel like an extension of myself.

    And when reviewers or whatever use the term "stick-waggling", it's not meant as "simplistic" but "why, if I want to open a door do I have to shake the stick?" It's when controls on the Wii are handled by waggling the Wiimote in an arbitrary manner, i.e. when sawing a log or turning a key jiggling the wiimote is required instead of, simply, producing a sawing motion or turning the wiimote.

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  3. it ate my epic rant about the utter foolishness of wii/ds controls!

    anyway, you'll definitely enjoy this (although you've probably seen it already): http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/06/08/

    Sadly, "casual" really ends up meaning "easy" rather than "simple".

    Two buttons and a D-pad should be enough. Four buttons and a D-pad (DS/PSP without shoulders) should be more than enough.

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  4. iXis, I personally HATE having to learn new controls, trudging through a slow-pced, boring tutorial to be told TRIANGLE = crouch, or whatever, only to forget it all if I don't play the game for a few days, and not being able to recall it in the heat of battle. It's tedium. As Raigan says, directional controls and an action button, with I suppose a pause/menu button is all I want, all a lot of games really would require. An oversimplified rant against an overly obtuse control standard....

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  5. I grew up with the SNES`s BY AX config, which were the names I still called the PSX`s buttons (square being called Y), because my friends and I would understand each other...

    Then along comes Microsoft, using the same letters and colours as the SNES, but then set in another order... Had some confusing moments playing DOA that way :/

    Ohw and if you like simple control schemes (like DS` stylus), try out The World Ends With You. NOT casual at all, I guarantee you ;D

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  6. @raigan:

    I don't think "casual" means "simple". They can be challenging, too.

    The difference I see between "casual" and "hardcore" games is that one sticks to core gameplay, whereas the other tries to fatten up its "content" (and thus creating a charming franchise) and milk as much money as possible.

    But of course, even the most
    "hardcore" games can be very accessible if a really smart and seemless control AI-assist can be created and perfected.

    ..that or if games can read player's mind.

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  7. I've never personally had a huge issue with how controls are mapped. Though my first system was the Master System II, which had a D pad and two buttons; the later controller updates never confused me.

    I find that once you sit down and make the effort to remember what's where, it's simple. Guitar Hero is a great example of this, as initially everyone is shite because hey simply don't know where each button is without looking. Once a player has memorised which finger corresponds with a colour, they're set to take on the higher difficulties.

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  8. Hah, that there's the Universe at War control scheme.

    The Xbox 360 started on a nice idea, but didn't go all the way with it... basically, when building your user profile in the dashboard, you could set up control preferences, like whether you prefer inverse or standard, auto or stick in driving games, etc. They should take this a step further, and allow players to set general universal control schemes, covering all the typical controls for a genre (stick movement, jump, reload, etc). While this won't solve the over-complexity of today's titles, it'd at least let the player set his own standards.

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