Updated: Feb 23
Hi again everyone!
In the last article we covered the problems associated with non-ambidextrous controls in video games.
In this article we will investigate an even bigger problem plaguing some video games - the lack of choice and customizability in their controls.
The Situation at Home in the '08s and early '90s
Most of the games I played at home whilst growing up were on the ZX Spectrum and Amiga 500. These were home computers with full keyboards. Games for these systems often featured fully customisable controls, which allowed the player to choose any combination of joystick inputs, button presses and keyboard controls they saw fit. This was a welcome feature, especially for gamers like myself who are obligated by necessity to use control schemes that are a little unusual.
The Situation in the Arcades in the '08s and early '90s
Even as a child I understood that arcade cabinets could not feature this level of personalization. After all, each cabinet would be used by many people, and a control set up that would suit one person would not suit someone else. I accepted that a standardised and generic set up was the fairest solution for all.
I also realised the economic incentive for arcade game developers, and video arcade owners, to use a standardised set up. Players using their perfect control scheme would likely die less often in game, which would reduce the number of coins they would pump in for those sweet continues. Additionally, the time a player spent configuring controls would increase player turnaround times. This would increase queuing times for other players and decrease profits for the owners.
Back at Home
However, I assumed that consoles intended for the home gaming market would allow full customizability of their controls in the same manner as the home computers. My first in depth experience with console gaming was Street Fighter 2 on both the SNES and the SEGA Megadrive, both of which allowed the user to map any kick, punch etc. to any button. As such, I assumed my initial assumption had been correct.
Several years later I acquired a Sony PlayStation 1. Most of the games I played and greatly enjoyed on that system, such as R-Type Delta, RayStorm, Street Fighter Alpha, Einhänder etc. also allowed full customizability of controls, so I had no reason to think this was unusual or that this would change in future.
By the late 1990s I had also taken my first forays into PC gaming. Here the customizability of controls were almost limitless in every title, a freedom my semi-ambidextrous hands and cross-dominant eyes greatly appreciated.
New Millennium, New Problems
By 2003 I had added an Xbox and a PlayStation 2 to my collection of gaming hardware, and this is where the problems began. I had expected the titles I played on these systems to offer at least as much customizability of controls as the ones that had preceded them. However I was shocked to discover that this was simply not the case.
I remember it was with some excitement that I first loaded up Halo 2 on the Xbox, only to be deeply disappointed that I was unable to assign the controls I wanted.
Instead, I was restricted to cycling through a limited number of pre-set control layouts named default, tactical, lefty etc. whilst trying to find a pre-set that suited me.
However, I was unable to choose a pre-set that suited me, as none of them did. Instead I had to settle for the pre-set that I disliked the least.
Since a good control system can make a game, and a bad one can break it, I found this to be a highly frustrating and disappointing experience.
What I found most irritating was that it did not have to be like this.
Half-Life 2 on the Xbox 360 allowed the player to ‘map’ any button to any function. So did Portal and Team Fortress 2. Clearly then it was not a technical limitation that stopped other games from doing likewise.
So what was it? Was it laziness on the part of other developers, or a case of ‘mother dev knows best?’ Perhaps we gamers are simply too stupid to be trusted to make these decisions for ourselves. Perhaps then we should be grateful that ‘they’ in their infinite wisdom chose for us?
I wish there was a font for sarcasm...
I expect it was not mere coincidence that the few Xbox / Xbox 360 and PS2 / PS3 games that did allow total freedom of controls were ports of PC games. The original PC versions would have allowed users to define whatever controls they want. "If a keyboard has around 96 keys, why not let the player use all of them if they so choose, and in any way they see fit?" I expect this philosophy was then carried over to the console versions.
When the Controller Become the Controlled
Another issue limiting console gaming are the controllers themselves. Using a standardised controller imposes restrictions on a developer's creativity, as a game for a particular console has to be built around that console's controller, and only that controller. The video below explains this perfectly.
Controllers Control Everything | Game Maker's Toolkit
NB - The Nintendo NX was the code name for the Nintendo Switch.
Video by Game Maker's Toolkit
Since consoles are 'closed eco-systems' it is difficult for third party manufacturers to create new or innovative input devices for them, therefore the selection of input hardware is limited.
Thankfully the same cannot be said for the PC. The PC's 'open eco-system' allows for a huge variety of third party peripherals and input devices. Whatever their needs or budget, a PC gamer is likely to find something suitable. Examples include HOTAS sticks, Track IR headgear, gaming keyboards, macro-enabled multi-buttoned gaming mice, steering wheels and now VR devices.
PC gamers can also use joypads. Wired Xbox 360 and Xbox 1 gamepads work out-of-the-box, as do gamepads from PC third parties, such as Logitech. PlayStation gamepads can also be made to work fairly easily, and even Nintendo's motion controlled Wiimotes and their associated sensor bar can be made to work, which opens up some intriguing possibilities.
MAME Gun Games played with a Wiimote
Playing emulated Coin-op arcade games on a PC using a Wiimote, viewed on a old CRT TV, hooked up to speakers. The freedom PC gaming offers is almost limitless.