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How Control Schemes Standardized Gameplay
by Josh Bycer on 08/15/14 04:36:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


One of the major ways that video games became accessible in the 00s was the standardization of controls: Where the different console makers picked a standard format for button placement to be used across game design and affected gameplay.

On one hand making it a lot easier to play multiple games, but on the other hand it makes games that stray from the beaten path stick out like a sore thumb and an important consideration when it comes to building your game.


Controller Wars:

For most of the 80s to early 00s, the different console makers each competed with each other using differently designed gamepads. First as a means of standing out from the competition and second because the industry was very much in its infancy.

This meant as a game designer that you had to shift your control scheme and how the game was played based on what console it was being released on. Another effect this had was restricting games based on the controller or radically changing the scheme.

For instance: If your game was built to make use of the SNES's four face button scheme, then your game would simply not be playable on the Genesis' three face button scheme.

The Dreamcast/GameCube era was the last time where each console featured a different scheme. From the PS2-on, both Sony and Microsoft used the same basic control scheme for their gamepad designs: Two analog sticks, d-Pad, two triggers, two back buttons, start and select and four face buttons.

Now designers had a unified scheme to work on, making cross platform ports easier and simplifying control schemes for design. Of course I know that some of you are about to point out Nintendo went in a different direction. Nintendo is the odd man out for this piece with a radically different scheme and aren't going to be mentioned here due to it.

Understanding the best way of putting together a control scheme is dependent on the hand position of the person using a gamepad. The index fingers and the thumbs are the most used fingers on the hand and have to be taken account of when designing your game.

The Halo series was the first one to present what would become the standard controller scheme for console FPS.

Combined, the index fingers and thumbs rest on the triggers, sticks and the A and X button position on a 360 Gamepad (X and Square if you're using a Playstation controller).

Taking that into account, the main actions of any video game are commonly associated with those buttons; it's why FPS games use the right trigger to shoot or platformers use the A button to jump.

Before you even start to think about the control scheme for your game, you need to take into account the countless games that have came before and understand that you are not designing in a vacuum.

Controller Dissonance:

For any video game, we can break down the actions that are going to be assigned to the controller based on the following groups --

Primary: A primary action corresponds to the main verbs that playing the game are based around. Attacking, jumping, and movement are just a few of the examples. Essentially, anything that must be used constantly to beat the game fits here.

Secondary: Actions that assist the primary actions or perform a contextual action: Using a quick item, casting a spell, opening a door and so on.

Using these two groups as a guide, it becomes clear that the primary actions should be mapped to the buttons that are easiest to reach by the player. Or in other words the A and X buttons, triggers and sticks.

It's important to note that there is one exception to the A and X buttons and that is when you're playing a platformer. Since the A button is going to be used constantly, it's better to not make the X button a primary action as the player is going to be focused on using the A button for jumping.

As a basic rule, it's easier for the player to remember two primary actions split between your hands as opposed to having them both within the same hand's reach. It's the same rationale behind placing the face buttons in an ordinal positioning, as it provides a second source of association to make it easier to remember. With the two hand rule, the player can associate that their left hand for all movement based actions while the right is for combat as an example.

Valids Story's Button Confusion:

Button heavy games like DMC take longer to learn by simple virtue of having a command associated to every button.

Here's an example of poor control placement and how it impacts a game.

In the title Valids Story: Abyssal City-- it's a metroidvania styled game with a greater emphasis on combat and RPG progression. To attack, you press the X button and jumping is set to A.

But with combat such a focus, blocking is very important to the game. However, the designers set the block button to B on the controller. Now it doesn't sound so bad when you read it, but you need to understand how finger placement works.

Since you're holding the controller with your little and ring finger with your middle and index on top of the controller, the thumb is the main finger for all the face buttons. The developers assigned three primary actions (attack, jump block) to the face buttons or to one finger. For quick response, it's customary to have the dodge button in position to be used by another finger, usually the middle or index fingers.

By setting up the controls this way, more times than not I was busy attacking an enemy when they started their attack animation and instinctively reached for a trigger or top button and got attacked.

There is one exception to having the thumb be responsible for a lot of actions and that is making use of the right analog stick. If you assign the stick to handle one action such as all dodging or camera controls that is okay. The reason is that the player can associate the stick with just one action.

Wrapping Up:

While thinking outside the box is a popular expression when it comes to game design, the same can't be said about control layout. Familiar control schemes help the learning period of the game by making it easier to grasp the controls. Despite the variety of games out there, last I checked we still only have a total of ten fingers to use with the majority of those fingers holding the gamepad in place.

With so many games being released these days, having an easy to understand control scheme is vital, yet not as apparent as graphics or gameplay are to most designers. You know you have something when the player forgets they're holding a controller as playing the game feels like second nature and not like those old advertisements where people are swinging their gamepads in the air as if it would matter.

(For more posts on game design and the industry along with weekly podcasts, check out Game-Wisdom)

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Christian Nutt
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It does influence game design in meaningful ways - I had a triple-A dev tell me that designing FPSes is important because players know what to expect from the controls and that is one less barrier, and other saying that there's no need to tutorialize, so you can assume players know what's up and get straight to IMMERSION (the byword of triple-A) that much quicker.

I'm sympathetic to the difficulties of making games players can get into given how important it is, but quite sad that it's just leading to further homogenization of games.

Josh Bycer
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It's definitely interesting with how things have turned out. On one hand as you said, standardized controls have made it easier to learn games and cut down on learning, but then of course this led to so many military shooters and third person action titles over the last generation. Because everyone knows the control schemes by heart which makes them an easy sale.

And this also makes it a double edged sword when we talk about indie games who generally make unique titles that wouldn't be seen elsewhere. But they are less accessible because a lot of times they create obtuse control schemes either by design or not spending the time to make things easy to understand.

My recent example would be Miasmata which was a first person survival game. I spent 15 minutes playing with the controls, went in the water and apparently drowned and threw up my hands and said "done." It's becoming harder and harder to justify spending a lot of time on just one game due to the overload of titles today.

John McMahon
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I understand for existing gamers, but what about new gamers who never played an FPS?

I was playing Halo 3: ODST with a friend and they were completely lost. They didn't have a fluid understanding between looking and moving, so they had to stop moving in order to focus on an enemy or look around.

Standardised controls is great, but you can never assume only experienced gamers are playing your game.

Josh Bycer
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That's interesting and something that I bet a lot of us take for granted. I remember just how horrible I was when I was learning the Playstation one controller for the first time and had to wrap my head around pressing the trigger buttons.

Christian Nutt
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John, I think the developers definitely DO expect that and cater only to that, which is (yet another) part of why games are getting more homogenized in the triple-A space.

Nathan Mates
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I had a similar button contortion issue with Steamworld Dig, played on Windows with an X360 controller. The default button layout had direction + X to run, then A to do a running jump. My right thumb naturally sat on A, so having to move it up to X, then chord X+A to do the running jump was just a pain. Thankfully, I could easily rebind run to the LT (lower left trigger), which chords much better with D-pad and A.

I also think that there's occasionally a desire to use all of the buttons available, and then some. As much as I like Bastion, I think that separate block (on one button) and dodge (on another button) was overly complicated. There was no good sense -- to me -- what of those options I should be using in any situation. So I usually just focused on damage output and died a lot.

Christian Nutt
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Pretty sure the default you describe is the Mario control scheme, so that's probably why!