Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Game Design Essentials: 20 Unusual Control Schemes
View All     RSS
October 21, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 21, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Game Design Essentials: 20 Unusual Control Schemes

December 6, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 12 Next

[Continuing Gamasutra's 'Game Design Essentials' series, which has also included '20 Difficult Games' and '20 Open World Games', this fascinating installment examines unconventional control schemes, from Robotron through Crazy Climber to the Wiimote and Guitar Hero, with detailed design lessons for each concept.]

Stop for a moment and consider what it is that makes a game control well. It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.

There is a theory that the controls of a video game should do their best to get out of the player's way. The interaction between the player's mind and the game world should be as simple as possible. The perfect controller, to this thinking, is something that would read minds and eliminate all possibility of confusion, other than that in the player's head. There would be no controls to learn, no buttons to press, and no fumbling with control pads. Input would be completely mental, and output would be a holodeck.

In the absence of such technology, controls should be standardized so a player can move from one game to another easily. They seek to develop a shared control language that applies across games: left stick moves, right controls camera, the major action button shoots, a secondary one jumps, shoulder buttons flip between weapons -- that kind of thing.

Every control style mentioned in this article speaks against this theory. Some present their own standards in its place, due to their being well-suited to their style of game; the dual joystick (shooting) style has been used in a few games itself, from the old classic Robotron: 2084 to Geometry Wars. Others really have no chance of ever becoming a standardized control scheme, but are okay with it. After Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, why would anyone else even care to make a platformer controlled entirely with the pressings of two buttons? But then, why would someone have cared to make it to begin with?

For some of these games, special hardware is needed to measure player performance in greater detail, so as to translate it into game terms. In the Golden Tee games, rolling the trackball further and faster makes for a stronger shot. Other games use special controllers to accentuate the game experience. Guitar Hero naturally does this to help the player feel like a rock star, and the bicycle-powered arcade game Propcycle is perhaps the closest we will ever come to experiencing human-powered flight.

The purpose of this article is not to describe the games themselves, unless it is important to do so to explain what makes its control scheme interesting, or if the style is mostly relevant to only one game. Because it's concerned with games that purposely do things in a non-traditional manner, there's an unusually large representation from arcade developer Atari Games on this list.

Finally, again, although the list is numbered, this should not be taken as a list of the "most" unusual control styles ever seen in games. Attempting to make such lists will always make some folk unhappy. I know I'm never happy with them. These games are given as examples. Some are obvious, and some push the limits of the theme. That is the point. The idea is to give you ideas for your own project, and to show some notable successes, and maybe failures too.


Article Start Page 1 of 12 Next

Related Jobs

Nuclear Division
Nuclear Division — Sherman Oaks, California, United States

Senior Game Designer
Rumble Entertainment, Inc.
Rumble Entertainment, Inc. — San Mateo, California, United States

Lead Designer/Creative Director
Nintendo of America Inc.
Nintendo of America Inc. — Redmond, Washington, United States

Visual Development Artist
Filament Games LLC
Filament Games LLC — Madison, Wisconsin, United States

Web & Interaction Designer


Frank Cifaldi
profile image
pfff, Aztarac? Everyone knows the definitive joystick and dial game is Mad Planets.

profile image
Special mention for the PC Mechwarrior games. Operating a mech was like learning how to fly a jet, used the entire keyboard, and were still fun enough to be worth dealing with all the complexity.

profile image
is this THE john harris? of Activision and RetardFuel fame?

Tony Dormanesh
profile image
I hate to be a total nerd by pointing this out, but Front Line was listed as a dual joystick game, but it actually used a joystick dial control. You had to push down on the actual dial to shoot.

Jason Pineo
profile image
Thank you for another interesting article. I've enjoyed the exposure to different aspects of videogaming in each of the '20 of' articles.

In the section "5. Dual Joystick (movement)" you make this comment:

"For more mundane tasks this might not be such a good idea; no one wants to play a game in which he must manipulate a soldier's legs independently step by step."

Actually, in Robot Alchemic Drive you control a giant robot's arms and legs individually using the analog and shoulder controls. Combined with the visual perspective (that of a young human standing outside of the robot), the control scheme does a very good job of conveying the experience of 'controlling a giant robot'. And to be honest, sometimes it's fun to mess up and accidentally backhand a civic building in combat. I suspect it is a fairly niche experience, but it's done consistently and well.

Brian Burwell
profile image
Has anyone else ever played Hyper Bowling? That one can be quite tiring depending on which "alley" you're on. The streets of San Francisco are the worst with dodging traffic and all the hills.

John Harris
profile image
Anonymous #2: Nope, I'm not that John Harris. (Not the first time I've been asked, the guys seems to have dropped off the face of the earth.)

Jason Pineo: I stand corrected, thanks.

Tony Dormanesh: Front Line's an oversight, meant to remove but apparently forgot.

Leaving out two-stick mech games is an oversight, but they could be considered a variant of tank controls.

Note, by the way, that the title says 20 games but there's actually 21. That's because Progress Quest could be considered to be not a game at all....

Billy Bissette
profile image
When talking about dual sticks, Ikari Warriors is described as a "move to aim"-style game, which is not true of the arcade versions. They (and other games like Heavy Barrel) used a special joystick that could be rotated for aiming. For a game like Ikari Warriors, this worked better than dual sticks, as you had separate fire and grenade buttons. And it worked better than "stick and dial" as the fire button was separate from the stick.

The biggest detriment to the rotating stick was probably that it was more expensive to replace when broken.

The discussion for adapting Trackball One-to-One motion deserves mention of Super Monkey Ball's analog stick tilt-the-stage approach.

The design lesson discussion for Motion Wand calls Wii Sports gold swing as an obfuscated version of Golden Tee's trackball. I think the opposite is more accurate. When it comes to swinging a golf club, spinning Golden Tee's trackball is more an abstraction than swinging the Wii remote like a golf club.

The weakness of Wii Golf may mostly be that Wii detection just seems shoddy in general, for both hardware and software reasons. This will remain an issue for the Wii in the long run, which from all accounts simply cannot match or even compare to more dedicated motion detection and aiming hardware, whether it be the Guncon 3 or some cheap plug-straight-into-the-TV plastic sword swinging game.

John Harris
profile image
These are all fair assessments Billy, thanks for responding!

I'm afraid I have more experience with the NES Ikari Warriors (which I -hated-) than the arcade.

Super Monkey Ball's (and the original Monkey Ball's) analog stick is known of and greatly appreciated, but unfortunately there's only 20 (or 21) slots. And more and more games are using that kind of motion.

My description of Wii Sports as a version of Golden Tee's system is due to chronology (Golden Tee has been around for a while now) and rather a lot of experience with Wii Sports Golf. The fact that the game ultimately resorts to a power bar is a little bit of a cheat. From different perspectives, though, each is closer to real golf.

And I disagree about motion wand detection being shoddy on the Wii. There are a number of games (like Wii Monkey Ball) that use it quite precisely. For example, people have built machines into which a Wiimote can be inserted that are capable of bowling a strike every time. I expect it's how- the data is used that is the problem, that the reason it seems inaccurate has to do with data averaging and discarding done in order to avoid picking unintentional motions.

Billy Bissette
profile image
For Monkey Ball's control, I mean that it might be a viable approach to adapting Trackball One-to-One motion to the now common analog stick. No, it is not a perfect emulation. But it certainly could be closer to D-Pad attempts, and might even add some variability back into player results, if still not reaching trackball slipperiness.

I cannot speak to Wii Monkey Ball's performance, as I've not played it. To me, the design of the series has only gone downhill, so SMB2 was my last purchase. I have certainly read a fair share of complaint about Wii Monkey Ball control though, mostly in the form of people who find it sloppy compared to what was done for analog sticks.

John Harris
profile image
I played a bit of Wii Monkey Ball and found its control was precise, but that it didn't overcome the game's other flaws. I agree completely that the series has gone downhill.

Seth Isenberg
profile image
For Guitar Hero: "The game may not have originated in arcades, but it's popular for many of the same reasons as Dance Dance Revolution."

Actually, the guitar controller originated in arcades in Japan- Guitar Freaks was a Konami Bemani game in the same series as DDR, there were 4 or 5 versions as well. I played the game in Japanese arcades in 2000. The only difference in the controller was the lack of whammy bar and perhaps one less fret button. It also had a lift in the air component for bonus points. There might have been a home controller for the Japanese PS as well.

Ethan Larson
profile image
I don't agree with his assessment of Toobin at home... You can map R1/R2/L1/L2 to the movement buttons and X to throw. Feels very much like the arcade machine. And while it may be "purposely made more difficult by its controls," it is learning those controls that makes it fun.

Glad someone said the DDR proves twich games still sell. :)

Interesting article, dude.

Christopher Drum
profile image
Semi-important oversights on the "Dial and Joystick" controller as Tron and Discs of Tron are classics. Wondering a little how a "rotary joystick" fits into this list, ala Ikari Warriors. The "Dial Movement" section leaves out some incredibly notable games: Omega Race, Major Havoc and Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator (Arcade).

A fine article, as usual. (really enjoyed your RPG/JRPG write-up, in particular).