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User Experience: Beyond the Standard Controller

by Aidan Kehoe on 07/26/13 03:23:00 am

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.


User Experience: Beyond the Standard Controller

The visual and audio presentation capabilities of gaming platforms have increased dramatically over the last thirty years. During that time the improvements in processor speeds, storage, networking, etc. have been paralleled by very significant developments in the area of game controllers and player interaction. In fact, the evolution of game software and game controllers have been inextricably linked [1]. Games have influenced the design of game controllers, and game controllers in turn have influenced the design of games. The game controller has a huge impact on the player’s experience.

The majority of games have been designed to operate with “standardized” (or de facto standardized) platform-specific controllers, i.e., each game console has an associated standardized first-party controller; most games running on personal computers support input via a basic keyboard and mouse; etc. There also is a rich history of innovation beyond that core feature set of the standard controller; many of these innovations are very minor changes, but some can greatly enhance or fundamentally change the player’s game experience [2].

Just prior to the launch of a new generation of game consoles (and with a vibrant games industry for the PC/tablet/phone ecosystems) it is an interesting time to look back at what we’ve seen in the past, and consider what the future might hold with respect to game controllers and user experience.

Evolution of “Standard” Game Controllers

There are a number of popular-press books that document the development of the console games industry and technology [3, 4, 5]. Looking back at that amazing history, it is clear that much of the innovation in the area of game controllers has been associated with dedicated gaming platforms. Throughout this almost 40-years of evolution, newer generations of consoles were typically accompanied by some degree of development and innovation in the associated game controller. In many cases the amount of controller innovation for a new launch was relatively minor, and in some cases there was very significant innovation and change, recent examples of the latter being Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect, etc.

There are major advantages to this standard controller approach. A standard controller, with support implemented in games in a uniform manner, can help ensure a consistent interface for the user while playing games on that platform. Most games take (or are forced to take) a conservative approach and adhere to the recommended controller guidelines for their target platforms.

On the negative side, the widespread use of standard controllers, together with the use of common control mechanisms within many game genres, results in controls being one of the most difficult areas in which to innovate within a game. This can be very limiting to both the game designer and the player.

Opportunities Beyond “Standard” Controllers … Looking Back

As far back as the 1950s, general purpose computing platforms have been used for the development and playing of computer games. The pre-existing input and output capabilities of the computing platforms were leveraged for gameplay purposes. Back in 1961, the initial implementations of the “Spacewar!” game, running on the DEC PDP-1, used the test-word toggle switches for player input [6].


However, even in those early game environments the opportunities for specialized game controllers were recognized. The location of the toggle switches on the DEC PDP-1 (c. 1960), relative to the visual display, gave one of the players the advantage of being able to see the display more easily. To overcome this problem a dedicated control box incorporating these switches was constructed. In addition to implementing the required switch functionality, the control box configuration also utilized more natural and intuitive mappings for the controls, e.g., the rotation switch was configured so that moving the switch to the right resulted in the craft being rotated to the right; a lever-style control could be moved to accelerate the craft.

Graetz, one of the “Spacewar!” developers, stated that the new control mechanism “improved one’s playing skills considerably, making the game even more fun” [6]. Those comments from Graetz are especially interesting considering their date; those same elements of improving performance and increasing fun are related to the core motivations for people playing games (I’ll come back to that later in the blog).

Of course, while designing and implementing support for a non-standard controller (“enhanced” or “alternative” might be a better description than “non-standard”) offers opportunities to greatly enhance a game, it also introduces significant additional work, more project schedule risk, and potentially cost issues for dedicated hardware. I remember seeing a whole series of controller-related challenges detailed in game post-mortem reports in Game Developer Magazine back in 2006-2008 (Guitar Hero, Metal Gear Solid, Tony Hawk, etc.).

Opportunities Beyond “Standard” Controllers … Looking Forward

Yee proposed three categories of motivations for people playing games: Achievement, Social, and Immersion [7]. Controllers that effectively tap into these fundamental motivators can greatly enhance the game experience. For example, force feedback steering wheels can enhance immersion in racing games. Dedicated gaming mice offer the potential for the player to achieve more in an FPS or MMO game.

So as in the past, I expect we’ll continue to see a significant number of games supporting new and innovative controllers in their games. Incorporating support for innovative controllers in games offers opportunities for a game to distinguish itself in the crowded marketplace [8. 9]. But more importantly, they also offer possibilities to enhance the user experience in games in ways that are just not possible using standard controllers.

I’m deliberately stopping this blog post short of speculating on specific technologies, interactions, games, platforms, etc. The reality is that there are a huge variety of ways these can be leveraged to support the player’s desire for better achievement, enhanced immersion and more meaningful social interaction.


  1. Cummings A (2007) The Evolution of Game Controllers and Control Schemes and their Effect on their Games. Proc 17th Annual University of Southampton Multimedia Systems Conference.

  2. Brown, M., Kehoe, A., Kirakowski, J. & Pitt, I.J. (2009), HCI and Game Controller Design and Evaluation, in Evaluating User Experience in Games, Springer, ISBN 978-1-84882-962-6

  3. Kent L S (2001) The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokémon.  The story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World.  Three Rivers Press. NJ.

  4. Forster W (2005) The encyclopedia of game machines - consoles, handheld and home computers 1972–2005.

  5. Sheff D (1993) Game Over - How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children. Random House.

  6. Graetz J M (1981) The origin of spacewar. Creative Computing, August 1981.

  7. Yee, N (2006). Motivations for play in online games. CyberPsychology & Behavior 9.6: 772-775.

  8. Kane C (2005) Beyond the Gamepad

  9. Marshall D Ward T, McLoone S (2006) From chasing dots to reading minds: the past, present, and future of video game interaction.  Crossroads 13, 2


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