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Game Design Essentials: 20 Unusual Control Schemes
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Game Design Essentials: 20 Unusual Control Schemes

December 6, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 10 of 12 Next

17. Guitar Controller

Representative games: Guitar Hero series (Harmonix, PS2, Xbox 360)

Control description:

The controller is shaped like a miniature guitar, but the inputs themselves are not too special. Five "fret buttons" on the neck play different "notes" when held while a "strum bar" is moved. Notes are only really played when they match up with the song, however. The controller also contains a "whammy bar", rudimentary tilt sensing and a couple of utility buttons, but the main game involves the frets and strum bar.


Surprisingly high given that the game relies on a fairly custom piece of hardware. Harmonix have shown themselves willing to make several different, compatible versions of the controller, and customers have shown themselves willing to buy them.

The scheme in use:

The game may not have originated in arcades, but it's popular for many of the same reasons as Dance Dance Revolution. It might be possible to play both games on a controller, but doing so entirely misses why one would ever want to play them. The control scheme is the whole point.

Guitar Hero is a little friendlier to solo play than DDR, because it doesn't take itself as seriously. People have played air guitar in their homes for decades, while energetic, tiring dance steps are not things people usually put themselves through for solitary fun. And for a game that boils down to the same kind of reaction and timing heavy, Simon Says-based play, Harmonix actually managed to put some strategy into the game.

The strategic aspects of the game involve the obtaining and use of Star Power, which can make hard songs easier and greatly increase scores, and making difficult passages easier using hammer-ons and pull-offs. Fret sequences tend to match their songs in timing, but the actual button presses are designed with an eye towards this kind of strategy, which is, fundamentally, a process of interpreting the song. Who do you suppose would do a better job of that -- your average developer, or those who know and love music with their whole being?

Design lesson:

Think about it for a moment. There's an entire genre of music games that are fundamentally no different from the Guitar Hero games in all ways but one. Yet those games, for some reason, didn't become multi-console megahits strong enough to inspire sales of specialized hardware. In case I haven't reiterated it enough: it's the controller.

Which is not to say that Tuba Hero would do anywhere near as well. There is an aspect of culture mining in the success of Guitar Hero, of finding some cool aspect of our world previously unexploited by gaming and monetizing it. But, like, hey... if it works, it works.

18. Video Stream Analysis

Representative games: EyeToy: Play & others (SCEE, etc., PlayStation 2)

Control description:

It's really quite brilliant. A small USB camera sits above the player's TV. By using real-time image processing, the game figures out where the player is standing and uses that information to affect the world of the game. While I have no inside information on how it works, but it looks like it works by finding the parts of the screen that are "person" and "background," and by examining which parts of the image changes each frame.


One might think pretty high, seeing as how all the current generation systems have USB ports. On the other hand, both Nintendo and Microsoft have shown themselves to be iffy about overly-complex third party peripherals, and have seceded dominance in the game camera arena to Sony, though MS did dabble with its Vision Camera.

The scheme in use:

There are arguments to be made that the chasing of processor and video card power in cutting-edge consoles has hit decreasing returns. It helps graphics quality, but so far not much else. Currently, a disproportionately great portion of system time is taken up by visual effects that, strictly speaking, don't really matter to the play. If the player's model has a hundred polygons or 10,000, it can still have the same attacks, spells, health, walking speed, inventory, and etcetera. Better graphics may improve immersion, but the play is rarely affected by it.

This is, to a certain frame of mind, a compelling argument, and Nintendo has bet the farm on it this time around, hoping to rely on their design strengths to make up the difference. Yet, it could be argued that the failure of increased system strength to greatly change gameplay since the PlayStation days is a failure of imagination, and has nothing to do with the inherent nature of games at all. But there are some games that seek to responsibly use greater power, and perhaps it's fitting that the leader is the console that Sony's own EyeToy game series, which have evolved into the games that use the PlayStation Eye for PS3. These games all use real-time image processing and recognition to determine what is happening in the physical world in front of the camera, and apply that to the virtual world behind the screen.

So far, Sony's uses of game cameras have seemed fairly gimmicky. Using a camera to enable a player to smack around tiny virtual ninjas, or manipulate a virtual guitar, or control a virtual hoverboarder... perhaps these are all things that would be better suited to physical controllers. But this need not be the case in the future. Sony has recently released a collectable card game, Eye of Judgment, that utilizes the PlayStation Eye.

What could be possible in the future? Allowing players to use their own art tools to draw characters or maps on a piece of paper and importing them into the game, as was suggested on the PlayStation Blog? Using enhanced image recognition to map a polygonal character's motions to that of the player? Allowing the players to manipulate hallucinatory objects? I know better than to say the possibilities are endless, but in this direction they are really quite wide. And so far, almost totally unexplored.

Design lesson:

All the processor power required to analyze a constantly-changing framebuffer comes at the detriment of the rest of the game, which is probably why most EyeToy games are fairly simplistic. The PlayStation 3's tremendous resources may change this decisively.


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