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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 3 of 12 Next
 

3. Dial Movement

Representative games: Pong, Breakout, Warlords, Tempest (Atari Games, arcade), many Atari 2600 games (Atari), Arkanoid, Cameltry (Taito)

Control description:

There's a dial that directly controls player position along a one-dimensional range of movement. The Atari 2600 actually had two controls of this type, the ubiquitous "Paddle" which had a hard stop at the end of its range of movement, and the "Driving" controller, which had no stop and was analogous to a one-dimensional trackball.

Adaptability:

Low to Moderate. There are few things sadder in gamedom than a Breakout-type game controlled with a joystick. So important is the control to these games that not only did Taito release a special dial controller for the NES so that people could play Arkanoid as the arcade developers intended, they're doing the same thing for the upcoming DS version of the game. While Cameltry makes due with its button-controlled SNES port, you're not really playing Tempest if you don't have dial control.

The scheme in use:

Using a rotary control provides the player with the ability to instantly switch his position to any spot along a continuum of possibilities. For games of the Breakout style this is essential. Breakout is a game of reaction with a component of prediction, but what happens when the ball is sent flying with a horizontal component greater than the player's movement speed? The developer must either increase player speed (making it more difficult to control in normal play) or decrease maximum ball speed (making the game much less difficult). Paddle controls get around the problem easily.

Two of the games in the list are not Breakout-style games, and they are both important examples. Cameltry focuses on a ball with realistic physics (unlike the Breakout ball, which has only simplistic physics) and gives the player the ability to rotate the maze around the ball. The maze is much larger than the ball and new parts must scroll into view, so it is helps to be able to instantly adjust it to allow the ball to fall past obstacles. On the other hand, the SNES adaption of the game (On The Ball in Western markets) uses level design that takes the digital control into consideration, with sharp turns that seem perfectly matched to a full swing left or right.

And then we have Tempest, one of the greatest of all twitch games. The dial in that game moves the player's ship around the edge of a (usually) continuous web, and the dial control in the arcade version potentially gives the player nearly instant access to any part of it. This is useful because the player wants to keep the Flipper enemies away from the outside edge of the playfield. But the game also requires precision control in order to destroy Flippers that have made it out, by firing on them as they flip into the player's lane. Tempest also features enemies that fire up the web at the player, so the dial must be used to dodge shots too. Tempest consistently ranks near the top of classic arcade popularity lists, yet compared to other Atari classics it has seen relatively few home ports (Jeff Minter's efforts notwithstanding) because of its special control needs.

Design lesson:

The trade-off, seen in trying to control NES Arkanoid with a control pad, is between long-distance speed and short-distance precision. Among the designers of the dozens of Breakout clones created since the 70's, the mark of the clever mind -- as opposed to that who just rolls in special blocks and powerups without thinking -- is in whether situations occur where the ball is impossible to return. Without a paddle it can be difficult to guarantee this.

It is worth noting that it may be possible, depending on the correlation between dial movement and its effects on the screen, for the player's position on-screen to "skip" if he moves the paddle rapidly enough to cause it to move further than the player's width during a single screen refresh. If the game depends on the player not being able to move through barriers, the developer must make sure that he doesn't just flip by them in the middle of a frantic twirl.

4. Complicated Control Panels

Representative games: Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe (Atari), Defender, Stargate (Williams)

Control description:

Joysticks existed for video game use when Asteroids made it out, but for some reason the game was controlled entirely using buttons marked Rotate Left, Rotate Right, Thrust, Fire and Hyperspace. Defender and Stargate still hold the record for most controls included in a popular non-fighting game; the former's control panel has a lever and five buttons, and the sequel added yet another button to the controls.

Adaptability:

Pretty good, although every known home version of Asteroids substitutes Joystick Left and Joystick Right for the rotation buttons. Many also replace Thrust with Joystick Up, which given the potential ease of accidental thrust should be considered a mis-feature. Every consumer version of Defender and Stargate from the Atari 2600 on to the Midway Arcade Treasures emulations of the PS2 generation simplifies their controls, arguably improving them.

The scheme in use:

These games often suffer from the complexity of their controls when encountered by current players. In the old days it'd usually take players a few games to get used to Defender's formidable control setup, where today most players don't have the patience for that. As the proponents of the Wii would suggest, there's something to be said for not giving the player too many buttons to keep track of at once.

And yet... stop for a moment and consider, is Defender, with its vertical lever and buttons for Fire, Thrust, Reverse, Smart Bomb and Hyperspace, really all that complex by our standards? The current most popular game system in the world, the PlayStation 2, has ten buttons, a control pad, and two analog sticks on its controller -- and the sticks can themselves be pressed to provide two extra buttons. It helps greatly that the Dual Shock is held in the player's hands and not spread out over a flat control panel, but neither has it the luxury of printed instructions lying next to each button.

Back in the days of the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, if a game required the use of a keypad it would nearly always include an overlay that could be slotted into place over the pad to remind the player of button functions. The modern replacement for the overlay, I'm sorry to say, is lengthy obnoxious tutorial sequences that present each control's a small number of times then hopes the player will remember.

Design lesson:

As Thoreau urged us to do, simplify, simplify. There is something telling about the nagging, suspicious similarity between playing video games and doing work, but that doesn't mean we have the right to force the player to earn an associate's degree in Controlling The Damn Game just to play.

 


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