Gamasutra is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Game Design Essentials: 20 Unusual Control Schemes
View All     RSS
September 21, 2019
arrowPress Releases
September 21, 2019
Games Press
View All     RSS

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 Previous Page 6 of 12 Next

9. Trackball Sports

Representative games: Golden Tee series (Incredible Technologies), various other arcade sports games

Control description:

These are arcade machines that add an aspect of physicality to sports games by forcing the user to give a big ol' spin on a trackball to supply the power to the shot. It makes the most sense with golf, where to some degree hand and arm strength plays a role with the shot as it does with the real game. In the Golden Tee games, the force used by the player to spin the ball translates directly into the power of the shot.


Poor. Unlike Marble Madness, analog sticks do not lend themselves nearly as well to this type of game, meaning we'll probably never see a good home version of one of the greater recent arcade success stories. As to why this is, read on...

The scheme in use:

Trackball sports games have been around for some time in arcades. Tactical sports like football and basketball tend to use joysticks because of their familiarity to the user, and to allow the spotlight to shine on the athletic abilities of particular simulated team members instead of that of the player. A joystick is a tool for indicating intent to move, and movement is generally key to team sports. Also, joysticks are well-suited because the acts of motion, passing, attempting to make scoring shots, and so on, are done under time pressure, and are usually opposed by AI or other human players. Because the player cannot usually take a long time to act, and because there are plenty of real-time, dynamic pressures on the success chance of the act, simple binary controls, like button presses or joystick movement, are suitable. Signifying intent to act is sufficient, since the precise split-second timing of the button press, compared to the state of the rest of the game, is enough to determine success or failure.

Although it's not unheard-of, team sport games usually don't use trackballs. Bowling and golf are the two most popular subjects for trackball control. They're both slow-paced games where the state of the game doesn't change when players don't make moves. More importantly, because subtleties of motion matter for so much in the real sports, the timing of a binary signal doesn't provide enough variation for the challenge of making a good shot or throw to be significant unless special minigames, usually only related to the physical act of playing in an abstract way, are used. Tellingly, so many console golf and bowling games use "power bars" to determine the fate of each shot or throw that they are expected by players.

This isn't to say that spinning a trackball itself is greatly similar to swinging a golf club, but these acts are more similar to each other than pressing a button when a fluctuating power bar reaches a given point. Both actions translate subtle differences in the movement of each player's muscles so that they have an influence upon the game, and both may be improved through physical practice -- a long but rewarding road.

Design lesson:

When designing a simulation of a sport like golf, one question to ask yourself is: Why can't the player always shoot the best possible shot? This is ultimately why these games mess around with power bars and trackballs, for the games are supposed to be difficult and tricky to control with precision, but still precise enough that the occasional player can shoot a hole-in-one. Even so, power bar games often don't supply enough resolution to the bar to allow shots to be truly varied, a situation remedied, to some degree, by the power bar/motion wand hybrid control in the golf module from Wii Sports (below).

10. Trackball One-to-One Motion

Representative games: Centipede, Marble Madness, Crystal Castles (Atari Games)

Control description:

The player uses a trackball to move his protagonist through the game world, and it moves roughly where the player rolls it. When he spins the ball slow, it moves slowly. When he spins the ball fast, it moves quickly.


Not so good, and not for lack of trying. There have been many home adaptations of Marble Madness, from the Commodore 64 to PlayStation 2, but since the days of the Atari 5200 trackballs have fallen out of favor as console peripherals. Ever since, we've had to make due with joysticks, either analog or digital. It's just not the same, and usually, it's a great deal easier.

The scheme in use:

Notice that I lumped Marble Madness and Crystal Castles together here when in fact their controls are subtly different.

Marble Madness's control has gone on to have the greater influence on game development. In it, the motion of the trackball affects the ball's momentum. When the trackball is rolled down, the game doesn't apply that motion directly to the marble's position, but to its velocity. This means that the player's marble doesn't respond directly to the trackball's movements, but is instead delayed by the physics underlying the game, lending the marble a sense of weight.

Crystal Castles' trackball has a more direct effect on the player's motion. This lends Bentley Bear his trademark skittery movement, and pushes the game in the direction of mastering movement more than outsmarting enemies who, to compensate, have simple AI.

Design lesson:

One characteristic of nearly all trackball games is that it's very difficult to precisely duplicate one's performance from a prior game, even if the game is otherwise devoid of random elements. The trackball's movement is chaotic enough that it, itself, is a randomizing influence upon the game.


Article Start Previous Page 6 of 12 Next

Related Jobs

University of Exeter
University of Exeter — Exeter, England, United Kingdom

Serious Games Developer
Sucker Punch Productions
Sucker Punch Productions — Bellevue, Washington, United States

UI Artist
Cold Iron Studios
Cold Iron Studios — San Jose, California, United States

Senior Content Designer
Deep Silver Volition
Deep Silver Volition — Champaign, Illinois, United States

Environment Artist

Loading Comments

loader image