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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 12 of 12

Bonus Stage: No Player Interaction

Representative game: Progress Quest (Windows)

Control description:

The program sits on the system tray and generates random combat messages. After a certain threshold is reached, the character gains a level. He then jumps right in and continues training for the next level. Ad infinitum. The player can call up lists of quests undertaken and completed, monsters killed, and treasure found, if he wants. He can't actually do anything to affect this stuff, though.


That protein folding applet for the PlayStation 3 is a serious version of this...

The scheme in use:

This one's included as something of a joke but it is worth discussing all the same, because Progress Quest is a surprisingly addictive little applet. And it is the simplest possible control scheme, in that there's actually no control at all!

And there are plenty of games that have aspects of this. It is a common action in god games like SimCity for players to "leave their city running" for a while for people to move in, buildings to grow, tax revenue to accumulate, and so on. These games tend to have moments where, once the orders are given, the player's job is basically to watch his hard work pay off, or not. Progress Quest is sort of like that, but without the hard work part.

And yet... there is reason to believe this style of play is not just the realm of parody. Take Dwarf Fortress, for instance. Before the player can begin a game he has to wait for his computer to generate a randomized fantasy world for him a process that can take over an hour. But once it's done, the resulting playfield is unusually well-developed. It's so well-developed that the game includes a mode for just generating a world without playing, and outputting graphic files of the world's regions.

Design lesson:

We haven't seen much of it yet because algorithmic content generation is still extremely primitive, but in the future it's possible to see games that, effectively, play themselves, using random processes to engineer worlds that are interesting enough that they can be explored simply through reading or viewing, rather than interaction.

At least they'll give the robots something to watch after they destroy human civilization.


Joystick: Unless otherwise noted this is an "8-way" digital joystick, capable of aiming in cardinal or diagonal directions, or of being in a neutral position. These joysticks are cheap to produce and plentiful. In most cases (but not all) they can be replaced with a control pad. There are specialized joysticks produced for a few arcade machines (specifically, Sinistar and Pigskin 621 A.D.) that are capable of much more precise, 49-way movement.

Analog joystick: These joysticks work on a different principle from digital sticks, and can aim in "any" direction, as well as detecting how far the stick has been pushed away from neutral. It used to be that these joysticks were rather unsuited for general gaming purposes; it wasn't really all that long ago when analog stick centering was considered an optional feature. The use of analog sticks, instead of digital ones, is considered a key aspect of the failure of the Atari 5200 game console, but Apple home computers also utilized them, and they were the default on PCs for a long time. They finally hit the mainstream when a centering analog stick was a prominent feature on the Nintendo 64's innovative controller, and they really took off when the original PlayStation's DualShock controller sported twin analog thumbsticks. Their absence on a console seems unthinkable now.

Button: The simplest control possible, and by far the oldest given its use in pinball machines. It can either be pressed, or not. There are games that are controlled only by a single button, but that scheme mostly sees only specialized use. WarioWare Twisted has a mode where all the minigames are controlled by single button-presses. Buttons come in many forms: control panel buttons, face buttons, shoulder buttons and triggers. The PlayStation 2 has thumbstick buttons, which activate by pressing "in" on a thumbstick, and analog buttons, allowing the game to detect how hard they've been pressed. These days, analog buttons are most commonly seen on controller shoulders. The Gamecube's primary controller famously featured analog shoulder buttons with a hard digital "click" when pressed in far enough.

Dial: A circular control that can be turned, with the computer detecting the direction it's pointing and/or how far, or fast, it's been moved. There are two kinds of dials: one where the dial can be turned freely as far as the player likes either clockwise or counter-clockwise, and one where there's a hard stop along the range in both directions. This second control is sometimes referred to as a paddle, in reference to the common controller included with Atari VCS/2600 consoles, but note that system also supported full-spin dials in the form of its little-used "driving" controller. While this control is little-seen these days and few current consoles utilize them except in the form of steering wheel controllers, some important games use dials: Pong, Breakout, Arkanoid, and, of course, Tempest.

Trackball: A ball, often one much like a cue ball, is set into a solid device, but can be freely moved in any direction by the player, and its movements detected and used by the computer. Sometimes considered analogous to an upside-down mouse, but it's not always the case that the two are interchangeable. Still, it sometimes sees use as a pointing device on some systems, and in arcade games, such as in Missile Command and Rampart. Atari Games made heavy use of trackballs. These days, they mostly see use in the Golden Tee line of arcade golf games. Some first-person shooter players swear by them for allowing for greater aiming precision than a mouse.

Stylus: Until fairly recently the domain of artists willing to shell out for expensive tablets, touch-screen controls first became popular on PDAs. The Nintendo DS is famous for being the first consumer gaming-focused device to use a touch-screen. While many games use its screen in a gimmicky fashion, a few make great use of it.

Other controls: There are many other control systems that have been used in games. This is just a partial list:

- Light guns, essentially screen-based pointer devices, are used in some shooting games. Nintendo's Wii console offers screen-pointing controls that are similar in practice.

- Motion-sensing controls are a major selling point of the Wii, and Sony's PlayStation 3 console can also detect controller movement.

- Sony's EyeToy and PlayStation Eye devices are nothing less than USB cameras, the image stream of which is used by some games to detect the player's (physical) location and movement for game purposes.

- Namco (and to a lesser extent, Sega) became known in the 90s for producing large-cabinet games with unusual control mechanisms, like skis and skateboards.

- Konami popularized the use of foot pad grids in their Dance Dance Revolution series.

- Konami also uses body sensors in some of their first-person shooting, dancing, and sword fighting arcade games.

- Nintendo is known for releasing strange controls for most of their systems, ranging from foot pads (Power Pad) to microphones (Odama) to bongo drums. The Wii seems designed around the concept of special controller "attachments."

- Sega also made their own fair share of custom controllers, like maracas, microphones and fishing poles.

- Harmonix's Guitar controller, available for PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360, became and continues to be a tremendous hit, riding the continued success of the Guitar Hero games.

Sources for images: KLOV, Mameworld, Travelizmo,, Armchair Empire, Craig Harris' IGN Blog, Eurogamer, Temple of the Roguelike, Coding Horror

Article Start Previous Page 12 of 12

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