Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Controllers - Is the Keyboard Evil?

In this post I am presenting just some random feelings I have about controllers - mainly gaming controllers. These days it is not uncommon for a game to be released on multiple platforms: PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. One key difference between the PC and the latter two is the way games are controlled. PC games have been using keyboard and mouse for ages already. Console games have been using gaming pads with varying number of buttons (and later analog thumb sticks).

NES controllers had a whopping four buttons and the iconic digital directional controller (aka D-pad). Back then, console games had relatively simple interaction. These days gaming pads have quite a bit more. The D-pad is still there but its use for movement is diminishing and has been largely replaced by an analog thumb stick which allows more accurate control. Another analog thumb stick has been added to the right hand side. Four digital buttons under the right thumb. One digital and one analog shoulder button on each side (for index and middle fingers). Start and select buttons in the middle. A total of 10 buttons and three directional controllers. Out of these, only the start and select buttons are not within instant reach.

On the other side of the fence, a keyboard has at least 102 keys. By using combinations of shift and alt keys, a plethora of characters can be produced with a keyboard. In gaming it is typical to use just one hand on the keyboard (assuming the game requires a mouse). If I place my hand in the classic WASD position (used by gamers for movement, although I actually use WAXD), I can reach about twenty buttons with my fingers quite easily. A typical mouse has three buttons and a wheel these days. Mouse movement typically controls a cursor, camera movement or looking (in fps games). While the difference is not as dramatic as it was in the NES era, the PC gamer still has a lot more buttons available.

So is the keyboard evil? In terms of learning, I am leaning towards yes. Figuring out what key does what is a huge task as there are many to try (remember, sometimes alt, ctrl and shift combinations do different things!) without a reference. Remembering them is another thing. On a pad it doesn't take that long to try each button to see what it does. With modern games it's not exactly as straightforward, but I'll come to that in a bit. A large amount of possibilities is also not always best for interaction design. A pad is a constrained design space - once you run out of buttons to assign actions to it's time to optimize your control scheme. On a keyboard it might be a bit too easy to just add another key.

On the other hand, PC gamers have high customization options for their control layouts. If one thing is seriously wrong with console game makers, it's this: too few games allow remapping of controls. Even if this would be almost trivial to implement. This is not a problem until we run into button combinations. 8 actions in a modern game is often not enough. On pads, developers are overcoming the problem by assigning actions to button combinations - typically combined presses of shoulder and thumb buttons. What I personally don't understand is putting actions behind combinations of two thumb buttons. Hello, I only have one thumb to press these buttons with. Pressing two buttons with one thumb ranges from okay (buttons that are on the same diagonal direction the thumb points to - for example triangle and circle on the PS3 pad) to anatomically impossible (the buttons are on opposite corners of the pad layout - for example, square and circle on the PS3 pad).

Some games handle large amount of actions on a pad gracefully (recent example: Darksiders). Some games on the other hand clearly do not (recent example: Prototype). I've heard (I don't have a modern PC, so I haven't tried) that a modern problem with multi-platform PC games is that their controls have been poorly implemented. The developers have designed console control first (because they are more restrictive) and then made as direct a port as possible to the PC, resulting in game play that is clearly not optimized for the keyboard + mouse combination. While 20 keys are reachable when using WASD, it's worthwhile to remember that at least two fingers are reserved for movement buttons most of the time. It takes some training to use all 20 reachable keys without fluidly.

So what does this random train of thought have to do with usability? For starters, design for your controller. If it easily affords only ten actions, don't try to put twelve in your application. Combinations of keys are typically bad because they make actions "invisible". This can be overcome with clever modifier design. In the console version of Assassin's Creed, thumb buttons are mapped to body parts with spatial association: top button is for eyes, left for left hand, right for right hand and bottom button for legs. When a modifier button is pressed, the action changes accordingly. If the character is in stealth mode, the actions will be subtle - if he is not, they will be more rash. The button for one hand can make the character push crowds aside gently, or throw them aside while rushing through.

Another way to go is visual feedback: when a modifier is pressed, display what buttons do on the screen. This is especially good for learning your controller and interface combination. Packing too much information into the buttons should be avoided - a lot of people might not realize that the spatial arrangement of symbols on a key on a keyboard indicate which modifier should be pressed along with that key to get a particular symbol. When the controller is relatively small, this kind of visual feedback on the display is feasible. For keyboards it would be way too much information.

Coming back to the keyboard, typing is what it affords best. If your application needs a lot of typing, using a keyboard is a necessity and coming up with a replacement that is as easy to learn and as efficient (chord keyboards are more effective but difficult to learn) might provide a rather interesting challenge. However, when binding other actions than typing to the keyboard, defining a good scheme becomes important. Shortcuts for example feel rather arbitrary in most modern applications (which is why I called for customizable shortcuts earlier) . There aren't even any standards between vendors which is a disaster.

Short version? I guess it's "pads rule!"

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