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'The Power of the Pad'

by Ben Parfitt on April 11, 2004 @ 2:15 a.m. PDT

As gamers we’re constantly striving for perfection. This must be true, or why else every year do we happily fork out forty notes on the latest annual update of our favourite franchise, be it Madden 2004 or Pro Evolution Soccer 3? Though sometimes these sequels are a significant step forward, more often than not they’re more or less the same as the previous year’s version, bar cosmetic enhancements or trivial alterations; a few hundred extra polygons here, updated team rosters there.

Taking this as read, imagine in your mind that somehow you’ve come into possession of the most developed gaming system yet devised, be that the Playstation 4 or the Gamecube 12 – whatever. Imagine too that you also have a copy of the single greatest game known to mankind; maybe Gran Turismo 5, Rez 3, Mario 256 or Resident Evil 5 (or god forbid something original!). Gaming nirvana would surely only be as far away as the power button on your console? Possibly. But what if connected to your Gamecube 12 was a joypad from a Sega Master System? Instantly, the game of your dreams would be reduced to nothing more than an ornamental plastic disc.

The point of this manic rambling? To illustrate that your gaming experience is only as good as the controller that you have in your hands. The joypad is arguably the most crucial link in the gaming chain. It’s true that in an ideal situation you would control your games with the power of thought alone (or maybe in an ideal situation you’d be out doing things for real?) Since this is not currently possible, you need a device to transfer the actions your brain wants your gaming character to perform into your console’s CPU, which in turn makes the character obey your wish. Therefore, the joypad is your point of contact with the gaming world, the point of interface. Only when a gamer is at one with his peripheral, can true gaming masterdom be achieved.

When the likes of the NES and Sega’s Master System launched back in the day, pads were little more than boxes, merely functional tools. Arguably, this changed with the launch of the superb SNES pads in the early 90’s. Like the D-pad before it, Nintendo were playing the role of industry innovators by introducing the shoulder buttons, an effective method by which more buttons were available to the gamer without overwhelming them. A few years later Nintendo would again take the lead by introducing the analogue stick, which despite featuring on the flawed N64 pad still went on to become an industry standard.

It’s no surprise then that with much fascination rumours continue to circulate concerning the future of the widely debated white and black buttons on the Xbox Controller S. Apparently research conducted by Microsoft themselves has demonstrated that these buttons are the least favoured buttons on the Xbox pad and developers are constantly reluctant to map primary functions to them. As Sega discovered with the Saturn pad back in the 90’s, six buttons are quite a lot for the average thumb to navigate. This problem is accentuated when using the Xbox’s triggers, since when you pull the triggers the average gamer’s hands tend to lock into position.

This raises several problems for Microsoft. Sony’s neutral Dualshock 2 pad is now such an industry standard that to offer fewer than eight primary function buttons will compromise not only multi-format titles, but also more popular Xbox titles such as Halo 2. The original Halo is an example of a title that utilises all of the pad buttons and obviously Microsoft would be reluctant to force a redesign of a much celebrated control system. The fact that the Gamecube pad offers only seven primary buttons (as well as the nipple like left stick and lack of symmetry in the design) is a key factor in the platforms apparent struggle to successfully host multi format titles.

Still, it’s not all bad news for the Xbox pad. The shoulder triggers of the Controller S offer a far greater level of analogue control than those found on the Dualshock 2 and this remains one of the pads strongest features. Microsoft is understandably reluctant to drop them, but if they are kept as they are then it remains difficult to relocate the troublesome white and black buttons to a more user-friendly location.

There is of course another option for Microsoft and that is to remove the buttons altogether. Although this poses obvious questions, there is a large contingent of the industry that feels simplification is the key to long-term success and appeal. Fewer buttons in theory means a wider audience. The rise in popularity of games that utilise simplified interfaces, such as Sony’s Eye Toy, demonstrates that with easier controls comes a new market. No doubt there are potential gamers out there who are alienated by the seemingly complex control schemes required by many of today’s titles (perhaps we can call these folk “uber-casual” gamers).

Maybe we will even see the industry veer towards the likes of the single-button Atari 2600 joystick that featured in homes in the late 70’s. Sure, gamers couldn’t have the same Halo experience with such a device – instead they could have a different one. Games could be designed to offer two control scheme’s, one ‘complex’ using all the available buttons, one ‘simple’ designed to use one or two.

Microsoft may be getting more press space thanks to their rumoured decision to axe the hard drive from the Xbox 2, but it’s still possible that two tiny buttons will have a large role to play in the war of the next generation of consoles. The human mind is surely not able to manipulate any more buttons than current pads offer, so it’s possible that the future of design will embrace the theory that less is indeed more. Best dig out that Atari 2600 from the attic and get practising…

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