Control Freak


I’ve been beating this drum for a while, now, but controls are one of the biggest things for me in a game.  One of the biggest indicators of whether I’ll enjoy it or not.  Which is a little unusual, in that controls are only one aspect of what makes a game great.  And yet, no matter how good the rest of the design is, if the controls aren’t there, I’m just not going to enjoy the game.

Video games are all about placing the player into whatever the game world is.  Maybe the world is just full of goons that need to be shot/beat/stealth romanced/whatever.  Maybe it’s full of block that need to be slid into place.  Maybe it’s just full of people who like to talk.  Whatever it is, the player’s ability to interact with that environment is what video games are built on.  That is the foundation for the house that is vidcons.  And the game controls are the mechanism for that interaction.

Which is not to say that just because a game has good controls, it’ll be a good game.  But generally, if they’ve got the attention to detail to make the game control smooth, keep any necessary menus streamlined, and, in general, ensure the interface is working right, they’ve got the attention to detail that would make the rest of the features work, as well.  Good controls are a sign that the developer has their heads on right, and that leads pretty naturally to a quality experience.

Bad controls don’t mean that a game is all out awful, either.  The Walking Dead still gets rave reviews, after all.  It does really drag down the quality when gameplay is given more than a cursory focus.  Your controls are the foundation for our gameplay, if they’re not working, nothing else is.  Poor control means all your well-designed battles turn to ash, all your platforming is worth than worthless, and there’s just not a good time to be had.  Poor controls creates a barrier between the player and your game, keeps them away from all the actions and good times they should be having.

Super Mario 64 (U).png

For a case study, just look at Super Mario 64.  The original version was deservedly one of the best games of its era, and even now has aged a lot better than it has any right to.  Nintendo created a thing of beauty when they had very little to go on for this type of game, and it shows.  Then look at Super Mario 64 DS.  Same game.  A bit of stuff added, but largely the same levels, same challenges, same all around build.  Except for one thing.  The controls.  The controls were never going to match up, what with having to use a pad in a game built for a stick, but they somehow got even looser than expected.  The game itself?  Largely average, and the drop in quality is all down to the poor controls.

And like it always does, even science is backing it up.  An Oxford study a few years back found that most of those angry, aggressive feelings after playing a game?  Well “If the structure of a game or the design of the controls thwarts enjoyment, it is this not the violent content that seems to drive feelings of aggression.”  It’s not fun when a game is working against you.  When the controls themselves set you up to fail.  And that can be the ruin of many a good game.

6 responses to “Control Freak

  1. In hindsight, that Super Mario 64 turned out as good as it did was something of a miracle. It was a trailblazing 3D console game that turned out better than many that came after it. That means that the developers had very few (if any) points of reference when it came to implementing the control scheme. Now that I think about it, Super Mario 64 DS seemed to foreshadow the awkward control scheme used in Metroid: Other M where the D-Pad proved somewhat ineffectual when it came to moving a character in a three-dimensional space. These types of games need a control stick in order to register precise movements. Similarly, I remember when playing Metroid: Other M, I would try to grip the pad tightly in a vain attempt to get Samus to move faster. I know there are only two speeds with a D-Pad, but the 3D presentation tricked me on a subconscious level into believing that it would work even when I was confronted with irrefutable evidence that it wouldn’t.

    When you’re actively fighting the game, or it’s actively fighting you, it makes for a very infuriating experience.

    • You’re exactly right. There’s no good to be had from a game making you fight the engine itself.

      That’s something Nintendo’s pretty good at, forcing themselves to blaze their own trail and making magic out of it. You can see that with Super Mario Bros, with Mario 64, with the DS, with the Wii, with the original Mario Kart, and with so many of their other franchises. Of course, that same mindset leads to them ignoring common wisdom, and they’re comfortable with letting long stretches lay in between strikes of inspiration, so there’s a dark side to it, too, but when they’re on point, they can spin straw into gold. Mario 64 was the equivalent of hitting it out of the park their first swing, taking a style of game that had barely been seen before and building something so, so solid out of it.

      Yeah, pads do not control in a 3D space, well. You can get away from it when you don’t need the controls to be that tight, like in plenty of RPGs, but there’s a reason nearly any console that handles 3D games has incorporated analog sticks. I’ve found myself doing the same things in some games, getting the idea that if I jabbed the button quickly, it’d make the character go into a dash. Even having a run button doesn’t really work out. Feels like there should be a way to do that well, but I think it’d take some hardware changes that haven’t been commonly seen yet.

  2. That Mario example really rams home how a control scheme can make or break a game. It’s nice when titles give you the option to tweak things to your liking (how sensitive the cursor moves, whether you want to play with a pad or motion controls etc.)

    • I love it when the game lets you tailor your controls, but I am really bad at finding my sweet spot. I’ve been struggling with Uncharted so much lately because the aiming sensitivity I want is just a little bit off their scale, and it’s just not hitting for me.

  3. I’m with you, although I tend to be forgiving of less than perfect controls in games that don’t demand much control-wise. Bad controls really stand out in a platformer or action game where you’re expected to execute actions with a precision that the controls don’t accommodate.

    A good example for me is with platformers on the Wii. I really enjoyed the Mario Galaxy games and New Super Mario Bros Wii, all of which have you shake the remote to extend your jump slightly. I found it easy to use, a nice optional lifesaver that I came to rely on in those games. By comparison, Donkey Kong Country Returns took that to the next level by mapping your forward roll to a remote shake. After the Mario games I thought I’d be fine with it, but the roll requires greater precision and stricter timing than Mario’s mid-air spin move. Didn’t get far into DKCR before giving up – it spoiled the game for me.

    • Yeah, the Wii in general was kind of a mixed bag. The Wiimote makes for a beautiful and excellent IR pointer, but using the waggle as an input function, well it worked a lot better in some games that others. The timing’s not very tight on the motion controls, so when a game doesn’t take that into account, it tends to cause problems.

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