Control Freak

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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.