on Sep 16, 2008
Imagine that someone makes a platforming game in the style of the classic Super Mario Brothers. Only, they replace the jump button with something crazy. Like mouse gestures. No, I don’t mean like Super Mario Galaxy where you just wave the Wiimote around to do that spin move, I mean full-on mouse gestures where you click and doodle you get your avatar to leap and jump.
It would obviously be a lot harder, assuming it was possible at all. You can’t “flutter” a gesture the way you can flutter a button. It takes longer to do a gesture than tap a button. The game would be less fluid and responsive, and the pace would have to be slower, more deliberate.
The designer could compensate by making the game more forgiving and by slowing things down. The game could be made to work in the sense that it would be playable, but mouse-gesture platforming still wouldn’t be the same gameplay.
There is a certain cathartic pleasure to playing these sorts of games. Aside from the scenery, the threadbare story, or whatever bells and whistles have been grafted onto the given title to distinguish it from the rest, the simple act of moving and jumping can be entertainment in itself. The seamless translation of player thoughts and intentions to on-screen activity – the player’s will instantly projected into an animated world – is what really defines the experience. The rest is mostly makeup. If the designer replaced buttons with mouse gestures, the game would lose more than the ease and pacing. It would lose a lot of the fun, and no degree of practice on the part of the player would make it possible to play this new game the way they played Super Mario Brothers, because there would be latency between the player’s thoughts and the gameworld.
I know this, even though I’m absolute rubbish at platforming games. (Which is why I depend[ed] on the Prince of Persia franchise to provide for my platforming needs.) Once in a while I’ll have a good run and I’ll feel that rush of satisfaction that more competent players no doubt feel all the time. But without the platforming Mulligans provided by the time-controlling Prince of Persia, my inept pawing at the dual-shock controller would never guide him to victory.
First-person shooters have a similar appeal. The core gameplay of running, strafing, and shooting is deeply rewarding when delivered properly. It can’t carry a game alone any more than running and jumping can, but it’s at the heart of just about everything you do in a shooter.
Playing an FPS with thumbsticks isn’t just more awkward, it takes away the tactile appeal. Like platforming with mouse gestures, it’s serviceable (with the help of auto-aim and smoothing) but it can’t deliver the same rewarding experience. I spent several hours this weekend with an FPS game on the PS3, and while there was nothing whatsoever wrong the game itself, I kept feeling like I was missing something. I was moving from room to room, knocking down bad guys in disgustingly detailed environments, but there was now a delay between what I wanted and what my guy was doing. It wasn’t that it was harder, (although it was) it was that there was now friction between my tactical decisions and my in-game actions. Practice could cut it down a bit, but there’s no getting rid of it.
It seems mouse-based gaming has been “right around the corner” on consoles for a couple of years now. I see you can buy PS3 mice and I hear about people going that route from time to time. Some games – like Unreal Tournament 3 – ostensibly offer some sort of mouse support. But I don’t think it’s the right solution to the problem.
I don’t think anyone is imagining a setup where you hold the mouse in one hand and half of the controller in the other. That setup would fall somewhere between ungainly and stupid. But if your hand is holding a mouse, then the four right-hand buttons (Triangle, Square, Circle, X, or their other-console counterparts) need to be handled by the left hand. How do you accomplish this?
The thinking seems to be to add a keyboard to the mix, but I don’t think that just just replicating the PC setup is the right way to go. Keyboards are for typing, and have been conscripted for gaming, but they have their drawbacks as an input device.
If you replace a Dual Shock with a mouse and keyboard, you’re giving up both thumbsticks – effectively trading two analog inputs for one. You trade a small number of easily-accessible low-profile, pressure sensitive buttons for 104 big clicky keys. Not all games need pressure-sensitive buttons, and not all games need 104 keys, but it seems like we should weigh the tradeoffs before we plug our PC peripherals into the console and dive in.
The last thing we want is for console games to take on all the hassle and baggage of PC titles, where you have to re-bind all the keyboard keys because the game designer was an obvious lunatic. Controls become less intuitive and symbolic as you move to the anything-goes world of keyboard interfaces. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that “Press X to kick Hitler in the balls“, is intuitive, while, “Press Right Ctrl to kick Hitler in the balls“, isn’t. The four buttons have established behavior and logic to them. The economy of limited inputs has forced designers to develop a certain language through these four buttons, and that would be shattered by giving them 104 generic mappable keys to deal with.
Most normal console gamers (that is, not me) play from the couch, and any setup that doesn’t work from there is a non-starter. You can sit on a nice comfy couch in your living room and pass the controller around, but if the controller is a mouse and a full-sized keyboard, then you’re going to want some sort of surface to hold it. Maybe something like a desk. With a keyboard drawer. And a mouse pad. And now put the TV on the desk. And move all that crap out of the living room because you don’t need to sit in the family space with your back to the room. Now you’re all alone, because no (sane) system is going to support multiple keyboards and multiple mice on the same machine so everyone can play split screen. Your friends are in the living room playing Super Smash Brothers on the couch, and they’ve forgotten all about you.
Congratulations, you’re a PC Gamer again.
No, if this is FPS-on-a-console thing going to work we need something you can hold in your hands. I’ve mentioned before that I think replacing the right analog stick with a trackball is the easiest and most elegant solution. That stick is already used for camera movement, so it’s a very slight change for both the user and developer. Games could easily be set to work with both.
|Our engineer worked |
There are still some minor hurdles:
- For the PS3, you would probably need to relocate the R3 button. (Activated on traditional controllers by pressing down on the thumbstick.) I’m not sure if there are similar problems for the XBox 360 – I don’t own one yet.
- It wouldn’t be backwards compatible, which means you’d need to keep the original controller around to play old games. Great. Another thing cluttering up the area around the TV. As if it wasn’t a tumbling heap of blinking, battery-powered confusion already. Still, it’s better than adding a mouse and a keyboard.
- The last issue: Nobody seems to be considering this. I don’t know what kind of tectonic forces would be required to get someone like Sony or Microsoft to embrace something like this, but it’s more force than migrating PC Gamers can muster. In fact, even if you did get the idea in front of them, they’d probably reject it just because they didn’t think of it themselves.
Still, it’s a natural and sensible solution. Since developers seem so intent on jamming the square peg of FPS games into the round hole of the console, it’s nice to imagine that someday we might have a controller to make it work.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.