The Right Toy for the Job

 By Shamus Sep 16, 2008 89 comments

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.


Dual Shock vs. Mouse & Keyboard. Guess which is which.
Uploaded by nofrag

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 <del datetime="2008-09-14T13:31:35+00:00">all night</del> for ten whole minutes to construct this <del datetime="2008-09-14T13:31:35+00:00">prototype</del> poorly photoshopped concept.
Our engineer worked all night for ten whole minutes to construct this prototype poorly photoshopped concept.
A trackball isn’t as ideal as a mouse – or else laptop users wouldn’t bother lugging mice with them wherever they go – but I think it’s close enough to deliver the rewarding experience the user is looking for. You’d get rid of the jerky “nudging” effect that makes combat feel stiff on consoles. There would be a learning curve, but I think the end result would be a controller that could offer a solid FPS experience without sacrificing any of the advantages of consoles.

There are still some minor hurdles:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

202020209There are now 89 comments. Almost a hundred!


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  1. Kel'Thuzad says:

    I remember when my little brother said that it would be impossible to play a shooter on the computer. Once he started he was… less than amused with console shooters.

  2. Sebastian says:

    Yech. Microtrackballs. I remember when laptops came with built in microtrackballs, in the days before touchpad ubiquity. They got sticky and twitchy so fast — no, unless you’ve invented a new kind of frictionless bearing that’s cheap enough to package in a $60 controller, I don’t think this is a good idea.

    One of the things that mouse input actually has going for it is the size of the input device. You can make big moves, small moves, whatever, and have them translated accurately, because the device is big enough that you can steady it and move it smoothly. It’s really hard to do this accurately, especially with only your thumb as the control surface, on a microtrackball.

  3. Kameron says:

    Not a fan of trackballs, myself. I could see something more like the Wiimote+Nunchuck, where the aim/camera is controlled via motion sensor in the right hand, along with trigger and movement stick, and the left hand has the four buttons.

  4. Aquatopia says:

    Could you point me towards the game that allows one to press X (or Right Ctrl) to kick Hitler in the balls? (Yeah, I got more out of this post than that, but this is the part on which I’m still in the dark)

  5. Factoid says:

    re platform gaming:

    You most certainly need to look into Braid when you get yourself a 360. It has so many layers that you don’t even realize were there until you get all the way to the end. The best way to describe the gameplay would be Mario meets PoP. 2d side-scroller where you can “undo” mistakes by rewinding the game, only in some levels certain objects aren’t affected by rewinding, and this is the only way to solve puzzles.

    At first I thought 15 bucks was way too steep for a game that short, but it is one of those rare gems of a game that nobody should ever go without playing. It’s a fantastic indy title.

    It’s right up your alley I think.

    re the rest of the post: Microsoft already tried to tackle this one. Behold the sidewinder dual strike:

    http://www.videogamey.com/s/sidewinder-dual-strike/

    It was a really good idea. I tried it on a few PC FPS games, which is what it was designed for in the era before console FPS games were common. It failed miserably because nobody wanted to play PC games with a gamepad, but it makes a lot of sense today. It actually worked REALLY well. It’s main flaw wasn’t (as the article states) that it was hideous (it is, but not elephant-baby ugly), but rather that it wasn’t very durable and wore out quickly.

    Also, there is the exact item you were talking about which is already in existence, though I don’t think it was ever released after prototype phase:

    http://gear.ign.com/articles/708/708054p1.html

    The future is now! If only someone would manufacture it!

  6. Nazgul says:

    My brain is wired differently or I’m just used to different controls… I prefer keyboard to mouse controls on the PC, and I don’t like trackballs on anything.

    A third-party trackball controller as you suggest seems reasonable though if there is sufficient demand to build such a thing. It could be the Shamus Young Signature Model with the buttons looking like little d20s. ;)

  7. Ben Orchard says:

    I have tried seveal times to play FPS games on a console. I rate the experience as: EPIC MEGA-FAIL! ULTRA-STYLE!

    I’d rather have my thumbs ripped from their sockets and deep fried in batter and force fed to me than try that again. Then you can handcuff my bleeding hands inside a bucket of alcohol and lemon juice for good measure. It’s THAT painful.

    Do I LOVE the keyboard? Not really. I have a minor deformity that makes the keyboard a real PITA! I’ll still take it over the XBox/XBox360 controllor or PS2/3 controller for an FPS. They sell some nifty gaming keyboard setups that would work well for me, and I’ve considered it, but ultimately, I need either a custom design or a bunch of surgery.

  8. Greg says:

    I’ve got to admit, I’m not sold. My worry about that setup is the effect of pressing any of the four buttons. Typically you move your thumb off the right analog stick and back to do so. If the trackball was sensative enough to deliver the gameplay you’re looking for I bet I’d end up looking down and left after every button press.

    Some console FPS’s don’t use those and just use the shoulder buttons for opening doors, firing and reloading etc, which I thought was a good move having got sick of the whole “You can aim or shoot, but not both at once” mechanic years ago – but things could get expensive quickly if the controller market went the way of needing different types of controllers for different games (Guitar hero, I’m looking at you!)

    I’m wondering if this isn’t just a case of different types of games being suited to different systems. I saw attempts to recreate light gun games using a PC & mouse setup, but none of them play as well as the wiis offerings. Perhaps rather than trying to alter input mechanics to match previously successfull games we need more innovations in the way games are designed for existing devices?

    It’s been a while since I read anything about fallout 3, but I seem to remember they were planning on making it real time, but making your accuracy based more on your characters skill than your own. I wonder if that system would deliver a more satisfying “running around shooting things feel” for console games.

    No sense speculating, guess I’ll wait till I get a chance to play the game, but I think I’ll put that off as long as possible since until the day I play it, it can be better than fallout 2 in my head :P

  9. Gareth says:

    I’m not sure a trackball would be as good as you think it would.

    If you have your thumb on the top then the maximum amount of travel from center, to full left before you have to reposition the thumb is small.

    Compare that to the sweeps you can do with a mouse.

    A trackball player would have to either:

    * have a supersensitive ball and extremely fine motor control
    * put up with move/jerk move/jerk as they stop the ball while repositioning the thumb
    or
    * send the ball spinning while repositioning and hope for the best

    Of course, this is all conjecture, and well within the realms of the testable. I just don’t happen to have a trackball. Or any FPSs installed currently :)

  10. ngthagg says:

    Red Steel on the Wii used the remote as a pointer, and in my opinion it failed miserably. The developers chose to use absolute positioning which made it act more like the typical thumbstick rather than a mouse. But it was actually worse than a thumbstick, since as soon as you pointed too far off the screen, you lost all control.

    Using a pointer lacks the two advantages of the mouse: relative positioning and an easy reset. The position of the cursor on the screen is not related to the mouse’s physical position on the mousepad, unlike analog sticks and pointers. And if you want to adjust the physical position of the mouse without registering input, you simply pick up the mouse. With analog sticks and pointers, you can’t physically center the device without registering input.

    The trackball idea sounds great, because it captures both these capabilities while fitting onto a controller. I expect it would take some engineering to get the right amount of physical resistance, especially for a trackball that size, but it should be doable. I expect we can add that to the list of great ideas that they’ll never do.

  11. Sam says:

    When reading this post before the cut, I was thinking you were going on to talk about the DS or the Wii. Imagine my surprise…

  12. kamagurka says:

    The wiimote-nunchuck setup works surprisingly well for FPS. Metroid Prime Corruption is very immersive through its control scheme.

  13. Viktor says:

    No. I couldn’t imagine trying to use a trackball. I’ve dealt with them before, but it was never a good experience. I like the thumbsticks. I’ve been using them for longer than Ive been typing, and they’re intuitive and quick for me. Trackballs would lose too much precision for no gain that I can see.

  14. Kevin says:

    Well, if you did have a game that allowed the use of a mouse, there wouldn’t really be anything preventing you from using a trackball of your own instead.

  15. Factoid says:

    ngthagg: I agree Redsteel was a miserable FPS experience. Check out Metroid Prime 3, though, and THAT will convince you that pointer FPS can be done well.

  16. gahaz says:

    The people that can get strings of headshot 1 hit kills in Call of Duty 4 using a controller will argue that the controller doesn’t work well enough.

    Its all just flavor baby!

  17. JohnW says:

    I hate trackballs. If you’re issue is pointing/aiming with a mouse vs a stick, why not cut the middleman out alltogether and have something like TrackIR? That way you aim where you look – or, point your head anyway.

  18. Heph says:

    Having used a trackball…ugh. I tried replacing my mouse with all kinds of crap -trackballs, minimouse type things on a set surface (so, moer joysticklike, really), pointers and lightsensitive film on the screen (it doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but it was kind of fun for some games),…and I keep coming back to the mouse. It’s just great at what it does.
    Of course, I’m an avid PC gamer and, frankly, I can’t play any game using two sticks…My mind jsut doesn’t work that way. Arrows and zqds and the numpad? No problem. Two analog sticks? Err..Wait…what was…Nope, dead again. Argh.

  19. Shalkis says:

    While Metroid Prime 3 was very good, there was one area where it felt somewhat sluggish: turning. Fortunately, the locking feature alleviated that problem a lot. While I realize that a full power armor is heavy and won’t turn in an instant, it’s still less mobile than it should be. In the cutscenes, Samus is quite agile and does a lot of things that you, the player, cannot do in game. For example, it’s impossible to stand sideways and point your cannon to the side, a common pose for Samus.

    But that reminded me of a predecessor for Metroid Prime 3 that also had a highly intuitive control scheme: Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries. You walked and turned your lower body with the joystick, and twisted the joystick to rotate your upper torso. Looking around and aiming was done with the mouse. The Wiimote – Nunchuck combination has the same elements: highly accurate aiming combined with the analog stick that you can twist (although here you would twist the whole Nunchuck).

  20. Eldiran says:

    I also have a strong dislike for trackballs, though I admit I only used one for a very short time a very long time ago. Also chiming in with the comments about Metroid Prime: it is a masterfully implemented console FPS, one that I have to recommend you check out.

    Also I recommend you first enable “expert mode” which allows for even faster aiming.

  21. Craig says:

    Another similar mouse technology-video game controler meld would be putting a touch pad where the right analog stick goes. That way you’d get the same idea as the trackball, without gumming up. You could also tap it for the r3 button.

  22. Factoid says:

    Shalkis: Agree to disagree I guess…I found the z-axis joystick twist mechanism to be extremely UN-intuitive and hard to use. There was a training mission early on where the only way to make it through was to run straight and twist the torso left-right in order to blow up targets on either side of you. I don’t know how many times I tried that before giving up. Kudos to that game for not making passing every training simulation a requirement to proceed, though. It was a great game otherwise.

    The only games I ever could find a use for z-axis on the joystick was for flight-sims. The problem I had is that lots of games didn’t allow you to manually set a “dead zone” on your axes. z-twist mechanisms on joysticks are notorious for being easily activated unintentionally. Sometimes games would let you configure a threshold for where it would actually start to register motion.

    I think a trackball gamepad would need a similar bit of logic to counter the problems mentioned above. Moving your hand on/off the ball would probably induce slight movement. I would suggest making the ball pressure sensitive so that if you don’t have your thumb on it, there is no input registered. That way if you’re rapidly pounding away on the buttons, the vibration can’t mess up your camera position. You could also experiment with some touch-prediction algorithms that try to determine whether a player is removing their thumb from the ball or placing a thumb on the ball and configure some “dead times” to prevent accidental camera manipulation as you get your thumb settled.

    That would have to be very brief…probably 3-5ms…and it might not work, but if the pressure sensor is there it’s easy enough to experiment with. The pressure sensor is extremely simple too…just put it right underneath the spring/wheel assembly that presses the trackball against the x and y axis inputs. Put it on the upper-left quadrant of the socket and your thumb will nearly always be pressing against it.

  23. Adam Greenbrier says:

    I seem to be alone in actually preferring to play FPS’s with a controller rather than with a keyboard and mouse. While I enjoy using the mouse, I find the keyboard to be cumbersome. In ten years of playing FPS games on the PC, I haven’t yet been able to find a keyboard configuration that doesn’t make my hand cramp. And personally, I find the constant fiddling with key binds to be a huge immersion-breaking experience. Using a console controller took a little bit of getting used to, but I now prefer the controller (at least, the 360 controller; I haven’t played anything with a PS3 controller) and would use it with many of my older PC games if all of the buttons could be fully supported (e.g., if I could lean in Thief by pressing a thumbstick and moving it).

    As to Metroid Prime 3, I found that to be one of the best FPS experiences I’ve had on a console or PC. While the turning was a bit sluggish at times, that’s more of an implementation issue than a controller hardware issue. I imagine that a simple turn rate setting would allow users to find a turning speed that was comfortable for them.

  24. Flying Dutchman says:

    Wow! A trackball would be terrible! You’d have to lift your thumb all the time while tracking in a direction. Or it would have to have a high sensitivity like mention above, which would cause it to suck in several other ways (I’m thinking sniping here).
    I think the dual thumbstick is excellent. I happen to be more accurate with it than with the mouse… And I’ve had quite a bit of practice with both. And it’s analog (or at least more analog than a keyboard).
    The only benefit of the trackball that i can see, is taking it out and tossing it at an annoying friend’s face…

    Which is actually kind of neat…

  25. Chilango2 says:

    Yeah. Shamus, I’ve ready every single entry of your blog (I came in as the LOTR comic started) and your usually on the money, but this is your daftest idea ever, by far.

    Like the above commenters pointed out, the problem with a thumb size trackball is a) Friction and b)small movement space. Either the trackball would need to be super sensitive to achieve any great movement with a thumb moving slightly but then require fine control, or you’d have to spin that thing like no tomorrow. Also: doing this will exhaust your thumb, stat. At leats an analog stick can just be *held* in the proper direction and requires a simple movement of the thumb to achieve the desired result.

  26. Ludovsky says:

    Personally, a trackball could do the job for a FPS on console.

    However, my money is on a Wiimote driven FPS. The tactile feels of playing metroid prime3 on the Wii personally felt even greater than a mouse and keyboard on PC. In a way, it showed that consoles could even one up the PC by permitting to implement a control scheme even the PC has an hard time to replicate. Certainly, maybe turning had its slow moments, but circle strafing lock-on still had a realist feels to it, and reacquiring the player to still manually aim his weapon at his opponent while doing said circling pretty much take away the “lameness” of the auto-targeting often used on consoles as some people would sometime complain.

    Plus, though many “hardcore” gamers oft-complained the “lackluster” display of Nintendo at the last E3, they exactly the one thing they should have actually rejoiced for: WiiMotion Plus. With that thing, games of the like of Metroid Prime will be even greater on the Wii.

    Heck, even LucasArt stated they were peeved off not to have been warned of it by Nintendo or else they would have delayed Force Unleashed right for that very accessory. Still, they seems to have gotten over their anger pretty quick as they already announced starting work on a new game that will indeed make uses of it now.

  27. Martin says:

    Is that a modded Quake3 map during the Suicidal Tendencies part? Sure gave me flashbacks, anyway.

  28. Ferrous Buller says:

    Minor trivia: there was a mouse for the PS1 way back when: worked mostly with strategy and adventure games.

    Myself, I don’t want to see PC-centric controls shoehorned onto consoles; I want to see someone come up with something new and clever. E.g., the SpaceOrb 360: it was flawed, but at least it was unique.

  29. Shamus says:

    Martin: It must be. It looked familiar to me, too.

  30. Different controls work with different levels of quality for different games.

    That is fact.

    I collect all sorts of controllers, whatever I can.

    I think… that an FPS can be adequately played with a Dual Shock 2 and either way sometimes I get twitchy.

  31. Shamus says:

    To everyone saying the idea is “daft” or the trackball is “too small”:

    Uh, remember, that was a photoshop. It doesn’t HAVE to look like that. I’ve only used trackballs for short periods, but they were small and I didn’t note friction or fatigue. As for them getting dirty / inaccurate: I didn’t know about that issue. It would certainly have to be overcome or the idea would fail.

    Remember that goal of the article: Seamless aiming on a controller you can use from the couch, and pass to friends. The photoshopped controller was just an example, but you could make the ball bigger if that helps.

    And I am very encouraged that the Wiimote is working so well in Metroid. That would be even better than a mouse / trackball when it comes to being “seamless”, although doesn’t your arm get tired from holding it out all the time?

  32. Shamus says:

    Chris Arndt: “Adequate” yes – but it’s not delivering the seamless “this feels right” experience. That’s fine if you’re not into it, but like my mouse-gesture platformer example, just making it playable isn’t the goal.

  33. Bobby says:

    Unless there’s been some revolutionary new trackball technology while I was looking away trackballs get dirty far too easily, which makes them mostly unusable after a while unless you open and clean them. At least that’s what my several years of experience with trackballs has taught me. Used to be kinda like that with mice too, but then God gave use the holy optical mouse and there was much rejoicing.

    I think that alone makes the trackball a horrible choice.

  34. Shamus says:

    I also wonder how many of the people saying Thumbsticks are “just fine” have actually seriously PLAYED a mouse-based FPS. You can’t really compare the two if you haven’t logged some hours using the mouse. It’s pretty easy to dismiss something you don’t care about with a hand-wave, “That’s not important.”

    Yeah. To you.

  35. Shamus says:

    And not to completely spam my own comment thread, but it seems you could solve the “trackball gets dirty” issue by moving to optical. That is: Use a mouse optical sensor, and point it at the surface of the ball. (Inside the controller.) Then scuffs and dirt on the surface wouldn’t adversely affect movement.

    You’d still need to make the ball big enough that your thumb could steer you without lots of stop-n-go motion. You’d pretty much need to try it to see how it works. You could probably go a long way by messing with things like double-speed threshold.

  36. Eldiran says:

    “That would be even better than a mouse / trackball when it comes to being “seamless”, although doesn’t your arm get tired from holding it out all the time?”

    If you position your TV and sensor bar properly (say, don’t have a bunch of crap in the way) you can generally keep your arm rested on your lap/armrest and just angle your hand from there. This goes for most Wii games, though some, like Wii Sports, might not give you the best feedback if you’re not in the position they prescribe.

  37. Pat says:

    I’ve played Doom, Quake, Unreal and Half-Life series on a PC with a trackball and then switched to the 360 and played Halo 2&3, Bioshock, Half-Life 2 (again), Team Fortress 2 and Portal with the dual-stick controller.

    I found it very awkward to use the dual-stick for about 3 months but gradually it clicked and now I don’t notice I’m using it at all. I probably couldn’t compete against a person using keyboard/mouse but the annoying “why don’t you do what I want?” feeling has subsided.

    EDIT: Shamus already mentioned optical trackballs, so I’ll remove that recommendation. Microsoft already make optical trackballs to it’s not like the technology isn’t there.

  38. lowlymarine says:

    The problem with the optical sensor for the trackball is that it still has to rest on something or it wouldn’t spin easily, defeating the point. The mechanisms holding it in place would get dirty and add friction over time, and would be difficult to clean. Perhaps magnets could be used, but we’d quickly run up against the $50 controller price with all these optical sensors and carefully tuned magnets.

    Still, it’d be a hell of a lot better than the thumbstick. Consoles are great for some kinds of games – platformers, RPGs, and GTA-style games in particular – but they’re miserable for shooters, which unfortunately make up 90% of the available games.

  39. Smileyfax says:

    I think the N64′s controller was pretty good for FPSs — Goldeneye and Perfect Dark central in my mind — but the only problem is that the stick was used for both movement and aiming (you naturally couldn’t do both at the same time). Still, though, that controller’s stick seems more accurate to me than the stick of a Dual Shock controller.

  40. Zukhramm says:

    I’m not going to say anything since it was so long since I played an FPS on a console. I’ll do some… research tomorrow.

  41. Steve C says:

    What about a touchpad instead of a trackball?

    Imagine a PS3 controller with a touchpad controlled by the left hand. Replace the digital direction buttons and your left thumb would be available to operate the pad. Not the only positioning option, but a start.

    BTW Shamus was it Resistance Fall of Man? I played that a couple of weekends ago for the first time. Controls felt wrong even though I had played other FPSs on my PS2 which did not feel wrong. (None of which had “lock on”.) I would have preferred a mouse or at least the feeling of control I had on my PS2.

  42. Veylon says:

    The idea of console mice is older than PS1. Behold the wonder of the SNES Mouse! The fact that it didn’t catch on then, nor on the PS1, nor on the PS2, so I don’t put a lot of faith that it’ll happen with the PS3.

    Of course, on the other hand, you can apparently just plug any USB mouse into one of the new systems and it’ll just work. So all we need are some games to play them with. And a one-handed controller.

  43. JoCommando says:

    Chilango2 @ 25 raises the point that I find most annoying about trackballs: the need to pick up your thumb to do multiple rolls of the ball to essentially do long, linear scrolls. To get around that, my initial reaction is the addition of a radial touch pad (i.e. a 360 degree ribbon of touch-sensitive control) around the trackball so that you could effectively “hold” a particular direction.

    You might give it one roll of the thumb, see that isn’t going to get you there, and just nudge this touchpad with the edge of your thumb, taking the on-screen cursor in the direction mapped to that radial-degree of the pad. Then once you are within the ball-park (sorry, couldn’t resist) of what you want to be looking at, you would use the trackball for precision work. The trackball could therefore be tighter, meaning hard button presses and sharp movements of the controller itself wouldn’t register with the ball.

  44. Steve says:

    I had the Playstation mouse! I played X-Com with it. That game was buggy as hell.

  45. Ludovsky says:

    In regard to tiredness about Metroid Prime 3 from holding one’s arm up all the time with the wiimote in hand…

    … at some level, perhaps it can get tiring a bit on the occasion. On the other hand, though, for all that it /does/ give, it is only really trivial.

    I mean, a control scheme shouldn’t make me as giddy as it did for me by merely doing such a mere action as simply taking a battery out of a power generator, just because you do it by actually physically twisting your hand then “pulling” the thing(again manually with the wiimote in your hand) as you would if the thing was real :P

    Used well, I’d say the wiimote can do more for immersion than even graphics. The fact the Wii has “inferior” graphic prowess compared to the Xbox 360 and the PS3 only make greater the fact that Metroid Prime 3 is still a downright pretty game. I swear, my favorite locations is the Sky City, and seriously I shouldn’t be so interested in the concept art unlockable content just to see the 2d art that made it a 3d “reality”.

  46. ngthagg says:

    I’m not sure why the limited range of motion is a knock against the trackball vs. the thumbstick. The range of motion of a thumbstick is tiny, and you don’t have the option of picking up your thumb and moving it back to center.

    It seems to me that if you can be precise on a thumbstick, you can be precise on a trackball.

  47. Danel says:

    Hmm… two points spring to mind – I really thought you were going to suggest what would be the perfect control device for a FPS. Your right-hand controls the mouse; what’s your left hand doing?

    As regards your comment, Shamus, about those who think thumbsticks are fine never having mastered FPS mouse combat – well, yes. It may be because Goldeneye was the first FPS I seriously played, and as it is I tend to dabble on a few console shooters – Bioshock being one of the few. I’m not very good at that, but I’m even worse with a mouse. Flailing is involved. The mouse mat can travel a good few metres.

  48. RPharazon says:

    I prefer the console controllers for some FPSes, like Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and first-person games like Oblivion. For third-person games (Mercenaries, for example), there’s no other option, since mouse movements seem clumsy compared to console movements.

    That said, it’s damn-near impossible to play a Scout in TF2 using a console controller.

    But, like I said ages ago on one of the MANY anti-DRM threads here, I prefer consoles for gaming since you don’t have to bring another computer to play. Trying to organize an 8-man LAN party using 8 seperate computers, 8 seperate monitors, 8 seperate game licenses (cough), and somehow connect them all together and configure the LAN properly requires a social network of unimaginable intelligence and generally won’t happen.

    Meanwhile, getting two TVs, two Xboxes, 4-7 other controllers, and a single Cat5 cable isn’t that hard. I did that a few months ago with some of the most technologically incompetent (but still awesome) people you’ll ever meet.

    I’m glad that you’re looking into consoles, but the PS1/PS2/PS3 controller isn’t exactly the pinnacle of design.

    I mean, Call of Duty 4 on the Xbox uses natural controls. Left trigger to aim, right trigger to shoot. Left button to throw a special grenade, right button to throw a normal grenade. Standard analog stick movement, a not-so-often used R3 button to do a melee attack, L3 button to sprint, A to jump, X to reload, Y to switch weapons, B to crouch.

    It’s easier to explain that, than to say “You aim with the mouse, shoot with the left button, aim with the right (WHY), non-fluid WASD to move, and the rest of the buttons, I don’t even know.

    Yes, the consoles often dumb down controls, and sometimes gameplay, to appeal to a wider crowd. But it’s easier (and cheaper) to say “Get an Xbox” or “Get a PS3″ than “Get a computer with at least 80GB of HD space, 4GB of RAM, a GeForce 8600 or higher (but not the 8600GT or a 9600GT since those don’t play well with the game), Vista Home Premium Edition, and Addons X, Y, and Z along with Patches A, B, and C, but in order A, C, and then B. And THEN your version is compatible to play online and able to run smoothly.”

    It’s all about user-accessibility. Consoles address all of the issues you’ve been having lately, Shamus. Maybe the controls are different compared to mouse-and-keyboard, but that’s the point of accessibility and easy of use.

  49. Vao Ki says:

    I’ve played many FPSs over the years, and used to be an advocate FOR trackballs on the PC. No more! I will reiterate the two main stopping points for trackballs:

    They get dirty very fast
    They take multiple swipes to make long movements

    I’ve used the PS2 analog stick combo, the Wiimote control scheme, trackball, and even a mouse and keyboard for FPS games. I have to say, you can get used to almost anything over time if you want to play a game badly enough.

    PS2 analog sticks take time to get used to, and much more to master. Wiimotes are the same, as it takes time in general just to get used to the concept of pointing at your tv.

    All in all here’s a link to my current favorite for PC gaming:

    http://catalog.belkin.com/IWCatProductPage.process?Product_Id=164714

    It’s a Belkin: Nostromo Speedpad n52. 14 regular “keyboard” keys, a D-pad, 2 thumb buttons, and a mouse-wheel with 3 different settings (forward, back and click). All of these are programmable. I play games using this and my mouse (or arrow keys). Oh…and you can set it up so that you have 4 different controller schemes, and can move between them at the push of a button (or roll of a finger). It simply costs you 1 button per scheme (you have plenty to burn).

    The reason I bring this thing up is that if the console market got a little more innovative with controller design (as the designers did with the n52) they could manage to make any game enjoyably playable on a console. I truly believe that.

    Having said that, I’m not exactly sure how I would design a new controller for FPS games on a console, but wouldn’t it be an awesome concept to have dual controllers, one for each hand? Then set each up with it’s own buttons, and connect them somehow…

    Wait, I just described the Wiimote.

  50. Blackbird71 says:

    You know, thinking about alternative input devices takes me back. About 10 or so years ago, my input of choice for FPS games on the PC was a Logitech Wingman Warrior, a joystick designed specifically for shooters. In your right hand, you had your standard joystick with trigger, multiple buttons on top, and hat switch (potentially offering an additional 2 axes). The base of the unit swept out to the left, where your other hand would rest on a spinner knob for turning control, as well as a throttle dial. I’d always felt that there was enough room on teh left side for additonal buttons at the fingertips. That thing would glide through shooters like a dream; it got me through games like Quake, Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, and many others. It was deadly accurate, and I’d often score top rankings at our LAN parties with it (and I was by no means a superior player, having mediocre reflexes at best). I’d still be using it today if I hadn’t broken the tension spring for the forward/reverse axis. I wonder if we could see something like this implemented for consoles? Granted, it would probably still requrie a surface, but coffe tables work nicely for that. Or, I could see making a base attatchemnet with contours to fit on the lap, but maybe I’m getting too complicated.

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02 on the matter.

  51. Plasma says:

    With regards to mouse gestures: that was the biggest thing I hated about Black & White. Not only were the gestures time-consuming and distracting, but they hardly ever even worked in the first place. It would take me at least five tries to cast any given miracle using gestures. “That wasn’t quite a perfect spiral! Try again!” So yeah.

  52. ninepepper says:

    Might slightly be off topic but I was a devoted user of the Panther XL back in the day. Mad Catz produced a similar controller for the first generation XBox. It used the roller-ball paired with joystick and it really was intuitive. However, in Mad Catz configuration, the roller-ball was on the left. I think they probably learned through testing that for most right-handed people the control of movement is easier on the dominate hand than the control of view

    granted, it is an unsightly controller but it did allow for easier rangee-of-movement and aim than I was ever able to achieve with a keyboard – mouse combo.

    It had/has an avid following even now. So much so that some users go so far as to write code to allow for joystick use in games that Directx never allowed for.

  53. Christian Groff says:

    When I read this post, I assumed you were going to go on a rant saying “Forget it, you can’t port computer games onto the consoles” and I would agree with you. I’m not a big fan of “The Sims” games on the consoles because I said “No way, there’s no way in Hades I’m going to play The Sims 2 on a console because it’d be a pain in the butt.”

    I admit, I do enter cheats playing The Sims 2 on my PC, and the thought of having to go without those cheats while playing The Sims 2, which would be required on a PS2 version, I have my doubts.

  54. Euphemism says:

    Hm, a trackball on a game controller? Quick! Patent it!

    Isn’t the Halo series primarily popular on the console rather than on the PC? And yet their fanbase is enormous… how do those players get used to the dual-analog control?

  55. Lap desks go well with HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) style controllers, like the Logitech and the Thrustmaster.

    But touchpads do seem to solve a lot of the issues and to be something that would fit easily onto a controller.

  56. AlmightyShmun says:

    I feel I must be in a considerable minority here. I’ve been gaming for a while, playing many genres on many platforms, and I’ve logged roughly the same number of hours on console and PC for shooters. And you know? I’m fine with either. That’s it. Completely neutral. I can pick up either control scheme and handle it just as well, with little to no transition or inconvenience. Surely I can’t be alone in not being completely stumped by equally intuitive control schemes.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I love PC gaming. There’s a lot of fun, niche stuff on it that won’t show up on consoles, largely due to a tiny market, or just plain lack of marketability. The disparity towards controllers is peculiar, though, and sometimes seems a bit silly. Often times, the control transition works much better than people expect it to. Just look at Civilization: Revolution. It was simplified, yes, but beautifully so, and the controls were about as good as they could be.

  57. Rekres says:

    “A trackball isn’t as ideal as a mouse – or else laptop users wouldn’t bother lugging mice with them wherever they go…”

    Actually a trackball is much, much smoother than a mouse. Especially when scrolling. How many time do you have to pick up a mouse and reposition it because it you scrolled right off the mouse pad? I’ve been using one variety or other of Logitech trackball/mouse for years now.

    I find mice to be rather clumsy, especially for FPS games. One activity is much better with a trackball, sniping. You can line up the shot then take your thumb off the ball and it’ll stay aimed, even if you move the base unit. If you accidentally nudge a mouse even a hair it throws your aim off… and pressing the button to shoot definitely nudges the mouse, but not the trackball.

    Those touchpads on laptops are horrid. Almost as bad as the included micro-trackballs. Not all trackballs are created equal.

  58. Rekres says:

    * put up with move/jerk move/jerk as they stop the ball while repositioning the thumb

    Or put up with move/jerk, move/jerk as they reposition the ENTIRE MOUSE cause they scrolled off the mouse pad.

  59. The Lone Duck says:

    When it comes to shooters, I’m not a PC gamer, I’m a console gamer. SNES Doom, N64 Goldeneye, Xbox Halo, these are the titles I’ve grown up with. Now I’ve done a few PC shooters, like Dark Forces, and Wolfenstine 3-D, but I’ll admit, using a mouse for looking/aiming is still a bit odd for me. Now I’m not an avid shooter in the least. If you say shooter, I think of Silhouette Mirage or Ikaruga. But in my limited experience, I’ve found that most control issues are resolved by adjusting the sensitivity of the sticks, and just learning to look and run. I’m not saying you’re wrong. You’ve grown used to having a mouse and keyboard.
    As for the goal of a comprimise, a controller that allows for seamless aiming from the couch? I dunno. Any answer would require adjustment from PC gamers and console gamers. I don’t see a reason why console gamers would want to change. I think the best hope a PC gamer would have for a controller like you described would be either from a 3rd party controller, such as MadCatz, or else some home-made modded controller.

  60. KarmaDoor says:

    Trackballs :
    I actually loved using a Microsoft Optical Trackball (alas, no longer produced) for FPS games. It had a relatively large and, more importantly, massive ball placed for the right-hand thumb to move. This allowed for “bowling” for targets by letting it spin until close, then tapping down with my thumb and very quickly making any minor adjustments. (Fantastic for sniping, as Rekres (#55) stated.) Unfortunately I dropped it a few too many times and doesn’t work consistently anymore. (I play with keyboard and pointer placed on my legs.)
    With that stated, it needed to be kept clean to spin easily and straight, though easily done since it could be popped out. Small trackballs just never seem to work as nicely.

    Trackpad / touchpad :
    Replacing an analog stick with a touchpad, as Craig (#21) suggested, would work quite well. In fact, it does, as exemplified by Metroid Prime : Hunters on the DS. There are some minor issues with the control scheme, but nothing that isn’t simply reprogrammable. I found it to be the only playable console FPS to date that maintains a relative accuracy, and I just use a bare thumb, not a stylus. I’d love to see a Wii shooter with controlling it via DS as an option.

    A Perfect FPS control scheme:
    A mouse or trackball with keyboard isn’t perfect. Neither are gamepads or even the Wii remote with nunchuk. The amount of actions happening simultaneously just don’t allow for anything simple to fully emulate them. I don’t think there ever will be a perfect input schema for first-person anything. There’s always some layer of hardware abstraction in the way. Even if we were thrust into some virtual construct ala The Matrix, we’d have to deal with literally running around which introduces all sorts of fun (anyone ever tried aiming with head-bob enabled? x-p )

  61. Mark says:

    If Metroid Prime 3′s fluid goodness is any indication, the Wiimote is what you’re after.

  62. Justin says:

    So you wanna know how us Halo players get used to the dual analog? Practice. Think of it in RPG terms. I dumped some skill points into “play FPS with dual-analog.” Since I’ve never been much of a PC gamer (mostly due to circumstance), I have no points in “play FPS with mouse.” I played Half-Life on the PC when it came out and my strategy for victory was to use the biggest gun I had ammo for and hope that the bad guys died before me. I couldn’t move and aim with any accuracy. I understand why a mouse would be preferable for aiming, but in practice I just can’t perform. Weird, huh?

  63. Amstrad says:

    I used to be one of those people who thought that FPS games on consoles were a horrible and unplayable idea. This idea reinforced mostly by the early days of the genre. Playing Goldeneye and Perfect Dark on the N64 and using the analog stick for aiming was fun, but it certainly didn’t measure up to the ol’ mouse and keyboard.

    My opinions on the matter have changed a great deal lately however, mostly after a brief and intense period of Halo 1&2 addiction while living with a bunch of apartment mates. The key here is to gradually work your aiming analog stick sensitivity up to the max setting, to a point at which instantly turning a 180 is effortless. I even found that despite this high sensitivity setting, my accuracy when doing things like sniping is not harmed in any way, you simply get used to it.

    As for the mouse and keyboard? I’m still a fairly competitive hand at games like CoD4 and CS:S and have even taken to radically increasing my mouse sensitivity settings so that I can continue to get that little bit of edge that comes from being able to rip the crosshair across the screen a tenth of a second faster than the other guys.

    In short, I don’t buy that the dual analog stick setup doesn’t work.

    Edit: @Justin: You just reminded me of something, WASD is absolute crap for movement when compared to the beauty of motion you get out of that other analog stick. I almost have to give the gamepad an edge for this reason alone.

  64. EternalMoogle says:

    It’s an interesting idea, but you could potentially lose some of the advantages of the dual joysticks. Katamari Damacy, for example, I couldn’t imagine playing that without the control set up we have right now. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with more controllers, though. In my eyes, peripherals are the new graphics. They’re the “in” thing right now. Developers want to know how can they engage players in new ways. DDR pads, Musical instruments, and the Wii peripherals (Wiimote, Wii Wheel, Balance board, etc) are the most prevalent in my mind. And really, I don’t mind having a collection of instruments in a corner for a single game. Buying a new controller for a certain type of game, if it truly enhanced my experience, sure, why not? I *could* play Guitar Hero with my regular controller, but had that game not included the guitar, it wouldn’t be selling as well as it is.

    An alternative viewpoint though: I hate using the mouse for FPS games. I grew up with Goldeneye and Perfect Dark on the N64, and those shaped my perceptions of how a FPS should handle. Playing Counterstrike on a PC, for example, feels intuitively wrong to me. I want to hook up a 360 controller or something. I *want* my two analog sticks.

    And if you look at PC shooters and console shooters, I think there’s a distinct difference in the movement style of those games. I think developers take controls into account. In counterstrike, for example, I found I had to be *really* precise, which I could theoretically do if I was familiar with that control scheme. Timesplitters, a console FPS, on the other hand, is more about “spray and pray,” and you can take a lot more damage than in most PC FPS games I’ve played. I can’t comment on the transition from a console to a PC game, but for example, I’ve never played Half Life on the PC, and playing it on the console feels off to me. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but I’d venture a guess that the game was designed around a specific type of input no longer available. And because of the design choices made, how quickly you move, how quickly you turn, etc., the way the player interacts with those values is critical to the overall experience.

    Nonetheless, I think it’s a nifty idea. I’m all for giving players lots of options and letting them choose what works best for them.

    Ramblings from an over-tired game design student. Take from it what you will :)

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