on Nov 12, 2009
Shamus, why do you use the numpad for movement in videogames? Why do you use inverted mouse controls? Why are you always banging on about bad ports all the time?
When will you people learn to stop asking questions? Now I will punish you for your earnest curiosity by answering you. In excruciating detail. Like most long boring stories concerning people of a certain age, this one begins a long time ago…
My first mouselook FPS wasn’t really Quake, it was Descent. Descent was a strange game. This was the early-ish days of gaming before the genres had been fixed in stone and developers were still running around doing crazy stuff with every new title. Like making an action 3D first-person flight simulator set indoors.
|This is the game in its 320×200 glory. The other screenshots here were made using an updated open-source fan version that drags the thing into this century.|
You flew your ship through weightless 3D environments. This means you needed to be able to navigate and rotate in all directions. For sheer complexity of movement keys, it was surpassed only by real flight simulators and the like. At the time, this many inputs was unheard of in an action game. (Although System Shock came close.)
By default, Descent used the numpad. Like this:
|This is just the basic movement, and leaves out cruise control, weapon-switching, etc. EDIT: After making the above image, I went back and fired up the game to find I’d gotten several details slightly wrong. Still, you get the basic idea.|
This was the first time I’d ever really used “mouselook”. I’d dabbled with it in Doom and Wolfenstein, but that was only horizontal. Since you were flying, looking down = moving mouse forward. Descent, being a “flight” game, had mouse inverted by default.
Thus began my habit of using:
- “Inverted” mouse controls.
- Numpad for movement.
When Quake came out, it felt natural to retain this keyboard layout, since it was now second nature to me. Up / Down translated seamlessly into Jump / Crouch. Roll left / right keys became lean left / right when stealth games came along. There were plenty of extra keys around the edges of the numpad for whatever special actions were required by the game.
|The opening cutscene, which is a static picture of a corporate suit explaining the mission while your character inner-monologues about what he thinks is going on. Man, sometimes it was impressive what games were able to do with storytelling when all they had to work with was text.|
When Windows 95 rolled in, I was so grateful for my Numpad style. The WASD folks were suddenly getting blasted out of the game by that blasted key, which ended up tucked between Ctrl and Alt. (Run and crouch? Something like that.) It was bad news, and I was doing just fine on the other side of the keyboard. (Ergonomics: I slide the keyboard WAY over to the left so my hand is still in a natural position. Yes, I have a big keyboard drawer.)
The tables began to turn as we entered this decade. Games began accumulating additional inputs. WASD people had lots of keys under their hand to accommodate the new complexity, while I was forced to offload things to the inverted T arrow keys and the six-key group just under ScrLk. And I was still running out of keys.
At this point I tried migrating back over to WASD, only to find it was murderously hard to do so. Partly this is because of how much skill I’d built up. Back in 1995 I’d begun at zero: Inept. Then I learned to kick ass with the numpad. Moving over to the WASD was going to make me worse off than I was at the start. I’d be worse than inept. I’d have no skill with WASD, plus I had years of muscle memory working against me. I found myself fighting to keep my hand lined up right because the keys are staggered on the main part of the keyboard. WASD is also a different shape than Num 1, 2, 3, 8, so even when my hand was lined up I ended up over-reaching for “move forward”. It didn’t help that I was ten years older, which always slows learning down a bit.
In the end, the frustration of not having enough buttons was less than the frustration of trying to re-learn everything according to the traditions of WASD. This is about having fun, after all, not being the most elite.
But then game developers tightened the screws: Having drunk the console kool-aid, they came back to the PC with a head full of stupid and lazy:
1) Suddenly they forgot about the numpad 5. Like, you couldn’t bind that key anymore, and I was down one precious input.
2) They began treating numpad enter as identical to the main enter key. And lots of games hard-coded that one to “chat” and the like. Another key gone.
3) Suddenly the six key collection of Insert, Home, Page Up / Dn, Del, and End were all merged with numpad. You couldn’t bind numpad 9 to one thing and Page Up to another. Six keys gone!
4) The arrow keys were merged with numpad 8, 4, 6, 2. Four more keys, gone.
5) Invert mouse? Wuzat? They either omitted the feature, or implemented it in some useless, bone-headed way. (Beyond Good & Evil inverted BOTH axis, so moving mouse left would turn right. Murder.)
6) Games for Windows Live recently decided to take the Home key (both of them) for itself, forever and ever, in all cases. You can’t re-map that one. (Hey idiots: Why didn’t you take the WINDOWS KEY, since that thing is a manifest pain in the ass when running a game anyway?) One more key gone, which pushed me beneath a crucial threshold where there just weren’t enough buttons to get the job done.
Now I’m stuck here at 38 years old. I’ve been numpad-ing my way through games since 1995. Numpad gaming is obviously unsustainable. I can rant all I want against the cross-eyed dunces responsible for the above list, but the best I could possibly hope for in my wildest dreams is that things would stop getting worse.
|The cockpit-style view. More immersive, but the window frames blocked too much of the view and I always ended up switching back to normal view.|
That one game all those years ago presented me with a perfectly reasonable setup: Use the numpad! It had enough keys, all lined up, no with Windows Key landmine, and a nice easy-to-feel edge so my hand never got lost. At the time, there was no reason not to use it. I went along for years before any problem showed up. But as a result of that one coin-toss decision, I’ve had nothing but headaches for the last five or six years. People who used WASD and the non-inverted mouse have been able to jump right into games without having to rebind everything first.
I tried again a couple of months ago to get used to WASD. It’s still so frustrating that it sucks the fun out of the game. What I think I need to do is retrace my steps. I need to go back to 1996 and work my way forward. Trying to play something complicated like an MMO or a stealth game is just too dang hard. There are too many inputs to re-learn all at once. (This drives home an important lesson about why the Wii is doing so well. Modern games have a MASSIVE learning curve, which is more or less a wall to the uninitiated. There are precious few adults with the patience and time to jump into a modern FPS and scale that sucker.) I should go back to Quake or other simplistic old-school game and re-master basic movement. I’ve got Serious Sam 2 here, which seems like a good tool for that particular job.
Once I get my skills back into the “competent” area of the spectrum, then I can give Deus Ex or Thief a try. Complex FPS games are my drug of choice, so I’ll have a nice reward waiting for me at the end of that road.
There, more than you ever wanted to know about why I take this stuff so seriously.
(Descent and Descent 2 can be procured from Good Old Games for six bucks. For both of them. There’s no school like old school. Just make sure to re-bind everything to WASD before you start.)
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.