Last week the thread on Oblivion deteriorated into the old PC vs. Console debate, based mostly on my comment that games were “dumbed down” for consoles. That debate is as stale as they come, and I doubt we’ll gain any new insight into the issue.
They could have changed the core parts of the action gameplay to suit both platforms, and console gamers would rightly be able to complain that the action parts of the game were “dumbed down”. Any button-mashing that works gracefully on the PC is going to be very easy and simplistic on a gamepad, and any fast-paced button pushing that works on a gamepad is going to be a mess on the PC. Re-working God of War or Soul Caliber so that the controls work for both PC and console gamers would ruin the highly polished experience that console gamers have grown to love. Designers can either cater to one platform at the expense of another, or they can write two different games. Guess which one is more likely?
But I have been thinking about the differences between the two control schemes. Let us dismiss from the start the idea that one system is superior to the other: They each have their purpose, and each has their place in gaming.
The Dual Shock controller (and it’s many cousins) is a very interesting device. Check out the diverse selection of buttons:
- There is a pair of thumbsticks, one for each thumb, providing two analog directional inputs.
- There’s a direction pad for the left thumb for when it’s not busy using the left stick. You can think of this as four buttons, because that’s what it is.
- There are four buttons for the right thumb for when it’s not busy with the right stick. These buttons are referred to as “touch-sensitive”. To me, it feels like they have two levels – you can push them gently or hard. Perhaps they’re more sensitive than that and I’m not experienced enough to discern it.
- There are four “shoulder” buttons, which are operated by the index and middle fingers. Each of these buttons has a dedicated finger, which means you can have the player hold the button down without depriving them of the ability to press other buttons. The shoulder buttons are often used as a modifier, to change the behavior of other buttons, like shift keys. Four shift keys – each with their very own dedicated finger. Try that on a PC!
- Each of the sticks can also be pushed down, for two additional buttons.
- There are two special-purpose buttons in the middle of the controller. Since the player has to “reach” to hit these – moving their fingers out of the default position – these buttons are usually reserved for special stuff like bringing up the menu and pausing the game.
That’s a total of sixteen different buttons, four of which are pressure sensitive, and fourteen of which are always within reach without the player needing to move their hands. It maximizes the use of both hands while providing several different types of input.
Contrast this with the PC. The average keyboard has at least 101 keys. Unlike the Dual Shock, these keys are not all being cradled by the player’s hand. They’re spread out all over the place. Depending on how the player sets things up, they aren’t really going to have more than a half-dozen keys easily within reach. Their d-pad (the WASD keys) are not governed by the thumb, but by most of the left hand. So the PC has far more total keys, but there are restrictions on how those can be used. Usually only one hand is running the show, and it’s bad interface design to insist that the hand move very far on a regular basis, or that the user needs to press more than a couple of buttons at a time.
But the PC also has one of the finest pointing instruments ever devised: The mouse. Console gamers often claim that the thumbstick is “just as good as the mouse” once you “get used to it”. They’re wrong.
Anyway, these are two very different systems for accepting user input. On the console, the thumbs are in charge of most of the action. They operate the sticks and press the most crucial buttons. On the PC, the thumbs are barely involved. The right thumb is idle – it rests by the mouse. The left thumb is most likely set to thwack the spacebar every once in a while. The PC can only provide two axis of analog input via the mouse. The console can provide four via the thumbsticks. None of the buttons on the PC are pressure-sensitive.
You don’t steer a car with toggle switches. You don’t turn on the TV with a crank. You don’t use pullchains on your thermostat. You don’t open doors with a footpedal. This “which one is better” argument is futile. The problem isn’t which system is better, the problem is which system is better for the game you’re trying to play.
On the console you design menus to be very short, because nobody wants to hit the down button 50 times to get to the option they want. You want the text to be nice and large so you can read it from across the room on a television. The PC can fit lots of information onto the screen at once, because even the average PC has more pixels than the best HDTV, and the user is sitting just inches away. The mouse can zip to wherever it needs to be and stop in just the right spot without trouble, and so it’s better to offer all the options on one big page.
You can’t pack as much info onto the HUD of a console game, because by the time you make the text readable for non-HDTV users you’ve eaten up a lot of the screen. So the natural thing to do is to make games appropriate for the medium. Make menus larger with less options. Reduce the number of things you need to cram onto the HUD. That’s just good game design. But if the game ends up on the PC, then PC Gamers are going to notice the missing things. The game will, inevitably, feel dumbed-down.
Looping back to the discussion that started all this, I do expect Fallout 3 to get some dumbing down. If you played either of the two previous games, you know that their interfaces are purely mouse-driven beasts, dense with options. If you ported that directly to the PS3 or XBox 360, the gamers would savage you for it. The thing would be unplayable. The game needs some adaptation and simplification to be playable on a television with a gamepad, and old-time fans are naturally worried if their favorite mechanics will survive the transition. I know I am. Oblivion did not fare well when it was adapted for consoles, and I don’t see any reason to expect that Fallout 3 will do any better.
As someone who has spent the last four years cataloging the decline of his favorite platform, I’m more than aware of the shortcomings of the PC, and I have a rough idea of how the current consoles compare. Let us not stoop to the “your platform is teh suxors” stuff. Really, leave that debate to the kids.
On a more positive note, Indigo Prophesy is excellent so far, despite the cumbersome controls. I plugged in my USB Dual Shock clone and my enjoyment of the game was improved even more.
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