Sunday, September 4, 2011

But who Controls the Controllers?


No, it's not a new Alan Moore comic. But another pun title, this time about what we use to control video games.

Let's start off with a thought experiment, what is the ultimate video game? Answer: The Matrix. If you haven't seen the movie “The Matrix” is an all encompassing simulation so real that people can't tell it's not. A simulated world that's as detailed as the real world, but can be manipulated as easily as any digital one can. You want superpowers? Bam! Done. You want your “house” to be a mansion, a mythical tower, a giant spaceship? It's all within reach and just as detailed as if it was really happening.

While we may not want soulless machine overlords to run this, and I could certainly go on about a bunch of even more “out there” science fiction like concepts, the example given will do for the moment. The thought experiment, or rather test, goes like this: Is the advancement proposed moving us closer to “The Matrix”? Or stated another way: Are we at the point where we could build “The Matrix” yet?

If the answer to first way is “yes”, then I'd say as a concept whatever new technology under consideration is a good one (from a commercial viability standpoint). If the answer to the second way is no, then I'd say we can still make progress. There will never be “good enough” in graphics, in sound, in controls, in whatever until it's at that “This is what's going to be part of The Matrix” stage. Humans always want more, we always want to advance, and so we will until it some distant point in the future where we are finally at the stage that we don't care.

So, what the hell does all this have to do with controllers? Well, we have pretty good artificial sound, and it's advancing every year. We have artificial visuals so good we probably have reached the “Matrix” like level of believability, even if we can't do it in real time yet. So while these subjects will probably be covered tangentially in this blog, what we don't have anywhere close to “The Matrix” like level is controls or the other three senses.

So, for this blog post let's concentrate on controls, or rather controllers. Practicably we'll be concentrating on control options available for the next few years at a cost and usability level available for widespread consumer adoption.

First thing, head mounted displays of any kind. To track your head movement and/or cover your eyes to give you a completely immersed view of the virtual world. The answer is no. Yeah, it's that straightforward and simple. Current 3d Tv's have not caught on partially because people don't want to wear easily losable, dorky looking 3d glasses.

Further studies have clearly indicated that any sort of the enclosed virtual reality display is extremely confining and uncomfortable for the average user. Leisure activities that require something most people highly uncomfortable...

So moving on we'll next cover touchscreens or touchpads. Great for casual interfaces, do you know of any hardcore game that simply “must” use a touchpad? Neither do I, and that's because unless you're an artist with a stylus touchscreen are imprecise. Not the recipe for a “hardcore” title.

But what about casual titles? Well first off they don't need imprecise controls either. Secondly with the popularity of smartphones and tablets I'd say there's little call for some other device really needing a touchscreen or pad. It's not that the input method doesn't have its uses, it's that I'm guessing most of those uses for games are more likely going to be played on devices that already have those inputs available.

I could be wrong, there could be some undiscovered combination of touchpad/screen and more precise “hardcore” controls that hasn't been discovered yet. But from what I've heard this seems unlikely. Those who attempted to use a touchscreen or pad to replace a mouse for gaming report only failure.

Further we've already had a stylus/touchscreen device out with more traditional controls attached for some time. Yet the only use of the DS's touchscreen that I've particularly seen is for controlling a user interface and for drawing games. While drawing games may be interesting I doubt the genre will ever be large enough to warrant a dedicated addition to a standard controller of some kind.

So, moving on.

Let's cover something else that controllers can do, and that's rumble. While not a control at all, it does cover a little of one of those other three senses. In brief, why can't we try to expand this? The idea: four fully programmable (duration, frequency, intensity) rumble motors sitting at the four rose points in an otherwise standard (read, dual shock-ish) game controller.

Imagine you are playing a racing game and your car's left front tire starts sliding into the dirt. The front and left rumble motors activate and suddenly you can “feel” the tire going off. Pretty cool, in hypothesis, if you ask me. The “you are getting shot from ____ direction” indicator in shooters could do something similar. There could be entirely new types of gameplay where you'd “feel” your way around as a sixth sense. In the end, I just think it would be worth trying.

Continued in part 2, coming soon!

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