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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle » Blog Archive » The end of button proliferation is nigh!

The end of button proliferation is nigh!   


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I interrupt regular curling coverage to present this observation. 

Back in the “good old days” we had Atari 400 and Commodore 64.  Yes, these machines had keyboards, but by-and-large most of the contols for the games were carried out using the venerable JOYSTICK.  It had ONE directional control and ONE button.  Despite this limitation (not to mention severe limitations of memory, graphics, processing power, etc), game designers managed to put together fun and innovative games.  It’s not just nostalgia talking - a couple years ago the Fitzes and X and I literally spent HOURS playing Winter Games on the C64 plug-n-play device and had a blast.  The simplicity is part of what made it fun.

Along came Nintendo.

Now, we had games with more than one button (or more than one control stick) in the arcade for awhile.  But for the most part your average home video game system featured the standard one button/one stick control.  Nintendo wanted to push the comfort limits of gamers.  In 1985 (in the US), the NES was released featuring a controller that would revolutionize video game playing, and ruin it, all at the same time.

I remember the first time I played the NES at a friend’s birthday party.  I remember thinking the thumb-operated d-pad looked awkward.  But most of all I wondered how one could manage TWO BUTTONS!  How do you keep them straight in your mind?  Why is B on the left and A on the right?  To this day I prefer a joystick to a thumb pad, but I learned that I could quickly adapt to the extra button and after a round or two of Mike Tyson’s Punchout, I had no trouble playing NES games even if the controller had twice as many buttons.  The extra button was a good thing…it added quite a few control options with little extra complexity.

Then the war began in earnest.

The Sega Master System and Genesis appeared before us.  At first there were THREE buttons.  Even later they came up with a SIX-button design (probably not coincidentally around the time Steet Fighter II was released for Genesis)!  Three buttons were iffy.  It was beginning to get confusing - too many possible combinations, too many positions to commit to muscle memory.  You could make it work, but it was not as effortless as the two NES buttons. 

But it seemed that Nintendo was not going to take this affront lying down.  They plopped FOUR buttons onto the Super NES controller, and they weren’t stopping there - two shoulder buttons were added for good measure!  They were smart in texturing the thumb buttons so that they were not unmanageable, but at this point we were really pushing the limits of good sense.  You had a lot of fingers in action, a lot of button combos to keep track of.  Games were beginning to become less fun for me, and as the graphics got flashier, the gameplay seemed to get more repetitive. 

After SNES, a cold war style button proliferation went into full swing throughout the 1990s.  Controllers morphed from simple, intuitive handheld units into enormous two-fisted monsters with multiple analog sticks, multiple d-pads, analog triggers, multiple shoulder buttons, etc.  I was probably 4 or 5 when I started playing video games.  I think a 5 year old would have trouble even holding a modern controller in his hands!

With the GameCube controller, Nintendo seemed interested in making the human interface easier if not actually simpler.  The A button was made larger and green to help make it an intuitive “main” button with secondary buttons around it.  It was a bit of an improvement, but there were still lots of buttons.  In the meantime Sony and Sega/Microsoft had at least cooled down.  Microsoft added 2 buttons to the Xbox controller but otherwise the controller was similar to Dreamcast’s.  Playstation’s control structure has been fairly static since the Dual Shock with it’s two analog sticks.  While things were not getting crazy, controllers were still cumbersome, and so were games.

Nintendo, the first agressor in this unfortunate battle for complexity, finally decided to really, honestly simplify the control structure when the Wii Remote was envisioned.  At a glance, it does still have a lot of buttons, potentially six counting A, B, 1, 2, + and -.  But they are situated in such a way that it seems Nintendo wants to discourage game designers from trying to use too many of them at once.  Of course analog sticks have been replaced with motion sensing that is both more intuitive and less painful (analog sticks always gave me a sore thumb).  Not only is it easier to use than the previous monster controllers, but the controller-as-an-abstraction concept makes for a fun gaming experience.  It’s no longer the thing that controls the character, it’s whatever the game designer wants you to think it is.  A baseball bat, a tennis racket, a crank, a lever, even an umbrella.  They wanted to make gaming accessible to everyone and the Wii Remote makes it work and with this I believe that the end of button proliferation is nigh (although the beginning of motion detection proliferation could well be at hand…we shall see).

I have only one warning for the game developers: with the Wii Remote, Nintendo has cooked up a unique way to operate a video game.  There is great potential for awesome games like Zack And Wiki.  But there is also a great potential to use the motion sensing as a cheap gimmick to crank out dull and useless games.  It’s already happening with the large collections of mini-games that all make use of the same throwing and swinging motions.  Please think carefully before you try to squeeze another drop of blood from the “swing the controller like a _____” stone.  Ask yourself “Is this just something that was done in Wii Sports with a different visual skin?  Can I come up with something original instead?”  Remember how annoyed you were when you started to realize that an awful lot of Atari games were just some variant of Pong?  At least Atari designers had stringent technical limitations to blame.  What will YOUR excuse be?

Whether the Wii Remote goes down in history as a gimmick or an innovation is in the hands of the game designers. Please don’t let us down.

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