Why We'll Never Have the Perfect Controller

April 18, 2019

In the 30 years since the classic NES controller debuted, controller design has come a long way. Or has it? Controller designs aren’t only about ergonomics. They’re also sites of clashing philosophies, corporate rivalries, and the battle for the loyalties of elite players.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Speaker 1: This was the controller for

Speaker 1: the first home video game console.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] Look at the size of that thing.

Speaker 1: A decade after that,

Speaker 1: Nintendo introduced the world

Speaker 1: to the joys of the D-pad and

Speaker 1: the birth of the controller as we know

Speaker 1: it and in the 30 years since then,

Speaker 1: controller design has come a long way, or has it?

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] In 2017,

Speaker 1: a technology design researcher measured some of

Speaker 1: the most popular controllers from the past 25 years

Speaker 1: against ergonomic standards for

Speaker 1: things like dials and buttons,

Speaker 1: to see whether controllers have gotten more

Speaker 1: ergonomic as games have gone more mainstream.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] None of the controllers perfectly matched

Speaker 1: the proper ergonomic dimensions

Speaker 1: for things like button size and button spacing.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] This is an interesting study but, of course,

Speaker 1: lab measurements and ergonomic design standards

Speaker 1: don't tell the whole story.

Speaker 1: After all, the very first controllers

Speaker 1: created for the game space war

Speaker 1: were modeled on railroad switches.

Speaker 1: [NOISE] They were developed as workarounds to

Speaker 1: the complicated inputs for the PDP1 Computer

Speaker 1: and they were more about solving

Speaker 1: a computer engineering input problem

Speaker 1: than human design problem.

Speaker 1: And the more you dig into the stories

Speaker 1: behind the most iconic controllers,

Speaker 1: the more you see that controller designs are anything

Speaker 1: but exercises in pure ergonomics.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] Play Station's Dual Shock

Speaker 1: is one of the best loved controllers on

Speaker 1: the market and it almost didn't exist.

Speaker 1: [NOISE] When Sony began work on PlayStation in 1993,

Speaker 1: they were entering the console wars

Speaker 1: with an eye to take down the king.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] In order to make it

Speaker 1: easy for Nintendo players to switch over to PlayStation,

Speaker 1: Sony management wanted a controller that had

Speaker 1: the same flat style as Nintendo's.

Speaker 1: Instead, designer Teo Goto came

Speaker 1: back with this curvy design with two grips.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] Management hated it,

Speaker 1: they overruled Goto and went

Speaker 1: ahead with a flat controller,

Speaker 1: even going so far as to pour the molds.

Female 1: But Sony's president, Norio Ohga had

Female 1: followed the controller design process

Female 1: with close interest.

Female 1: [MUSIC] Ohga was a classically trained musician.

Female 1: Here he is casually conducting a Schubert Symphony,

Female 1: and he also happened to be an accomplished jet pilot.

Female 1: He liked to go to his design because it

Female 1: gave him a 3D feel for the game,

Female 1: similar to when he was flying a plane.

Female 1: When management showed Ohga

Female 1: the flat design he was living,

Female 1: Gotto was afraid Ohga was going to

Female 1: chuck the flat prototypes of the management team.

Female 1: The curved shape that became

Female 1: the classic playstation controller might

Female 1: never have been born if Ohga hadn't intervened.

Female 1: His appreciation for the design wasn't

Female 1: about standard ergonomic measurements,

Female 1: it was about the feeling of

Female 1: connectedness between hardware human and game.

Female 1: That same feeling guided Nintendo in

Female 1: their development of the in 64 controller.

Female 1: Legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto

Female 1: understood the controller,

Female 1: and the game were won.

Female 1: Without the controller, there is no game really.

Female 1: Miyamoto vision for the gameplay of

Female 1: Mario 64 and the free exploration of that open 3d world,

Female 1: led Nintendo to innovate analog control sticks.

Female 1: If you pressed gently, Mario would tiptoe.

Female 1: If you pushed the stick all the way, he would sprint.

Female 1: But what's with the three prong shape?

Female 1: The Nintendo 64 controller

Female 1: had to remain usable and simple,

Female 1: but it also had to allow room for game developers

Female 1: to start innovating with the new graphics power.

Female 1: The console was unleashing.

Female 1: So no.

Female 1: They didn't think anybody had three hands,

Female 1: when they designed this controller.

Female 1: They just figured people could use

Female 1: the two outer grips to access

Female 1: the d pad for old school classic style games.

Female 1: And they could grip the center and right sides,

Female 1: to use the analog stick to interact in

Female 1: new ways with whatever new games

Female 1: the developers dreamed up.

Female 1: [NOISE] More computing power was partly to

Female 1: blame for the colossal first XBox controller.

Male1: Let me now unveil export.

Female 1: When Microsoft released the XBox in 2001,

Female 1: the controller that got shipped to

Female 1: North American customers was the Duke.

Male1: She is putting the control in their hands.

Male1: We tried out over 100 different form factors,

Male1: [MUSIC] you know to find what was the most controllable,

Male1: and give them the best game, gameplay.

Female 1: It was three times bigger than Sony's controller.

Female 1: And Microsoft killed it off after just a year,

Female 1: replacing it with their smaller controller

Female 1: for the Japanese market.

Female 1: Why did it ever ship

Female 1: such a massive controller to begin with?

Female 1: As soon as concept sketches for

Female 1: the XBox controller were completed,

Female 1: the circuit boards that would power the controller,

Female 1: were manufactured based off those drawings.

Female 1: The circuit boards were

Female 1: huge and they weren't going to go away.

Female 1: So the designer had to find a way to work around them.

Female 1: Her solution was to lean into

Female 1: making the controller as comfortable as possible,

Female 1: even if it was huge.

Female 1: She departed from what had been

Female 1: standard controller layout and offset the analog sticks,

Female 1: to better fit the natural position of the thumbs.

Female 1: A design move that proved lasting and well loved.

Female 1: That doesn't mean these companies

Female 1: don't take ergonomics and user testing into account.

Female 1: In a 2010 interview with a Japanese gaming magazine,

Female 1: Tokyo Gautreaux said Sony spent more time

Female 1: designing the playstation controller

Female 1: than the console itself.

Female 1: Microsoft spent 100 million dollars on

Female 1: R and D for an update to the XBox 360 controller.

Female 1: They built hundreds of prototypes.

Female 1: Somewhere pretty out there.

Female 1: One that would really smells,

Female 1: one that would beam an immersive

Female 1: projection around the player.

Female 1: In the end, after those millions of dollars

Female 1: and hundreds of prototypes,

Female 1: the new controller looked largely similar to the old one,

Female 1: but they had made some key changes to help

Female 1: the hardcore players internally

Female 1: referred to as the Golden Hands.

Female 1: For the XBox one,

Female 1: the sticks were given rubberized grips

Female 1: to help keep thumbs from slipping,

Female 1: and they shaved down the disc shaped d pad into more of

Female 1: a plus sign that would feel like

Female 1: separate keys so that you could

Female 1: quickly switch just by the feel.

Female 1: Face buttons got closer together

Female 1: so you could switch between them more quickly.

Female 1: They also adjusted the angle of the trigger and shooter

Female 1: buttons turning them slightly

Female 1: outward and making them bigger.

Female 1: This was specifically about ergonomics.

Female 1: These new triggers better fit

Female 1: the natural angle of the fingers.

Female 1: The PlayStation team similarly made

Female 1: these fine grained ergonomic adjustments

Female 1: between the dualshock three and four.

Female 1: Through user testing, they

Female 1: saw that when it came to the d pad,

Female 1: there were two kinds of players folks

Female 1: who hit it from the sides,

Female 1: and people who hit the d pad starting from the center.

Female 1: Both groups complained of fatigue

Female 1: and discomfort after a couple of hours.

Female 1: So the new d pad had

Female 1: gently sloping buttons and

Female 1: a concave place for the thumb to rest comfortably.

Female 1: So they do go through rigorous testing.

Female 1: Now, despite all of that,

Female 1: pro players are still pushing

Female 1: the hardware and their bodies to the absolute limit.

Female 2: All right. For one super smash for the player,

Female 2: the strain of playing led to

Female 2: arthritis at just 23 years old.

Male 2: Two years ago, I was sitting in a doctor's office,

Male 2: and it was being made clear to me

Male 2: that I would never play this game again.

Male 2: And I told the doctor that I was going to find a way.

Male 2: In recent years, I've become really

Male 2: well known for this FOX controller that I developed.

Male 2: This is a controller that allows people to enjoy,

Male 2: mainly without experiencing some of

Male 2: the ergonomic concerns that

Male 2: they would normally have to go through.

Female 1: Will we ever see a complete redesign of one of

Female 1: the flagship controllers from Sony

Female 1: or Microsoft? Probably not.

Female 1: Given how such intensely loyal player bases develop,

Female 1: once players have put the hours

Female 1: in to master a particular interface.

Female 1: Game scholar Dan Parisi argues that the shape of

Female 1: the controller has become

Female 1: a haptic extension of the brand,

Female 1: and what more intimate way to

Female 1: connect with your customers,

Female 1: than the way a gamer melds with the controller.

Female 1: For more EA Sports coverage,

Female 1: tune into chatter EA Sports on fubo TV.