The Control Horizon

Posted: November 13, 2010 in Game Design, Games

New Super Mario Bros. Wii - nintendo wallpaper

What is it about Mario games that allows them to span 20 years with their control schemes relatively intact and their concepts only slightly evolved?  Why is classic Mario more popular than the Mario traveling between worlds in Galaxy?

A significant factor are simply the controls.  While any console designer, or even video game designer, will likely tell you that the controls are of paramount importance, few will agree that completely following convention is better than adding their little tweaks to the status quo.  Consider two game franchises, Halo (left) and Call of Duty (right).

Halo Reach (Left), Call of Duty: Black Ops (Right)

These two are the most popular shooters on modern console.  Both feature similar views, and gameplay.  You run around in first person with a gun visible in front of you in roughly the same proportion.  Both have evolved over time but have each found two different control schemes.  One of the things that makes these games so popular, is that you know when you play the latest version, most of the skills you’d learned from the previous will carry over.  Shoot will be on the same button as it was last time etc.  Now consider this, the two control schemes vary in a very interesting way.

A Few Halo Reach Controls

  • Run (Left Shoulder Button) [Use Equipment Actually]
  • Throw Grenade (Left Trigger)
  • Crouch (Hold Left Stick down)
  • Aim (Click Right Stick)
  • Melee Attack (Right Shoulder Button)

A Few Call of Duty: Black Ops Controls

  • Run (Hold Left Stick down)
  • Throw Grenade (Right Shoulder Button)
  • Throw Special Grenade (Left Shoulder Button)
  • Crouch (B button)
  • Aim (Left Trigger)
  • Melee Attack( Click Right Stick)

Both games use the X Button to reload and the right trigger to shoot, but if you are very familiar with one set of controls, playing in the other game won’t be transparent.  The rhythm of play is so important that your skills in one game will not necessarily translate.  Simply running in Halo would make you throw grenades in Call of Duty, while aiming in Call of Duty would have you throwing grenades in Halo.  These games have been optimized around these controls and support play that uses these differences.  Hopefully, otherwise it would be a big waste.  You have to switch your mindset when you move between these two games.  The designers of both games could easily provide a litany of reasons why their controls are superior, but ultimately, they are different and largely incompatible.

Imagine a different world where you had to relearn how to ride a bike for every brand of bike riding.  Sure there were commonalities but each featured its own way of doing things.



While all these bikes are interesting experiences in their own right, most riders will likely learn the one they like and stick with it.  When we release new games, we hope people will buy them, love them and show them to their friends.  Learning a new control scheme could be a part of the magic that sets your game apart, but it could also be a barrier by and audience fatigued by having to learn new ways of expressing the same ideas, i.e. Run, shoot, throw grenade.

To illustrate this, I’ve thrown together this quick graph showing a high level of how control complexity or sophistication affects the audience.

This graph is not plotting any quantitative data, but just illustrating a few conjectures on my part.  The first is that controls that are non-existant or too simple are unappealing to a large audience.  At some point, the controls reach what is popular to a very broad audience, after that, it falls to those that have a great deal of experience with learning and mastery controls and finally fades off to only those willing to put in the time to seriously master something.  The larger the number of similar but not identical control schemes may actually increase some peoples challenge playing games.  The success of social games like FarmVille may not just rest in their fantastic game design, but their conscious choice to re-use interaction paradigms.

Farmville (Left), FrontierVille (Right)

Zynga and its ilk know that for a user to transition to their game, they only have a few short minutes during their first play to hook them.  Hours spent learning a new control scheme is not part of the vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?  It’s possible that the wonderful experience design of something like BioShock is made inaccessible to a larger audience simply due to the sophistication of the control scheme.  While purists would say that this is the very essence of the game, there is much more to BioShock than the control scheme.  Could it be that there’s another way to play more sophisticated games that makes those experiences available to a broader audience without weakening the games core presence?

Mario Galaxy (Left), Super Mario Bros Wii (Right)

The Mario Galaxy series undersells its 2D brother, the remake “Super Mario Brothers” on the Wii.  While most may chalk this up to nostalgia, and that played a big part, it could also be that 2D platforming play is simply better for a larger number of people.  If that’s true, then most of the worlds we have left to conquer as 3D game designers lead us away from a large audience and only to more and more niche experiences.  With the fantastically high level of experience design in most modern games, this feels like a terrible loss.  What’s the answer, I don’t know, but I’m going to look for it.


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