Controllers (Part Two) – The Expectations

This is Part 2 of the three part series covering the upcoming releases of competitive controllers for console gaming.

  1. The Contenders
  2. The Expectations
  3. An Open Letter to MLG

Last time I wrote, I mentioned that I had looked in-depth into making a competitive controller.  The very first thing I did was crack open one of my wired controllers and try to understand how every part worked.  As a player, you have a feel for what is happening as an end result (slow turn, sticky buttons, random firing) but you don’t really understand what is causing the issues.  I’m going to go in depth over the current Xbox 360 Wired Controller and show you what can be improved, and thus what we should expect of any new controllers entering the market.

The Joysticks

A little known fact is that we are currently using the same joystick part as the PS2 and Xbox.  The most important part of our controllers has not seen innovation in over a decade.  Here are the photos of the various controllers, with the joystick circled. (All images from here, which has a lot more as well)

The joystick itself can be purchased here for just $3.95 and MadCatz uses a very similar part which you can look at here.  I contacted a few factories in China and revealed that this part can be purchased wholesale for around $2 a pop.  Yes.  You have been playing for the past 10 years with the same $2 part.  All that changes from system to system are the joystick caps and the shell of the controller (it is the Xbox 360′s shell which causes slow turn).

There are two huge issues with the part which I am sure we have all experienced.  The first of which is that it features a large “Dead Zone”, that is, when you move your stick you need to move it a certain distance before the controller recognizes the change.  Go ahead, try it.  See how far you can wiggle your controller before the game recognizes any change.

[[TECH WARNING]]

Your joystick contains two parts called “potentiometers”, one for the x-axis and one for the y-axis.  As you move your controller off center, the potentiometers will send different voltages to your console to tell it where you are aiming.  The “Dead Zone” occurs because the potentiometers aren’t seeing any change in your positioning until you move the stick past a certain point.  Notice at the beginning of this video how far he moves the stick before it measures a change (for those interested, he reviewed the part here):

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[[END OF TECH]]

The other main issues are durability and consistency.  We burn through a lot of controllers and I’ve found that over the course of a month I’ll feel a significant change between my brand new controller and my used one.  If you’ve ever tried playing with someone controller they have been using for 4+ years you’ll know just how different the stick ends up feeling.  The biggest difference that happens with wear is the resistance as you aim, which I imagine is attributed to a spring in the joystick which wears down and becomes weaker. You cannot fix this entirely, but I feel like a controller should last considerably longer than the current iteration does.

Last season I used 4 different controllers, and I don’t think I’m alone in that camp.  I’m willing to pay more for a more durable controller, and I think most of the MLG community is as well.

How To Fix It

This is by far the biggest technical hurdle in the way of a better controller, but it is one which cannot be ignored.  The fact that we’ve gone 10 year using such a cheap part makes me very hopeful that we’ll finally see some innovation.  Razer has already shown their controller features a tension control for the sticks, letting you decide how much resistance (how loose or tight) you want the stick to be.  This is a great step and helps with the consistency issue while also allowing some customization.

I’d love to see an option which doesn’t rely on the potentiometers or uses much higher quality ones while reducing the dead zone.  In an ideal controller any movement you make should immediately be reflected on your screen, and from something designed for competition that should happen.

The Triggers

Triggers are another area where we have not seen much improvement over the years. Quite frankly, I like being able to pull a trigger like I might on a gun and I feel like it is a better solution than the Playstation’s soft bumpers.  That said I’d like for the the triggers to be a bit more responsive.

Triggers on the Xbox 360 controller feature the same kind of potentiometer that the joysticks do, although there is only one.  As you pull it back, the voltage increases and sends a reading to your Xbox.  Think of this as going from 0% to 100%, with the actual firing happening somewhere around 50% (some games require further, some less).  This makes it so with some guns (like the pistol in Gears of War) you can “feather” the trigger and fire without pulling all the way.  The end result is you fire a bit faster.

As game developers now need to safeguard their games against modded controllers, I feel a change to controllers allowing a more responsive trigger would be a great thing.  Every millisecond counts in a competitive match and a hair-trigger for firing would be great for competition.  The trigger needs to become more like a mouse in terms of responsiveness, but I feel it can accomplish this without losing its spring which makes it unique.

The Buttons

The final huge component of the controller is the buttons.  This is an area where I think we will definitely see some improvement since it is so similar to a keyboard.  Presently, we are using the equivalent of a cheap, mass market keyboard solution.  You push the button, which pushes plastic down onto a rubber dome.  The dome “pops” giving you that tactile feel and touches the circuit board which sends the button press to your system.

While this system works the majority of the time, it isn’t the quickest method and controllers have been known to get “sticky” buttons.  More high end keyboards, and the type you find from companies like SteelSeries and Razer, feature mechanical switches instead of the rubber dome solution.  These switches are made of higher quality materials, last longer, and generally give better feedback when pressed.  Razer has already advertised “Hyper Responsive” buttons, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that involves getting rid of the rubber domes and using mechanical switches instead.  For those interested in learning more about the differences, here is an excellent article regarding keyboards.

The D-Pad

It sucks and everyone knows it, and the tech to make it work properly isn’t even complicated.  With this being an Xbox 360-only issue I expect it to get fixed and it likely will.  I’m not sure if that solution will be mechanical switches or just a better choice of parts, but this will certainly be improved upon.

The Expectations

As the next generation of game controllers are released, I hope that competition will bring about change to all of the issues listed here and more.  Since consoles have taken off in popularity, PC gamers have always argued that a mouse provides significantly more control than a joystick.  The fact of the matter is that we’re still playing games with the gamepad equivalent of an old ball mouse.  And that is sad.

There is so much room for innovation and the companies which provide this innovation will make money.  I am sure of this fact and I hope that these companies realize this and do it right.

Doing it right means not releasing a controller with a decade old joystick sold for $2 a pop in China.  I promise to raise hell if these companies claim to be innovating and release the same crap we’ve been playing with all these years in a shiny new package.  I feel to release a product like that would be entirely dishonest to our community, but I expect at least one company will try it.

In Part 3 I will be talking about competition and its benefit to gamers in an Open Letter to MLG, MadCatz, Razer, SteelSeries, and Astro Gaming.

Question for the week: What would you like to see in a truly innovative controller?




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