Interfacing With Virtual Worlds

Through the control pad ages

The rise of video gaming as a medium has given us the opportunity to enter countless virtual environments. From racing to exploring fantasy worlds, we have a vast array of different scenarios to engage in. A crucial element in the way in which we take part in these experiences is how we physically interface with the game world. Across the decades the way we do this has evolved countless times with some interface methods changing the way we perceive video games and some going on to become essential to the medium. At the same time many have been left behind as technology improved. With several new interface methods sat on the horizon, this is a good time to take a look at the ways in which we jump into our virtual worlds.
From the keyboard and mouse to game pads, joysticks, touch displays, light guns and motion control- there are a great many interface forms. Over the years many of us have been divided by these tools- RTS gamers won’t settle for the game pad, motion control games have had to struggle against the “casual gamer” reputation and those who prefer to relax on the sofa aren’t too fond of the desktop keyboard and mouse.

Old Trusty

In terms of gaming one of the oldest and most used devices has been the game pad. This versatile and comfortable (well, most of the time) device has become our closest ally during countless hours of gaming. It has been through a turbulent and colourful history, with some very successful designs and some that were simply laughable.

Early examples of the game pad are quite simple by modern standards, both functionally and ergonomically. The Master System pad, for example, made use of just two buttons and a rather fiddly D-pad on a rectangular platform. The simple design and shape meant that the pad hardly felt comfortable to use for long periods of time. The limitation to two buttons wasn’t an issue for the games of the time, but by the standards of today this simplicity is severely dated.

Later devices began to take on more complexity. The Mega Drive and SNES game pads both featured more buttons and a more rounded design that made the pads somewhat more comfortable. The addition of more buttons was, of course, linked to the growing complexity of games themselves. The following generation saw the advent of the Playstation and N64 controllers- two game pads that would change the way we saw these devices.

The N64 pad still stands as one of the most revolutionary and outlandish designs in game pad history. With three handles, the pad can at first look like it was designed by a madman. But after a little getting used to the N64 pad reveals itself to be a very functional device, not to mention surprisingly comfortable. It also has the distinction of introducing the analogue stick to the standard game pad.

The Playstation game pad established a more conventional design that has since become the standardized look for all Sony consoles since then. Lacking analogue support at first, the Playstation game pad offered an effective alternative to Nintendo’s unusual creation. These two controls would offer the shoulder buttons, triggers and other similar functions that have become standard in modern designs. More recent game pads such as the Xbox 360 model retain these functions but have perfected the ergonomics of the tool.

Not all game pads have been an improvement and some have been complete disasters. The Dreamcast controller, for example, was particularly cumbersome; it featured a slot for a large memory card complete with screen and, bizarrely, the cord for the pad was attached at the bottom of the controller meaning that it had to coil around the pad to reach the console. This poor design may have contributed to the eventual failure of the Dreamcast.

A similarly poor design was the original Xbox game pad which was infamous for its monstrous size and uncomfortable grip. The huge interface tool lost a lot of room to the large Xbox emblem in the middle. Becoming the butt of many jokes, the unfortunate pad would soon be relegated to history as smaller replacements were released.

The game pad offers a diverse set of advantages over other interface tools that have set it apart and enabled it to hold the central spot in gaming for so long. Once the player is used to it the game pad fades from consciousness as responses become intuitive and control a second nature. Vibration technology and limited motion sensitivity have been used to improve the game pad as an interface tool, offering greater immersion for the player. Wireless technology has further benefited the game pad, making it all the more convenient. The pad’s greatest advantage, however, has been the fact that you can relax in a comfy place with no need for awkward positioning.

Dead and Buried?

Some interface systems have faded into the past or only remain as specialist tools for those with exacting needs. The classic joystick is one such device, now only used by enthusiasts with a passion for the device or for flight simulators. For some time the joystick was almost synonymous with the concept of gaming, seen in arcades and homes alike. Today, they live on primarily as the analogue sticks we see on our game pads.

The light gun is another control device that has been left behind by gaming in favour of control systems that offer greater versatility. The light gun, as many may remember from Duck Hunt, offers the chance to actually aim at targets on screen. For a time the light gun saw success in the home and in arcades but today it is mainly found in the latter. The modern Wiimote has offered similar capabilities to this classic device while still having the versatility to perform countless other functions.

Desktop Control

The big rival to the game pad over the last twenty years has been the keyboard and mouse combo. Considered cumbersome and uncomfortable by those who prefer game pads, the keyboard and mouse usually requires a less relaxing seating position than the console choice. For certain PC games, however, the PC and mouse is a perfect tool.

Strategy games, in particular, require the keyboard and mouse almost exclusively. Anyone who has tried to command an army with a game pad will know the hurdles that this interface throws up. Halo Wars made a noble attempt to create a system that worked well with a game pad but it was still far less effective than the mouse as a control method.

Another strong feature of the keyboard and mouse combo is the usefulness of mouse-look. Many FPS players find the speed and efficiency of mouse-look to be very beneficial to quick targeting in FPS. That said, the comfort advantages of the game pad often win out over the keyboard and mouse. Finally, the keyboard offers immense versatility in the multitude of keys on offer. While these devices were certainly not invented as gaming interfaces, they have adapted well to the task with specialist gaming brands providing models geared towards gaming.

New Tricks

In recent years developers have been pushing the boundaries in terms of interfaces. Nintendo has been at the forefront of these changes with the DS touch screen and the Wiimote. Both have shown great versatility with game developers taking full advantage of the opportunities they present. Touch screen technology has also seen great success in the mobile phone and tablet PC industries.

The Wiimote has pushed motion technology forward and has been adapted to many different genres of games. From platformers to FPS and driving games, the Wiimote is extremely versatile. There is some debate over the Wiimote and immersion; while the mote puts the player very physically into the role that they are playing, it also makes the player more aware of the interface device itself. Some prefer the subtlety of the classic game pad. That said, the enjoyment offered by the Wiimote is undeniable and it has given rise to new motion control technology from Nintendo’s competitors.

Sony has released their answer to the Wiimote in the form of the Playstation Move, launching it with the same marketing intensity as they would a new platform. The Move aims to compete with the Wiimote but it remains to be seen how successful the new device will be without the scale of established content that the Wii has behind it.

Microsoft has gone one step further and created motion sensing technology that doesn’t require any handheld tech. Kinect uses a camera with motion tracking sensors along with a microphone to offer a system that receives commands from motions, gestures and voice instructions. How much potential this has for bringing us into game worlds is yet to be seen in full but it is nonetheless an impressive step.

As we look at advancing interface devices we see that immersion and control are balanced against one another. It seems likely that the game pad and keyboard/mouse combo will continue to sit at the core of our virtual experiences thanks to the effectiveness in which these two tools achieve this balance. That said, motion control and touch screen technology has certainly changed the way in which we perceive our interfaces and we are likely to see developers continue to seek new ways to make our journeys into virtual worlds all the more seamless.

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