I’m looking at this xbox360 gamepad sitting on my desk. There are 6 buttons, two bumpers (which are also buttons), two triggers (squishy analog buttons), two analog thumbsticks (which are buttons if you press down on them), a digital directional pad (4 buttons linked under a single piece of plastic), and a power indicator led (you guessed it, a button). When I pick the thing up I have a minimum of two fingers on each hand not directly hovering over an input. The playstation and wiiu pads are much the same. This standardization is both a boon and a constraint for developers. While you have at least a baseline expectation of the controls your players will be familiar with, you are also restricted to those inputs. To be fair, that is an awful lot of potential inputs, and if you can’t find a way to fit your game into the controls offered in modern gamepads, it might not be the pads that are at fault.
There is also another input system that, inarguably, more people, potential players, are intimately familiar with. Touch screens are so interwoven into most people's lives at this point that pressing your finger to a piece of glass is a many times a day event. Touch screens are interesting, since they offer only one type of physical input, pressing your finger to a piece of glass, but they can be tuned and adjusted to offer an almost limitless number of interactions.
Gamepads, touchscreens, keyboards, mice, and motion detecting devices are all input methods for whatever software you have running. They aren’t controls though. Game controls are how the player tells the game what they want to do. Controls have to work within the constraints of the input methods, but they are two separate things and require a different mindset. I laid out how many buttons are on a standard gamepad earlier, but that variety is meant to accommodate any game a developer can come up with. Designing controls is more like creating a conversation.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about controls schemes lately. For one, I have been working on the controls for my own game, so that gets the old gears a turning. Also I have been playing a lot of older games recently. It’s really at looking at older video games that you can start to tear down control schemes. If you only look at more recent games, the controls are either so well established that they have become dogma, or they are so novel that we are not yet aware of how they could be improved.
Modern first person shooters, for example, often include bindings reminiscent of other games in the genre since they are basically riffs on the same tune. They actually use the same controls as their competitors as a selling point. Moving from Call of Duty to Halo? No problem, there is a setup for that, just hit the same buttons and make explosions happen. This works well for that style of game, but what happens when we adopt that same fps control scheme to a game like Everyone's Gone to the Rapture. That game was roundly criticized for being too slow, too sparse, and maybe it just wasn’t a good fit for a control scheme built around high speed competitive games. Just because the controls are comfortable to a lot of players doesn’t mean that it is an appropriate conversation vehicle between them and your game.
Likewise, adopting a dual stick control system on touch screen devices is rarely optimal. Anytime gameplay can be obscured by the player's thumb, the conversation between them and the game breaks down.
I struggled with creating suitable controls for my own game. I attempted to incorporate properties of mice, gamepads, and touchscreens and everything felt poor. They were all half measure solutions. Then it occurred to me that what I really want is for the player to be able to converse with the game. The player provides input and receives feedback in equal measure. As soon as that clicked for me, I reduced all the control complexity I had been building down to one finger press, one analog stick, or one mouse movement. All now work equally well since I wasn’t designing for the controller, I was designing for the player.