out of control

Several months ago I bought Darksiders on Steam during a sale. Upon first launching the game, however, I noticed a problem: the camera was pointed at the ground, and I couldn’t get it to budge from that orientation. Neither my keyboard/mouse nor my controller seemed to work properly. It wasn’t just the camera, either–it seemed like controls were mapped randomly, sprinkled like dust in the wind to land in patterns governed only by nature. I tried to force the game to comply with my wishes, to no avail. After some lookups, I discovered the game was designed specifically to use the Xbox 360 PC controller. So specifically, that it was programmed not to make use of any other controller.

This is a massive failure of programming. I’m not even sure this is a failure, per se. This is something that takes actual effort to do. One has to actually program the game to refuse other controllers for this tactic to work. I imagine the effort involved to enable general support would be significantly less than that which was consumed to make it only use the X360 controller. I found numerous solutions for using my controller, most of which invoked the dark magics of custom firmware and the unreadable tomes of custom-written executables. None of these I was comfortable using.
Eventually I gave up and steamed over the loss of my money for an unplayable game.

Now it’s a few months later. I recently finished my playthrough of Batman: Arkham Asylum, although I will probably go back and do the challenges and find the rest of the riddles and all the completionist nerd stuff. ANYWAY, after finishing Arkham, I was a little listless, unsure of which game to play through next. I randomly decided to give Darksiders another go. Experience expand.
This time when I launched the game, by chance my controller wasn’t plugged in. The game loaded up, I skipped to the murdering and desecration courtesy of my spacebar, and…it worked. It just worked. I could run around and fight via the WASD/Mouse control scheme. It was as if there had never been a problem whatsoever. To say the least, I was a little confused. I did some forum searches and came up with this post. I was even more confused now. How could the mere presence of a controller, even a disabled controller, affect how a game interprets input commands? This is asinine.
Having a discussion with a friend over this, I was told that the PC version of the original Halo suffered from a similar retardation. Apparently the game does not interpret joystick inputs as analog commands, but digital ones. What does this mean? The effect of tilting the joystick foward a millimeter, or tilting it to its full extent, is exactly the same. The character moves at the same speed. It’s just like pressing the W key. Why could Gearbox not have programmed the game to actually make use of the joysticks? It’s not like they were exceptionally rare at the time the game was made. While I hear arguments of “programming for controllers is difficult because they’re all different”, I don’t buy that. They may have different layouts, but there are only a handful of individual layouts used for controllers nowadays, and in the case of joysticks–they’re joysticks. There’s no reason why they can’t be accomodated for in the programming.
In another related rant, there is Magicka. Great game. Absolutely fun. And ridiculous. In more ways than one. When the game is launched, you are asked to configure your controller. This is done in a surprisingly intuitive manner. However, you can’t not map commands to the controller. That is to say, if you’re out of buttons and/or you reach a command you will rarely use, you can’t choose to map it to the keyboard or not at all. You have to map every command it asks you to. There is no way around this. I don’t know if it detects controllers and configures itself based on what it detects, but it so happened that the number of commands exactly matched the number of buttons on my controller. This is a problem for me, as the lower shoulder buttons are mapped, via the Logitech driver, as dedicated screenshot and recording functions. You never know when you might want to grab a screenie, and when you miss the moment, you regret it forever. So, I have two leftover functions I have to map to the keys already reserved. While Arrowhead has mostly done a superb job with Magicka, this is one minor detail that is a big annoyance.
And for my conclusion: Braid. You can’t use a controller at all for this game. Why not? It’s a fucking platformer!

control fantasy: the buttons within

I recently resumed my playthrough of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King. Besides the name being long in the tooth (not that that’s unusual for Japanese games), it has some of the typical issues with Wii games, those being developers not properly considering the implications of the hardware and its use.

First, a primer. MLaaK is a city-building sim game, in which you play the leader of a kingdom that was destroyed in the first Crystal Chronicles game, who is attempting to refound his father’s realm. In a third-person over-the-head perspective, you run around deciding where to place buildings such as homes, which then allow families to move in and in turn make adventurers available for you to send into the wilderness to bring back loot and riches.
The first failing of this game’s design is that the Wiimote’s forward sensor is unused. When you’re running around with a camera hovering over your back, the precision of that sensor is pretty much mandatory. But no. You simply use the D-pad to move about your town, and even that isn’t as precise as it should be–the King turns at nearly right angles, meaning if you’re not aligned with a street’s length you end up making an awkward zigzag to keep from bashing your head into buildings. Thank Romero the game doesn’t have character collision, or it would be a nightmare just to go for a stroll.
Apparently wanting to add to the inelegance, the Wiimote is used in its “normal” orientation, that is you hold it lengthwise, with the D-pad under your thumb. Why? If you’re not going to use the motion sensor, why not have it turned into “retro” orientation and make use of the extra buttons in a much more comfortable way? Many Wii game designers don’t seem to realize what they’re making can use other modes than what you see in the advertisements.
Another case in point: Metal Slug Anthology. It’s your typical sidescrolling platformer game (well, a colection of games), and smartly makes use of the Wiimote’s retro configuration. Okay, not so smartly. The game has no totally retro control scheme. In its simplest setting, it’s played much like it was an NES game, with one very annoying exception–throwing grenades requires the Wiimote be snapped quickly with the wrist. Obviously this makes gameplay extremely difficult, as moving the controller this way means you either can’t move or can’t shoot, and doing neither for even a second in a game like Metal Slug means death. Meanwhile, the “B” trigger is entirely unused. Why is the grenade function not mapped to this button?
Is this intentional? If so, why do developers feel the need to do this? It only makes gameplay awkward, at best, and in the case of Metal Slug‘s grenades, painful after a time. The game dev’s aim is to make it comfortable to play; otherwise there is little incentive to play. Not every unique feature of the Wii hardware needs to be exploited for every game–conversely, useful design mechanics should never be ignored when they will complement gameplay.
Or, at very least, games should allow full freedom of customization when it comes to command mapping. Personally, this is my preferred solution, but I can see reasons why it would be problematic for some developers.

cruise control

Two types of gameplay do not work on a mouse and keyboard, no matter how staunchly one stands behind PC gaming: platformers, and driving. At heart I’m a console gamer, but when it comes games involving shooting, PCs have always held the high ground. PC enthusiasts, be quiet for a few minutes, because this is the undeniable truth and you know it.

I recently started playing Mafia 2 via Steam, and buried within the game’s climactic turf wars and lookalike Studebaker Champions was a teensy little mechanic that would never be noticed, if it were not pointed out to the player: a speed limiter.

The main deterrent in the realm of driving mechanics is that in driving, some form of progressive input is required. Turn the car a tiny bit, or turn the wheel hard over for a hairpin at top speed. A joystick (or better yet, a steering wheel) achieves exactly this. Tip the stick a small fraction and the car meanders to one side; get to maximum tilt and the car will swing around. A keyboard is a collection of binary switches–each key is essentially on or off. The best you can do with this mechanic is constantly tap the key for a fraction of a second, making the car turn a smaller amount over time. But it’s awkward, at best. The same problem happens when trying to control one’s speed:

By pressing the L key while driving, the player invokes a “safe driving mode” that limits the vehicle’s top speed to 40 mph. Being that this only has the one setting, and is essentially a binary switch, its usefulness is limited, but it has its uses. Some of the roads in the game are marked as 40-mph zones, thusly I was able to activate the limiter and then just cruise with my finger on the gas, always moving at a good clip with respect to traffic, but never too fast to lose control.

This wormed its way into my brain after a few minutes, planting a parasite of an idea.

What if these games incorporated a form of cruise control?

Say you’re driving around in a car. While some people don’t mind fracturing the rules and blazing down side streets at ridiculous speeds, others may prefer to stick to the speed limits, not just for the law-abiding-citizen factor but also because zipping around in slow traffic may cause some…physics issues, shall we call them. Anyway, you drive off, and when your spedometer hits 20 mph, you double-tap the “accelerate” key (in most cases it’s W). This locks your speed at its current number, freeing you to worry about making turns. To unlock the spedometer, you double-tap either the “accelerate” or “brake” keys, and viola.

And perhaps a complementary system of double-tapping the turn keys, to lock the angle of turn? Not sure if that would work out so well.

2K Games, I hope you’re reading this.