A few days ago, news trickled down to the outlets that the Steam controller’s design had been tweaked once again, triggering waves of debate running the gamut from high praise to condemnation and everything between. But if nothing else, the design history of the still to-be-released Steam controller is just more proof that the gaming consumer base is fickle, and doesn’t always seem to know what it wants.
A cursory search will bring up a great deal of information (and even more opinion) regarding the state of innovation in the gaming industry, in all imaginable forms. Most of the opinion seems to demand more innovation, insisting that gaming has lost all creativity and become nothing more than an assembly line for money. And it seems to be true–each year’s Call of Duty game looks virtually indestinguishable to its predecessor, except in minor gameplay elements. Each new Mario game is looked as “just another Mario game” by many, only introducing the occasional new character and sometimes a third dimension. People just don’t see a whole lot going on other than the gaming equivalent of injection-molded mass production. Even though Microsoft reportedly spent “hundreds of millions” designing the Xbox One controller, it just doesn’t look very different to the average buyer.
But the facts tell a very different story. Over the years, many people and companies have had many different ideas about what a game controller should be. With the recent change announced by Valve, many are asking questions like “why does every game controller look like an Xbox gamepad?”, apparently forgetting that the Steam controller started out as a much more radical departure from the norm and has gradually been migrating toward a more traditional design, most notably dropping the expensive touchscreen in favor of a few fixed-use face buttons. Well beyond this, the consumer base of the gaming has shown, to the shock of many, no real desire for innovation–games that are praised for being innovative and original just don’t sell. The adage just doesn’t die: You vote with your wallet, and when innovative titles fail to sell, it tells developers and publishers to go back to the established formulas and design ethics.
This applies in the world of controllers, too. Everyone compared the Wii U’s Pro Controller to that of its competitor, but they didn’t seem to see that controllers these days have been more or less boiled down to their essence. Hardware designers have had over thirty years now to experiment, to come up with new layouts and concepts and see how they play out with the consumers. Some succeed, many die out. These ideas are even somewhat cyclical: The Sega Genesis had a concept controller while in the design phase, that strongly resembled the Wiimote of today. The PlayStation controller originally had a much more radical design before it shifted back to the DualShock design that is now a staple not just of the PlayStation, but even of its parent company as a whole. Even when new concepts seem to take off, they don’t seem quite able to reach orbit. Microsoft’s Kinect seemed like a great idea at the time, but after a while, the novelty wore off, and even putting it in every box and forcing its use couldn’t keep it afloat. People just wanted controllers in their hands, it seemed.
Even the company known for innovation, Nintendo, has been caught in this net many times, most notably with the N64 controller, which is often rated on lists as the worst controller of all time (either for Nintendo specifically, or the gaming industry as a whole). Early in development, the PlayStation 3 used a totally new design of controller, often referred to as the “boomerang“, that was lampooned by many as ridiculous, though it was rumored to be very comfortable to use. Why did Sony ditch the futuristic design? “…there are so many players who are used to the PlayStation controller; it’s like a car steering wheel and it’s not easy to change people’s habits.”
People like what’s familiar. You want both new customers and longtime fans to be able to use the controllers on your new console easily, without a long adjustment period. Controllers have reached the point where most all needs are covered. Two joysticks for analog movements in most games, a d-pad for older games and menus, a four-button cluster on the face, two sets of shoulders, and an extra button under each analog stick. All arranged so that they are easy to reach with thumbs and fingers. There’s really not much room for improvement anymore, unless you’re a pro gamer in need of more convenience. Just as evolution has dead ends, so does hardware design. And until we find something that can surpass the ulitity and ease of use of current controllers, that’s what will continue to be made and sold.