With the release of recent games like Boom Blox, Mario Kart Wii, The World Ends With You, LostWinds, Okami (Wii), and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time with my hands on Nintendo hardware. Despite wide variations in gameplay, genre, and target audiences, I find myself moving easily among these games, with no difficulty managing the controls or remembering how to do certain things. Recently, that hasn't been so easy.
I recall returning to Mass Effect after a couple of weeks away from the game, and I was utterly lost. I had almost no idea how to do anything in the game, and I needed the manual to remind me what all the buttons, triggers and thumbsticks did. The same could be said of my experience playing a whole list of recent Xbox 360 and PS3 games.
I realize my increasingly feeble brain bears some responsibility for all this, but it does seem to me we're reaching the outer limits of what the average gamer can be expected to know and remember when it comes to video game controls. While serious gamers may tend to lock onto a game and play it with few interruptions, I don't think that represents the way many gamers - or more importantly, potential gamers - play games.
Speaking only for myself, gone are the days when I played one video game for eight hours at a sitting. These days, I'm still an avid gamer, but I'm more of a dabbler, moving among several games, playing what happens to appeal to me in the moment. In many ways, I play games today much like I used to watch television: considering my options, selecting one, and spending an hour or two with my choice. As the market for video games continues to expand, I think an increasing percentage of gamers will choose a similar mode of play. And I think that means we need to take a hard look at these 7-button, 4-trigger, 2-thumbstick, 4-way directional pad design nightmares.
My friend JC Barnett over at Japanmanship has been thinking about game controls in the context of so-called "casual" and "hardcore" gamers, and he raises some interesting points that resonate loudly with me:
...somehow, along the line, developers and publishers have started equating “casual” with “bright, friendly” or “shitty simple”. You do not have to make main characters pink with huge eyes, involve horses or kittens or make boring mini-game collections to make a casual game. Just make it easy to play. ... There are a lot of “casual” gamers out there who would like a zombie survival horror game or a gritty World War 2 shooting game, but would not be able to learn or enjoy the 150 button combinations needed to control it. This doesn’t mean those games would have to be made so simple a 5 year old could play them, but it would mean having a good hard think about how these players control the game, adding more contextually automatic actions and using a controller that doesn’t look like a robot with acne.
Amen brother! You can read all of JC's essay here.