Why We'll Never Have the Perfect Controller

April 18, 2019

In the 30 years since the classic NES controller debuted, controller design has come a long way. Or has it? Controller designs aren’t only about ergonomics. They’re also sites of clashing philosophies, corporate rivalries, and the battle for the loyalties of elite players.


Speaker 1: This was the controller for

Speaker 1: the first home video game console.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] Look at the size of that thing.

Speaker 1: A decade after that,

Speaker 1: Nintendo introduced the world

Speaker 1: to the joys of the D-pad and

Speaker 1: the birth of the controller as we know

Speaker 1: it and in the 30 years since then,

Speaker 1: controller design has come a long way, or has it?

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] In 2017,

Speaker 1: a technology design researcher measured some of

Speaker 1: the most popular controllers from the past 25 years

Speaker 1: against ergonomic standards for

Speaker 1: things like dials and buttons,

Speaker 1: to see whether controllers have gotten more

Speaker 1: ergonomic as games have gone more mainstream.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] None of the controllers perfectly matched

Speaker 1: the proper ergonomic dimensions

Speaker 1: for things like button size and button spacing.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] This is an interesting study but, of course,

Speaker 1: lab measurements and ergonomic design standards

Speaker 1: don't tell the whole story.

Speaker 1: After all, the very first controllers

Speaker 1: created for the game space war

Speaker 1: were modeled on railroad switches.

Speaker 1: [NOISE] They were developed as workarounds to

Speaker 1: the complicated inputs for the PDP1 Computer

Speaker 1: and they were more about solving

Speaker 1: a computer engineering input problem

Speaker 1: than human design problem.

Speaker 1: And the more you dig into the stories

Speaker 1: behind the most iconic controllers,

Speaker 1: the more you see that controller designs are anything

Speaker 1: but exercises in pure ergonomics.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] Play Station's Dual Shock

Speaker 1: is one of the best loved controllers on

Speaker 1: the market and it almost didn't exist.

Speaker 1: [NOISE] When Sony began work on PlayStation in 1993,

Speaker 1: they were entering the console wars

Speaker 1: with an eye to take down the king.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] In order to make it

Speaker 1: easy for Nintendo players to switch over to PlayStation,

Speaker 1: Sony management wanted a controller that had

Speaker 1: the same flat style as Nintendo's.

Speaker 1: Instead, designer Teo Goto came

Speaker 1: back with this curvy design with two grips.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC] Management hated it,

Speaker 1: they overruled Goto and went

Speaker 1: ahead with a flat controller,

Speaker 1: even going so far as to pour the molds.

Female 1: But Sony's president, Norio Ohga had

Female 1: followed the controller design process

Female 1: with close interest.

Female 1: [MUSIC] Ohga was a classically trained musician.

Female 1: Here he is casually conducting a Schubert Symphony,

Female 1: and he also happened to be an accomplished jet pilot.

Female 1: He liked to go to his design because it

Female 1: gave him a 3D feel for the game,

Female 1: similar to when he was flying a plane.

Female 1: When management showed Ohga

Female 1: the flat design he was living,

Female 1: Gotto was afraid Ohga was going to

Female 1: chuck the flat prototypes of the management team.

Female 1: The curved shape that became

Female 1: the classic playstation controller might

Female 1: never have been born if Ohga hadn't intervened.

Female 1: His appreciation for the design wasn't

Female 1: about standard ergonomic measurements,

Female 1: it was about the feeling of

Female 1: connectedness between hardware human and game.

Female 1: That same feeling guided Nintendo in

Female 1: their development of the in 64 controller.

Female 1: Legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto

Female 1: understood the controller,

Female 1: and the game were won.

Female 1: Without the controller, there is no game really.

Female 1: Miyamoto vision for the gameplay of

Female 1: Mario 64 and the free exploration of that open 3d world,

Female 1: led Nintendo to innovate analog control sticks.

Female 1: If you pressed gently, Mario would tiptoe.

Female 1: If you pushed the stick all the way, he would sprint.

Female 1: But what's with the three prong shape?

Female 1: The Nintendo 64 controller

Female 1: had to remain usable and simple,

Female 1: but it also had to allow room for game developers

Female 1: to start innovating with the new graphics power.

Female 1: The console was unleashing.

Female 1: So no.

Female 1: They didn't think anybody had three hands,

Female 1: when they designed this controller.

Female 1: They just figured people could use

Female 1: the two outer grips to access

Female 1: the d pad for old school classic style games.

Female 1: And they could grip the center and right sides,

Female 1: to use the analog stick to interact in

Female 1: new ways with whatever new games

Female 1: the developers dreamed up.

Female 1: [NOISE] More computing power was partly to

Female 1: blame for the colossal first XBox controller.

Male1: Let me now unveil export.

Female 1: When Microsoft released the XBox in 2001,

Female 1: the controller that got shipped to

Female 1: North American customers was the Duke.

Male1: She is putting the control in their hands.

Male1: We tried out over 100 different form factors,

Male1: [MUSIC] you know to find what was the most controllable,

Male1: and give them the best game, gameplay.

Female 1: It was three times bigger than Sony's controller.

Female 1: And Microsoft killed it off after just a year,

Female 1: replacing it with their smaller controller

Female 1: for the Japanese market.

Female 1: Why did it ever ship

Female 1: such a massive controller to begin with?

Female 1: As soon as concept sketches for

Female 1: the XBox controller were completed,

Female 1: the circuit boards that would power the controller,

Female 1: were manufactured based off those drawings.

Female 1: The circuit boards were

Female 1: huge and they weren't going to go away.

Female 1: So the designer had to find a way to work around them.

Female 1: Her solution was to lean into

Female 1: making the controller as comfortable as possible,

Female 1: even if it was huge.

Female 1: She departed from what had been

Female 1: standard controller layout and offset the analog sticks,

Female 1: to better fit the natural position of the thumbs.

Female 1: A design move that proved lasting and well loved.

Female 1: That doesn't mean these companies

Female 1: don't take ergonomics and user testing into account.

Female 1: In a 2010 interview with a Japanese gaming magazine,

Female 1: Tokyo Gautreaux said Sony spent more time

Female 1: designing the playstation controller

Female 1: than the console itself.

Female 1: Microsoft spent 100 million dollars on

Female 1: R and D for an update to the XBox 360 controller.

Female 1: They built hundreds of prototypes.

Female 1: Somewhere pretty out there.

Female 1: One that would really smells,

Female 1: one that would beam an immersive

Female 1: projection around the player.

Female 1: In the end, after those millions of dollars

Female 1: and hundreds of prototypes,

Female 1: the new controller looked largely similar to the old one,

Female 1: but they had made some key changes to help

Female 1: the hardcore players internally

Female 1: referred to as the Golden Hands.

Female 1: For the XBox one,

Female 1: the sticks were given rubberized grips

Female 1: to help keep thumbs from slipping,

Female 1: and they shaved down the disc shaped d pad into more of

Female 1: a plus sign that would feel like

Female 1: separate keys so that you could

Female 1: quickly switch just by the feel.

Female 1: Face buttons got closer together

Female 1: so you could switch between them more quickly.

Female 1: They also adjusted the angle of the trigger and shooter

Female 1: buttons turning them slightly

Female 1: outward and making them bigger.

Female 1: This was specifically about ergonomics.

Female 1: These new triggers better fit

Female 1: the natural angle of the fingers.

Female 1: The PlayStation team similarly made

Female 1: these fine grained ergonomic adjustments

Female 1: between the dualshock three and four.

Female 1: Through user testing, they

Female 1: saw that when it came to the d pad,

Female 1: there were two kinds of players folks

Female 1: who hit it from the sides,

Female 1: and people who hit the d pad starting from the center.

Female 1: Both groups complained of fatigue

Female 1: and discomfort after a couple of hours.

Female 1: So the new d pad had

Female 1: gently sloping buttons and

Female 1: a concave place for the thumb to rest comfortably.

Female 1: So they do go through rigorous testing.

Female 1: Now, despite all of that,

Female 1: pro players are still pushing

Female 1: the hardware and their bodies to the absolute limit.

Female 2: All right. For one super smash for the player,

Female 2: the strain of playing led to

Female 2: arthritis at just 23 years old.

Male 2: Two years ago, I was sitting in a doctor's office,

Male 2: and it was being made clear to me

Male 2: that I would never play this game again.

Male 2: And I told the doctor that I was going to find a way.

Male 2: In recent years, I've become really

Male 2: well known for this FOX controller that I developed.

Male 2: This is a controller that allows people to enjoy,

Male 2: mainly without experiencing some of

Male 2: the ergonomic concerns that

Male 2: they would normally have to go through.

Female 1: Will we ever see a complete redesign of one of

Female 1: the flagship controllers from Sony

Female 1: or Microsoft? Probably not.

Female 1: Given how such intensely loyal player bases develop,

Female 1: once players have put the hours

Female 1: in to master a particular interface.

Female 1: Game scholar Dan Parisi argues that the shape of

Female 1: the controller has become

Female 1: a haptic extension of the brand,

Female 1: and what more intimate way to

Female 1: connect with your customers,

Female 1: than the way a gamer melds with the controller.

Female 1: For more EA Sports coverage,

Female 1: tune into chatter EA Sports on fubo TV.