Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Playstation Controller

Dedicated PlayStation entry continuing from the Console Controllers of the Big Three post.

See Also:
The Xbox Controller
The Gamecube Controller
The pre-GameCube Nintendo Controllers
As aforesaid, the PS controller has remained essentially unchanged since '94. It started out like this:

Simple. Clean. Elegant?

Once upon a time, primary movement control in a video game came through use of the D-pad. Shoot with , jump with X. There were games in which the L and R buttons wouldn't be used at all, especially the older ones. (Things have come a long way.) If at all, they would only reorient the third-person camera sometimes. But this was enough for most of them.

Eventually, we got the analog sticks. This was a big step forward! Now you could walk, walk faster, OR run full tilt. Up until then, the D-pad's digital signals limited your choices to 'Go' or 'Not going'. There was no speed gradient. Still, the four L and R buttons remained secondary controls. Game designers would try their best to assign the most needed functions to the face controls.

Dual Analog controller.
I want you to note the slightly elongated handles. I didn't pull this information from any kind of official document but I think this design change corroborates my belief that at that time the PS controller was still meant to be held with three fingers of each hand supporting it from the bottom. You didn't need to have your middle fingers on the L2 and R2 buttons because they weren't used often enough to warrant it.

A detail not to be overlooked: The addition of the analog sticks eventually lead to the inclusion of two more 'buttons': the L3 and R3 from pressing the analog sticks.

Note the change in design on the joysticks from smooth concavity to textured convex rubber. In my experience this improves gripping ability, especially on sweaty hands. Also the handles have been shortened back to their original size. I'm not sure when the trend began but these days firing control in FPS games has been assigned to the R1 button, I'd go so far as to say exclusively so. This trend exists across the board for console games and Playstation's were no exception. Grenade throwing or weapon switching usually ends up L2 and R2 so gamers now have need to leave fingers on those buttons at all times. This leaves only the four fingers supporting from below. Again, I don't know with certainty that this shift has anything to do with the reversion to short handles but I think it is related, even if only obliquely.

Since then there have also been some changes involving pressure-sensitivity of the face buttons, motion-sensing technology on the Sixaxis/Dualshock 3 but these aren't the focus of this blog post. The ergonomics. That's what I want to talk about. This controller hasn't changed much in that respect. Oh, it came close, real close to changing with the PS3. Check this out.

Also known as the Boomerang controller. If you followed that link, before you call me on it, I know, it was only a prototype for which he clearly states he put ergonomics aside. Nevertheless, I'd like to point out how NEEDLESSLY long those handles are.

This is what it would have looked like being held.
Note that even in this artist's rendition, the Playstation controller is being held with six fingers supporting it. I've never held one but just looking at it I don't think you can deny that it doesn't seem to be designed to be supported by four. The center of gravity is just wrong, see? The controller would rest against your index fingers. Maybe you don't think that's an issue but I find it uncomfortable having a button also serve as a point of support.

Ok, here's the controller we know and love, right? It's iconic, I'll give you that. I just wish the gamer community had been a little more open to change and/or that Sony had a little more spine.

I got out my PS2 controller, the DualShock 2, and took some photos.

Here's the grip I find most secure and comfortable.
Three fingers, yes?
Only one finger to access L1 and L2.
Examine this side view.
See the angle it makes and where the apex lies?
First the angle.
This angle is why the balance of the controller is 'off' in my opinion.
Resting the controller on two fingers leaves it tilting forward, see?
And I don't know about you but I don't play with my forearms angled upward to compensate for that angle. That gets tiring.

Furthermore, with my fingers gripping the controller naturally, the other fingers do not line up with the L and R buttons like they should.

See how the middle finger clearly doesn't line up with the L2 button?

Closing the fingers results in this odd resting place.

Holding the controller like this is not extremely uncomfortable but it isn't as natural as it could be. See how the weight rests on two points, 1) My pinky and ring finger. 2) The L/R button rack. That's not right. For one, my pinky really doesn't have a strong grip on anything. They're almost fully scrunched. It bothers me that the rest of my fingers are active but the pinkies atrophy from lack of use. ATROPHY!
In addition, when using the D-pad there is no supporting force from below. The third finger should be there, see? And that apex cavity is certainly not for the ring finger, it's too far forward.

Final push, k?

Supporting it at L1 and R1.

Letting go.
The controller fell forward. My middle fingers ended up in the gaps between L1 and L2, R1 and R2.

I don't know how you held it, Mark, but this is how i hold mine and it's bugged me ever since I got a PlayStation (the original box-shaped one). I have taken hand size into account. This balance issue occurs in my friends' hands, too, though I would venture to say they haven't given it nearly as much neurotic attention as I have.

So yeah, I just wrote an entire post on the ergonomics of this gamepad! A similar treatment of the others will follow, in addition to a bonus one on the N64 controller, though I can't promise they will be as long as this one. Excepting the N64 controller. I have choice words to say about that one.