Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Xbox Controller

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

See Also:
The Playstation Controller 
The Gamecube Controller
The pre-GameCube Nintendo Controllers

In my opinion, the Xbox 360 controllers represent the finest development in gamepad ergonomics design yet achieved. Ironically, out of the three I set out to examine I don't personally own an Xbox 360! It's my brother's. Haha, that might not make a difference in some of your minds. You might be thinking, "Well, either way you have one in the household, big diff" but if you have multiple siblings like me you probably understand.

Anyway, it wasn't always like this, as Bonjour Tristesse will happily tell you. J-just the latter portion of his comment hehe.

Yeah, I remember that piece of hardware.
Let's start from the beginning. The big one. The fat boy. The Duke, as some call it. The one with a logo that clubbed you over the head with brand awareness. The one reputed to have a spy-camera secretly installed behind said logo.

Three guesses which console this controller was for. Nobody? No takers?
Yeah. This was the original Xbox controller right here. Look at that honker. I used one playing with the Xbox in a Toys R' Us. I remember, there weren't even any good launch titles on the shelves yet. More apropos, I remember wondering, "Am I supposed to press those black and white buttons with my index finger? I haven't seen such poorly placed buttonry since the N64." This thing was massive. But then, the console itself was massive. Its usage has since died down somewhat but for a while 'xbox huge' was popular internet slang.

Consumer outcry in Japan started first, probably because us Asians don't have the large meaty paws that Microsoft apparently thought Americans had. I'm picturing a board meeting with this tacked up on the drawing board.

Gwarsh, how'm ah suppost tah play vidja games wit a controller dat ain't et least duh siza muh face??

The Type-S (probably stands for Small) controller came out in Japan and became standard-issue hardware for everywhere else soon after.
Much better.
Note how much everything has been shifted. The black and white buttons have been moved down, the Start and Select Back buttons have been transplanted to a symmetrically balanced location and the D-pad and 2nd analog stick have been squeezed closer together at the expense of logo real estate to create an arrangement more reminicent of your classic PlayStation controller. Microsoft would have done well to note that there's a reason the Sony design has been doing ok all these years. Fortunately, unlike Sony, Microsoft is willing to take what is good, dispense with what is bad and produce a better product for us, the consumer. I want you to note how the primary control for the left thumb is now the analog stick, not the D-pad. The D-pad has been relegated to a secondary position. Again, this is one of those little things some people might give little attention. You might say, "I shift my thumbs lower and play on my DualShock just fine, man." Good for you. I maintain that the most natural path for a thumb is aligned with the forearms.

For this switch in D-pad and analog stick placement, Microsoft deserves credit for seeing and recognizing that prioritizing the joystick would best serve in-game movement control for 3D environments. However(!), the accolades of innovation belong to the design team at Sega for the Dreamcast console. (And to Nintendo for the N64, but I'll get into that later, ok?)

Note the triggers, the empty expansion slots, the colour scheme of the X-Y-A-B buttons, and the priority placement of the joystick above the D-pad.
Ok, I'm not absolutely sure about the colours of the X-Y-A-B buttons. There might be and probably are more factors involved there but the similarities can't be ignored. But yeah, you remember this baby? Man, Dreamcast. Sega's final fateful stand in the console wars. Microsoft owes something else to the Dreamcast, you know? Xbox Live. Yeah, Sega pioneered online console gameplay with this thing. Pay your respects, people. ( ̄_ ̄)7 *play taps*

So yeah, the size reduction came much appreciated. Check them out when placed adjacent to each other. It's like a before-and-after picture.

Dayum, gurl. You been workin' out? (O_Ô)
Type-S still possessed some flaws though. The placement of the Start, Back, Black and White buttons... awkward. I can't put it any other way. I mean, they weren't as bad as they could have been? I never accidentally pressed them when using the Left Analog stick nor while reaching for the four digital buttons but I can't, in good conscience, say they were 'well placed' by any means.

Which leads us up to the present: the Xbox 360 controller.

I mean, wow. This controller's grips have such organic and natural contours. But I'll get into that in a moment. First, I can only assume that Microsoft's insecurities had been alleviated by this point, such that they felt comfortable removing the logo altogether and replacing it with what is actually a useful button! Moreover, the LEDs that ring it indicate which player the controller has been designated. Ingenious! The Start and Back buttons have been moved once again, this time to a nice and unobtrusive center position. The White and Black buttons? They've been replaced by the Left and Right bumpers. You may be saying, "Hey wait, now there are four buttons on the front! It's like L and R all over again, why aren't you complaining about balance, huh?"

Well, before I answer that here's a comment Mark posted yesterday for my PS controller post.
Will do, Mark. As to the two vs. three finger hold on the PlayStation controller, I envy his lack of issues with the balance. But as for the Xbox controller, I hold it with three fingers, too! To this you might retort, "Well, hold your PS controller with three fingers then." But when playing games, especially FPS types that utilize L2 and R2 extensively, I've always felt more in control with fingers on the buttons at all times. This is when I feel the irksome imbalance. With the Xbox 360 controller... well, now.

 Look at that much more gentle angle compared to the PlayStation controllers. When I pick up this one my fingers naturally slide into position. That's ergonomics, in a nutshell, guys.
Three fingers supporting.
Also take note how my index finger lines right up with the trigger.

Like so.

These positions are equivalent to the L2 and R2 buttons, yes, but there are three key differences between the Xbox and PlayStation's front button control schemes:
1) The triggers are given priority over the bumpers. In Xbox games that use both buttons the more important action will get assigned to the trigger and the secondary action will be assigned the bumper. Moreover, when given customization options I've found that I enforce this preference myself where possible. It just feels more natural. Unfortunately, in my experience R1 gets priority over R2. Perhaps this is because the game designers simply take the numerical designations into account and nothing else. Furthermore, neither 1 nor 2 line up 'just so' with my index fingers. (T_T)

2) The bumper buttons, the secondary controls, have been set above the triggers. Moving my finger up to press these secondary buttons rather than down like when pressing the L2/R2 feels more natural, too. I confess I don't know why this is so. The gap between the bumper and trigger isn't more nor less than the gap between L1 and L2. Puzzling...

3) The Xbox has a button/trigger combination while the PlayStation has a button/button combo. The tactile sensation of pressing either L1 or L2 is exactly the same whereas pressing the bumper button and pulling the trigger feel drastically different.
I completely understand if this difference, these differences make no difference at all to you. Maybe you don't really care about anything I've said in this entire post. You just pick up and controller and go. Well then, cheers and go on your way. I know at least one person on Sony's design team noticed because the short-lived Dual Analog controller introduced ridges on L2/R2 to distinguish them from L1/R1.
Just in case you're confused, the Dual Analog controller was the first iteration of PlayStation 1 controller that had analog sticks. I know I didn't call them by this, their official name, in the Playstation Controller post. My apologies.
From top to bottom: original, Dual Analog, DualShock.
So there you go.