For this week's Burning Questions, Jason and Kirk talk about video game controllers. Which controller is better, Xbox or PlayStation? What do touch-screens like the Wii U and the Vita hold for the future? Is the Kinect good for anything except pausing Netflix videos (and is it even that good at that)? What is the difference between "Effect" and "Affect"?
Well, then. Those sure are some... Burning Questions.
Kirk: Why hello there, Jason. Today we're talking about controllers. Not flight controllers, or passive-aggressive boyfriend-controllers... Video game controllers!
Jason: So just to be clear, we're not talking about the bad guys from Animorphs?
Kirk: Nope. And we're also not talking about that one guy from Mass Effect 2. Though I'm sure someone will make an "assuming direct control" joke at some point. Unless that counts. Nope, just video game controllers. So: Much is made about how the biggest thing that sets games apart from other media like, say, movies, is the fact that we can interact with them. When we say "controllers," we're really talking about that—the means by which we interact with games. Controllers are the bridge between us and video games—they're kind of a big deal!
Jason: And for such a big deal, they can sure be annoying sometimes. But it's hard to enjoy games without them, isn't it? Can't live with'em; can't live without'em.
Kirk: Sort of like Tigers! Though more people are living with them than ever. Rather than wait until the end to answer the Big Question, I'll start with it: Do you prefer the Xbox 360 controller or the PlayStation 3 controller?
Jason: PlayStation 3. By FAR. It's sleeker, it's lighter, and it doesn't have those ugly extraneous bumper buttons. Plus, it doesn't require expensive batteries (although it's annoying when you forget to charge it just before you want to start playing Tales of Graces). What about you?
Kirk: I can't believe you prefer PS3. You CAD. I'm the opposite! I greatly prefer the 360 controller. When the 360 came out, I was so impressed with how well Microsoft had improved upon the (terrible) Xbox controller.
The ergonomics are fantastic, I think—it's close to the perfect controller for me, and I really do hope they add squeeze controls like that patent application suggests. And improve the D-pad. The PS3 feels too small for me, but I've grown to like it for everything but first-person shooters.
Jason: This conversation is making me want to hold a PS3 controller right now; that's how much I like it. Like, I'm feeling ghost sensations and want to put my hands on the DualShock 3. And I'm hardly a fanboy—I didn't even OWN a PS3 til early 2011.
Kirk: I was drafting a pithy way of mocking your PS3-preference, but actually, let's not get sidetracked on the pluses and minuses of these specific controllers. There's a bigger picture thing here, and that's the fact that gamers like us have evolved alongside these controllers. We have these super-specific preferences, but when it comes down to it, the controllers aren't THAT different. And they're both very inaccessible for newcomers. An Xbox controller has 13 buttons, a D-pad, and two joysticks. Good gravy.
Jason: Which might be why Microsoft is putting all of their energy (and money) into an accessory that does away with controllers entirely. Few video game controlling mechanisms are more accessible than Kinect.
Kirk: Well that's the question, isn't it? Is the Kinect really all that accessible? I'm not so sure. I am growing more and more convinced that Microsoft made an error when they assumed that people want to control their games (or their entertainment systems) with nothing but their voices and their hands. If my sister came over and wanted to fire up Netflix on my 360, she'd actually probably be more comfortable doing it with a controller.
Jason: Microsoft's sure putting a lot of money on the idea that it is accessible! But I dunno. I have no interest in waving my body around to control a video game. I want to feel buttons and directional pads. And whenever I talk to friends about Kinect, both gamer and non-gamer, it seems like they like the idea a lot more in theory than they do in practice. I don't think we realize how important tactile feedback is until it's taken away from us.
Kirk: I agree. The games will doubtless improve with the next iteration of Kinect, but even then, some sort of physical thing will probably always be necessary, or at least appreciated. Have you played the upcoming Steel Battalion game?
Jason: Nope. Is it fun?
Kirk: Well... it's wild, anyway. When I played it earlier this year, I described it as the hardest-core Kinect game yet. And that's true—it becomes so hardcore not by replacing standard controls with motion controls, but by layering one on top of the other. Suddenly you've got your controller and your whole body to worry about. Which could be neat, but the farther I get from it, the more I'm convinced that the Kinect just isn't responsive enough.
But the broader thing Heavy Armor makes me realize is: Motion control is certainly a lot better when it's bolstered by some sort of tactile feedback.
Jason: Well that's the Wii, isn't it? Nintendo mastered the motion control/tactile hybrid years ago.
Kirk: It is, except that the Steel Battalion motion controls are insanely more complicated and varied than any Wii game. You literally navigate an entire tank cockpit using only gestures. You stand up, lift your hand to your eyes for binoculars (that's really cool), grab levers, put out fires, fist-bump your teammates... it's an order of magnitude more involved than any Wii game.
But given how well Wii games have worked (though I don't think I'd say Nintendo has "mastered" anything just yet), I'd say Nintendo may have the more approachable idea. Which brings us to the Wii U, and the thing that just may blow the whole "new video game controllers" thing up—a touch screen. That, as far as I'm concerned, is actually the best option for all of this media stuff, and for shopping online stores in your living room.
Jason: Kinect feels similar in many ways. It was released what, a year and a half ago? And the best use of its controls is still Child of Eden, an experimental game in which you aim with your hands and clap to switch weapons. Could have easily been done with a standard controller. (And it was; you can play the game with a normal Xbox 360 controller.)
That's what really worries me about the Wii U. Is this another case of a hardware manufacturer thinking ahead of software developers? Will we see games that really take advantage of the system? Or will we just use it like a regular controller for most games because that's just the easiest way for developers to let us play?
Kirk: Well, if anyone's good at getting developers on board, it's Nintendo. At least, they pulled that off with the DS. Who knows if they've got that kind of magic trick in them again, though at least the Wii U has enough in common with the DS (it's just bigger) that developers should be able to get their heads around it. What's striking, and this is from playing the Vita a lot, is how well analog controls and touchscreen controls can blend. You wrote a little while ago about how touch-screen controls aren't enough for gaming. Do you agree that, when combined with traditional controls, they can open up a lot of new doors?
Jason: Absolutely! And when I played the Wii U at E3 last year, I was really impressed by how its controller felt (for the most part). Creative developers should have a field day brainstorming ideas for how to use the touchscreen both as its own mechanism and as a supplement to the buttons and joysticks around it.
Kirk: I've always thought it's funny—a lot of longtime gamers look at motion controls and touch-controls as a threat, like they're going to somehow replace the controls we've spent 25 years perfecting. But really, I just think they're going to all combine—a game console that can see and hear you, and has both precise analog controls and a touch-screen... the possibilities are endless! And believe me, the games that sucker will run will be anything but casual.
Jason: See and hear you??? That sounds kinda terrifying.
Kirk: Well yeah, though I for one welcome our new video game console overlords. (I'm sorry. Has that reference officially expired? Or did I maybe just make it expire?)
But okay. Let's get specific again—what are some of your favorite video game control schemes?
Jason: Good question. And I don't think I can answer, because I think my favorite game control schemes are the ones you don't even think about. The more intuitive the controls, the less you notice how great they are.
Kirk: Really? Oh come on, you have to have some favorites. I think about this kind of thing a lot. For example—I love aiming with the left trigger. I can't remember which console game was the first to do that—though I suppose Call of Duty made it popular. I think that feeling is fantastic, and vastly prefer it to clicking the right thumbstick.
Similarly, I love using the shoulder buttons for ancillary junk. Say, the active reload in Gears of War. Something about the positioning, and how you hit the button with the inside of your index finger... it feels great.
Jason: The control schemes I remember are the ones that were frustrating as hell. Like the Metal Gear Solid games, which are all both wonderful and saddled with atrocious control schemes that involve holding and pushing so many arbitrary buttons, sometimes I wonder if it's some Kojimaesque meta commentary about how stupid video games are.
Kirk: Man, I agree. Sometimes I think they were kidding with that crap. Like, is anyone actually any good at CQC in those games?
Kirk: Seriously. If you fail, you never get another chance to try, and the button inputs couldn't be more complicated. I like combos (like in God of War, like you mention) as much as the next guy, but when it comes to Metal Gear, I could probably live with contextual controls.
Or just shoot everyone with a tranq gun like I usually do.
Jason: Which is much more fun than that CQC nonsense anyway. Now here's an interesting thought: how would Metal Gear Solid adapt to a system like the Wii U?
Kirk: I'm a little worried about that, actually. I mean, "worried" is the wrong word. But I think that the first games that come out for Wii U that are ports from other consoles will use the touch screen in weird, tacked-on ways. The interesting games are going to come from Nintendo's own studios, for the most part.
Jason: If that happens, the system is doomed. It'll never take off. It won't appeal to the casuals like the Wii did, and it won't appeal to the dedicated gamers who don't care about Mario and Zelda.
The only way the Wii U can survive (in my semi-educated opinion) is if third-party developers master its controller like they never did for the Wii. I want to see games like Metal Gear Solid rock the shit out of the tablet controller. I want to see tactical RPGs that let you move characters around a touchscreen grid in your hands. I want to see rhythm games that require you to pull off perfectly timed swipes and presses. I want to see puzzle games that use two screens simultaneously, in ways that weren't possible on the DS.
Kirk: Well, it's not just games. I get the sense that everyone is angling to have their console be the must-have all-in-one set-top device. And the idea of browsing an e-store with a touch-pad like the Wii U has is really enticing. So much better than using my mouse from afar, like I do now with my PC. Apple's iPad/Apple TV combo is looking like the one to beat at the moment, but the Wii U could.. well, theoretically sneak in there. I wouldn't want to be taking on Apple, though. I'd also be surprised if Sony doesn't do something like that with the Vita and the PS3/4, since I love shopping on the Vita.
Jason: Well if we're talking home entertainment, that's the one place where Kinect really does sing. Literally. You can sing at your TV and get it to play Netflix and shit.
Kirk: You can get technique critiques from it. "Slightly pitchy." But even so, I'd rather use a touch-screen handheld from my couch than use the kinect. Though I do love saying "Xbox, Pause!"
Jason: "Don't tell me what to do, asshole." "Come on, Xbox, I hate it when we fight."
Kirk: I wonder what my neighbors think, particularly when it's not responding. "XBOX, FUCKING PAUSE ALREADY!!"
Jason: Have you played with the Wii U yet? Even if you haven't, do you think it can really compete with other systems as the One Home Entertainment Device To Rule Them All?
Kirk: I only sorta messed around with one at E3. But no, I don't really think so - and like I said, it's gonna be hard to beat Apple for that One Device to Rule Them All, particularly if they get serious about set-top gaming and can get more core games onto their App Store. (Which they're already starting to do.)
Jason: If any gamemaker wants my attention, they'll have to compete with Kingdom Rush on the iPad. (Best game ever.)
Kirk: Now imagine Kingdom Rush... IN GLORIOUS HD.
Jason: Do you think Nintendo will actually get its shit together online this coming gen?
Kirk: Man, that is a whole other Burning Question altogether.
Jason: Ha, that's true. And if the answer isn't yes, Nintendo's investors will be Burning Iwata.
So as we're heading towards wrapping this up, here's a burning question for you: Inverted or boring, dumb non-inverted? (With the bonus question: Can you tell which I prefer?)
Jason: I forget.
Jason: Seriously. I'd have to check one of my games. It's one of those things I can never remember, along with the difference between "affect" and "effect."
Kirk: "Affect" is hipsters. "Effect" is movies. I can't believe that about you not knowing the most important control-related fact about yourself. I guess you just play JRPGs, so it doesn't matter.
Jason: JRPGs, Madden, and StarCraft II.
Kirk: Which, not a bad mix really. Hey before we're done—I know you've been playing some Diablo III. What do you think about the controls in that game?
Jason: I would answer, but I'm still nursing carpal tunnel syndrome from last night's clicking session.
Kirk: Ha. I'm really interested to see how well the game takes off among people who don't normally play games—as much as people argue that it's a complex, hardcore game (which it is), there's no denying the fact that you could play it... basically... with two fingers and a trackpad.
Jason: Yeah, it's very user-friendly. But that's part of the reason it's so appealing! You don't have to think much. It's soothing. Click click click click click click
Kirk: Reward! Click click click. Though I find that excessive clicking has been hell on my inventory space. It's so easy to click, I get going and don't spool down fast enough. I didn't even want those cracked-cloth pants!
Jason: I still don't understand how cloth can be cracked.
Kirk: It's old, man. It's old and crusty.
Jason: You're old and crusty.