For more than two years, 105 people at Microsoft have been trying to improve the video game controller. The results go on sale this fall in the form of the Xbox One's gamepad. The new controller sports changes big and small—but, thankfully, it won't emit smells. Yes, they actually tried that.
At a glance, the Xbox One controller looks like the eight-year-old Xbox 360 controller. The differences are subtle. Since May, Microsoft has touted that there are some 40 changes from the old standard to their new one. In a new video today, Microsoft's head of Xbox accessories Zulfi Alam shows some of the more notable changes—most of which have been discussed by the company before.
Alam also recently talked through those changes with Kotaku in a conversation that went beyond the video to discuss not just what's new with this new controller—including its radically-improved rumble features—but which things Microsoft decided not to do with the controller and why. Microsoft also updated us on the compatibility of the new controller with the PC, saying that functionality will be enabled in 2014.
If you're new to the Xbox One controller, you should know that, in a sense, it's all-new. Xbox 360 controllers won't work with Microsoft's new console. The Xbox One controller, replete with industry-standard twin thumbsticks, d-pad, triggers, bumpers, and ABXY face buttons, is required for the Xbox One. Given how well-liked the 360 controller was and is, the new one had better be good, right?
The most noticeable change between the 360 controller and the Xbox One one is the removal of the underside bulge caused by the old battery pack.
"After six or seven hours people do start wishing, 'Hey, I wish this thing wasn't there,'" Alam said of the old wireless 360 controller. "They do start preferring the wired controller that doesn't contain the battery pack."
The new controller still uses AA batteries, but the housing for them no longer sticks out.
You might be wondering why Microsoft didn't just ditch the need for AA batteries and go with an internal rechargeable battery, as Sony has with its PlayStation controllers and Nintendo with its Wii U GamePad.
"We thought long and hard about integrating batteries," Alam said. "Rechargeable batteries have—this is physics—X number of cycles. After those cycles, the controller has to be replaced. So we decided that we wanted to give our customers an option. If they wanted to have a rechargeable controller we give them a battery pack they can integrate inside." That's the play-and-charge kit Microsoft is selling separately. "The controller at that point will be virtually a rechargeable [one,] because you just add a wire and the entire system recharges itself." For those who just want to use batteries, they can. He estimated that AA batteries would give about 40 hours of charge. "With rechargeable you have effectively less...
"Core consumers, at least a portion of them, don't want to replace the controller, because after one year of daily recharging, it seems to be losing its charge in a significantly faster timeframe than when it first did coming out of the box."
As you'll see in the video, Alam's team also focused on making the new controller's d-pad feel crisper, shrank the deadzones on the thumbsticks and even covered up the holes for the controller's screws which they thought had annoyed long-session gamers who used the 360 controller.
"We prototyped all of these things on the 360 controller, got them working with games on the 360, put a story in front of our leadership team and said this is what we can accomplish," Zulfi said. He noted that all of these changes were eventually tested by "hundreds and hundreds of gamers" during the Xbox One controller's development period.
Subtle as those changes may be, there some even less visible ones worth noting. The contours of the controller have been modified slightly, Alam said, so "they fit a wider range of hand sizes."
The internal wireless protocol that allows the controller to communicate with the console has been overhauled from the 360 era, replacing a 1.6 megabit per second connection of the old one with a modified WiFi protocol for the new one that enables 20 times the bandwidth which, in turn, Alam said, "allows a whole different variety of different accessories we can build with the controller and around the controller."
The new proprietary protocol—to be clear, it's not WiFi nor Bluetooth, which Alam said was too slow for their needs—should reduce controller-to-console latency by 20% compared to the old 360 connection. How fast? Alam says that the time from button press on an Xbox One controller to the console receiving the signal should be 9 milliseconds. He believes that is effectively the same as with a wired controller, though he noted that the controllers radio transmitter will be turned off if/when the controller is plugged into the console via a micro-USB cable, allowing signals to be sent strictly through the wire. That, he said, is ideal for competitive play and removes the need for competitive gamers to own a wireless and wired controller.
Alam's team at Microsoft spent some of the last two years tinkering. Some of their experiments may yet show up in future controllers. For example, the team looked at so-called soft-touch materials like cloth or soft plastic that might be more comfortable as your hands sweat, but didn't like the results enough to put them in the launch models. "There are some challenges that have to do with anti-bacterial coatings to prevent the controller from becoming a germ magnet," Alam said, "so we looked at that and came up with the conclusion that maybe it was better not to include that in the first round."
Other experiments seem to be off the table forever.
One involved adding a speaker to the controller, a concept Nintendo introduced with the Wii Remote and carried over to the Wii U GamePad and that Sony is introducing to the PS4 controller. Alam's team tried it for Xbox One, too.
"We put speakers on it," he said. They tested the idea of players being able to hear cartridges dropping during rapid fire. They didn't like the sound mix. "The best speakers in the house are the ones associated with the TV and you essentially drown it all away, so it's not a useful investment. It's essentially almost distracting."
The Xbox controller team also experimented with doing something similar to what Nintendo did with the Wii U GamePad, but nixed it. "We did put screens on our controllers," he said. "These are the two things that came out... the gaming screen is essentially your television screen. If you have a small alternate screen which can't by definition be high-rez or super bright because of the battery requirements—it would drain the battery much faster than you wanted to—there would have to be compromises. If you had this screen that is on your controller and this big TV in front of you, your eyes are going down to your controller and back up and down and back up and during a shooter or other core gameplay scenario that is just not something you want to be doing. So it just didn't have the user impact that we desired."
The disavowal of having a second screen while gaming might sound weird if you recall that Microsoft is pushing its own second-screen experience called SmartGlass. Launch games like Dead Rising 3 do in fact let a player or second player use a tablet or phone screen for added interactions and info. "It's a different thing when you have something like SmartGlass for additional information," Alam said. "But If you're trying to read, for example, your kill ratio on your controller during active gameplay that's not fun. You'll lose the game, essentially. If you focus on the controller and not on the game, you will eventually be dead. That was one of the things we looked at and said, 'Hey is this is probably not helpful.'"
Alam described displays and speakers as "grandiose improvements" that just didn't matter enough to hardcore gamers. Serious gamers want to be closer to their games, he said, and doing screens and speakers wouldn't make that happen according to the Xbox controller braintrust. Instead, they focused on feel. More specifically, they focused on what has been the most impressive part of the controller for many of the people who've tried the Xbox One—myself included—the radically-changed rumble.
Microsoft first let reporters feel the Xbox One controller's new rumble feedback in May. I tried it and was impressed. So were our colleagues at Gizmodo, who posted an essential round-up of the demos. In short, rumble has transformed from a buzzing to a nuanced, multi-step form of feedback that can pulse and buzz in each trigger based on commands from the player and the game. It can provide the sputtering and shaking of a car engine starting up and then the purr of the engine idling.
To pull this off, Alam's team had to miniaturize and modify the rumble motors that they had used before. They had to get the rumble into the controller's triggers themselves. "The rumble motors are actually quite big, the 360 ones," Alam said. "Think of taking those and shrinking them down to one-tenth of their size and having them react to multiple frequencies. It was a humungous engineering challenge.
"You don't want a telephone-like rumble which is almost a buzzing sound. You want rumble to be true rumble. The way a tire spins out of control or the way a tire hits gravel? That's a very specific, which is not like a-buzzing feeling." Alam said he wanted to be sure that the motors had "enough steps that allow the user to feel the change from feeling a to feeling b without it being buzzy."
Until you feel the rumbling in the triggers, it's hard to explain how much better the Xbox One's rumble is than any other Xbox, Nintendo or PlayStation controller. On this one, Microsoft has indisputably nailed it. You'll see it—or feel it—someday.
When building a controller, one has to remember who they're building the controller for: gamers. And one has to remember that sometimes gamers get angry. Those wonderful, small motors in the triggers? Alam said that Microsoft had to be sure the motors won't be destroyed because someone chucks their controller.
"I have to make sure I can still throw my controller and have it not break out on me even though there are motors right in the trigger."
Yes, they test for gamer rage.
"We actually have contraptions built for fixed defined force and dropping the controller such that it mimics how it is being used in gameplay by aggressive core gameplay," Alam said. "We don't expect it to shatter, and even if it does, essentially things shatter in such a way that it doesn't break."
For the Xbox controller people, shattering and breaking are different things. The Xbox One controller is covered in a thick plastic skin that covers screw holes. The skin can be removed and is designed to come off and absorb impact if the controller is thrown hard. But they also are designed not to break so that you can't get them back on." Angry gamers, Microsoft is ready for you.
The Xbox One controller won't quite be ready for PC gamers. The 360 gamepad has been popular there, but due to the incompatibility of the Xbox One controller and the 360 one, plugging an Xbox One controller into a computer won't just work—not yet.
Alam didn't have any details to share on this, but a Microsoft spokesperson said, in an e-mailed statement, that there is some work that we need to do to make sure that existing PC games that support the Xbox 360 controller will work with the Xbox One controller. While it seems trivial, it’s actually quite a bit of dedicated work for all that to be seamless for the user. We know people want to use the Xbox One controller on their PC, and we do too - we expect to have the functionality available in 2014."
So, they spent two years on this controller.
They tried anything and everything.
They even tried to see if it'd be cool to have an Xbox controller emit smells.
Alam's team made a smell-emitting prototype Xbox controller. "So essentially you can have a couple of predefined cartridges like gunpowder, burning rubber, smoke, flowers," he said. "For example, a core scenario could be, 'Hey, I'm walking through a forest. As I'm walking through a forest, I'll smell foliage.' We can have that scent predefined."
And what happened?
The after-smell—the smell residue—killed that experiment.
"While some folks don't mind a rubber smell in the room for a while, other members of the household will not appreciate it if it's still lingering in the room after half an hour. We went all out. This was all about, 'Hey, how can we make this more immersive for core gamers,' but, in the end, it was like, 'Yeah, the smell thing that didn't work out.'"
This is the thing about the Xbox One controller. There may be other aspects of Microsoft's new console that seem targeted to non-gamers, but the controller, it's just for the kind of people who read Kotaku and buy an Xbox for games. Smell-controllers, while novel, just don't seem right for that crowd.
"The controller investment is really hardcore," Alam said. "People almost forget. People don't get it. We believe we have the best gaming platform in the world, regardless of how we want to make sure we attack other markets. In the end, the core DNA is to make a great gaming machine. To make sure you have a great gaming machine, the controller is something people are going to touch every day of their life, you want to put your best foot forward."