The Strengths & Weaknesses of Controllers

The Strengths & Weaknesses of Controllers

The design of the modern controller was solidified with the PS1’s Dual Analog controller: 4 face buttons, 2 sticks with clickable buttons underneath, a D-Pad, 4 shoulder buttons, and an array of utility buttons like Start and Select. From the Xbox 360 generation onward, pretty much every console manufacturer has created controllers with this basic design scheme. The layout has proven extremely versatile, with countless genres of games able to be enjoyed with such a gamepad. But some types of games are simply better suited to controllers than others. In a previous article in this blog, we ran through an abridged history of the evolution of video game controllers. In this article, we’ll be looking at the types of things that controllers excel at versus what they are less ideal for.

Where Controllers Shine

Where controllers really shine is in direct character control. When the game’s programming is up to snuff, using the control sticks to move a character and the camera around in a third-person perspective can feel really good. Imagine trying to maneuver Mario in Super Mario Odyssey with a keyboard and mouse, that would be a nightmare. The analog, 360-degree inputs afforded by control sticks can offer more precision than the eight directions possible with the WASD keys. For this reason, console games tend to be very character-focused, basing their gameplay around directly controlling one specific character.

Driving vehicles is also an area where the analog inputs of controllers prove their worth. Analog triggers offer a wider spectrum of control over just pressing a binary key or button that toggles between “Go” and “Stop”. Some players who prefer keyboard and mouse for most of a game will still keep a controller plugged in for when their character hops into a vehicle because it’s simply more comfortable to drive that way.

Where Controllers Falter

The movement of a mouse is almost 1:1 with your hand. You can make small, precise adjustments with your wrist, or large sweeping turns by dragging your whole arm across the mouse pad. There often isn’t a maximum speed at which you can move a mouse. The only limit is how fast you can move your body and how large the movement area for the mouse is. Control sticks, on the other hand, are limited to their comparatively miniscule range of movement. Making precise, small adjustments can be very difficult, and the maximum speed when the stick is pushed all the way to the side is limited by the game itself. You may have the option of adjusting the sensitivity, but more speed results in less precision, and vice versa. With a 1:1 control system, there is simply less standing in the way between player intent and the results in the game.

Games that require precision aiming and shooting are perfect showcases of the weaknesses of controllers. Console shooters are usually packed with a lot of under-the-hood assistance to make them feel good to play with a controller. Generous aim-assist, a reticule that “sticks” to enemies, and an aim button that snaps to targets are often all required to let the player have a chance. Designing games this way is by no means a bad thing. Console shooters are popular and fun for a reason. But there are many popular PC games that allow both controller and keyboard+mouse inputs that may disable all forms of aim-assist in player-vs-player modes. The gap in precision becomes explicitly clear when the two control methods directly compete with each other. Players using traditional controllers, even if they are skilled, stand little chance against keyboard and mouse players. Aim-assistance is essential for traditional controller players to stand any chance in these arenas.

Another genre that traditional controllers are less suited for are Real-Time Strategy games. These usually have a lot of micromanagement and options available at any given time. Players who learn to use a keyboard full of hotkeys can quickly perform tasks, while the more restricted inputs on a controller usually means having to navigate multiple layers of menus to get to what you want. The precision of the mouse cursor is also a big factor, allowing players to quickly click on whatever they need. Console RTS games are certainly possible, especially when the game itself is designed from the start with a controller in mind; but directly translating a traditional RTS scheme is a difficult task that I’m not sure anyone has fully nailed yet.

Gyro and Trackpads Can Bridge Some of the Gap

You may have noticed that this article has qualified many of the downsides with the phrase “traditional controllers”. This is meant to specifically refer to controllers without gyroscopes or trackpads, such as Xbox controllers. While these features are underutilized outside of Nintendo systems, these extra control options can help close some of the gap between controllers and keyboard+mouse.

Gyro controls, which are built into PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and many third-party controllers, allow the player to use their wrist and arm movements to make precise adjustments to their aim. Used in conjunction with a control stick, gyro controls get players closer to 1:1 movement, closing the gap between intent and result. Switch releases are pretty reliable in regards to gyro support, with Nintendo-published games almost always including it if it makes sense. Despite the technology being built into PS4 and PS5 controllers, relatively few games on the consoles take advantage of it. But all these controllers are compatible with PCs, and the customizability of Steam’s control settings has allowed many players to craft custom control schemes that take advantage of gyro control even if the game does not natively support it. With the sensitivity turned up, a well-practiced player can keep pace with many keyboard and mouse users.

The Steam Controller was released by Valve in 2015, and it incorporated a very unique layout with dual trackpads and robust gyro controls. It was a commercial failure, being discontinued a few years later, but many of the players who took the time to adapt to its uniqueness found themselves more competitive than ever, able to keep up with keyboard and mouse players in many games. To the delight of many, most of its features were retained in Valve's handheld Steam Deck. Even for games that were not designed for controllers, the trackpads make using a mouse cursor extremely doable. It’s not perfect, but it’s miles better than using a stick to move a cursor around.

Leave a comment