The key to making experimental controls work

We tend to think today's game control conventions are laid out that way for a reason, but developers are still finding ways to innovate.

There is a reason why controllers haven’t changed much over the years. Nearly every new game developed for consoles has to build a control scheme to suit that console’s controller design, so industry standardization makes a lot of sense. However, because of this, many games’ controls feel similar to each other. While there are developers who try to innovate using the typical Xbox or PlayStation controller, few actually succeed in making something that provides a different experience.

“It’s been really hard to innovate because of the hardware that’s been in place,” said Seb Liese, one of the developers behind Snake Pass, a puzzle platform game in which players navigate by climbing and slithering over obstacles. “When you realistically break it down, how many buttons are there on a controller?”

Even when developers are able to create a new use for the traditional setup, it’s not without risk. A lot of players simply don’t want to learn a completely new control scheme, especially when there are far more games to play than time to play them.

TumbleSeed

“Games like Snake Pass and TumbleSeed might have been received differently 5 years ago,” said Greg Wohlwend, one of the developers of the procedurally generated action game TumbleSeed. “I think there were more people then who were open and more patient to indie games, smaller games, and weirder games.”

Even with these obstacles in mind, some developers still set out to change the way we play. The key to creating that groundbreaking control setup, they suggest, is building your game around the controls without over complicating it with too many mechanics.

Innovative control schemes can come from a myriad of places, Seb Liese discovered the snake mechanic found in Snake Pass after working on LittleBigPlanet 3, as he was learning Unreal Engine for his next project at Sumo Digital.

“I was trying to do something that was impossible in LittleBigPlanet,” Liese said, “I found the splines and I thought, let’s try to make a rope.”

It didn’t take much more for Liese to establish the basic mechanism that would eventually become Snake Pass: using the right shoulder button to move forward, with analog sticks controlling the snake's direction. “Initially the rope was able to slide over the floor, the camera would push in a direction and the rope would go in a direction,” Liese said. “The challenge came when we wanted the snake to go up.”

Snake Pass Snake Pass

Liese and his team kept it simple. They made going up, either directly or around bamboo, a quick button press. It’s deceptively straightforward but completely different from what many players are used to with a basic controller.

“At the beginning we had all these plans for big open world levels and powerups you could collect,” Liese said. “But we decided to distill it down to what was unique, and that was the snake movement.”

That simplicity ended up being a big part of Snake Pass’s success--it introduced a new control scheme while keeping the rest of the game fairly uncomplicated. “We challenged you to reprogram your gaming brain and almost learn new motor controls, which is a big ask all on its own,” Liese said.

When you’re introducing a completely new system for the player to learn, the player needs ample time to learn it before introducing further mechanics. That’s one issue that plagued the launch of the roguelike TumbleSeed: the combination of its unfamiliar controls, steep difficulty curve, and variety of enemies and powerups led to a lot of frustration among players.

“It’s extremely difficult because of the control scheme, because it’s very new to people,” Wohlwend said. “It’s an alien way to control a video game.”

TumbleSeed TumbleSeed

In TumbleSeed, players take control of a small seed sitting on top of a vine as it climbs to the top of a treacherous mountain. The player needs to use the vine to evade enemies and environmental obstacles by balancing with both control sticks.

“We tried all sort of things, touch screens, analog buttons, and tilting controls,” Wohlwend said. “But nothing worked as well as plain old up/down digital controls.”

The entire idea of TumbleSeed, and its unique control system, came from an old arcade machine, Ice Cold Beer. “We thought we could pull this machine out of the ground from the 80s,” Wohlwend said. “We thought we could make this old thing new again.”

TumbleSeed’s controls may not be new, but they are very different then most of what we’ve seen in the industry. It feels weird when you first play it, and it takes a lot of time to feel comfortable with how it handles. But the combination of dozens of enemy types that the player needs to learn, the punishing nature of power ups which can also hurt the player’s seed, and the procedurally generated levels put the innovative control scheme on the backburner, making it difficult to ever feel comfortable with it.

“We never thought the controls were a huge risk, we thought it was a huge asset to the game,” Wohlwend said, “But people didn’t get it, and then the difficult nature of the game really pushed people away.”

Snake Pass Snake Pass

Even though both TumbleSeed and Snake Pass were well received critically, most of the discussion around them focuses on the accessibility of their control schemes. “We always knew that the controls were going to be a hurdle, they were going to be weird,” Liese said. “But that was a good thing, because it’s completely new.”

New control schemes, no matter how simple they may be, don’t get to enjoy a long grace period. Players are quick to reject controls they find difficult to adapt to. “If it’s new, it’ll be a new taste, and you’ll have a visceral reaction to it,” Wohlwend said. “A lot of people bounce off.”

In the end, this is how innovation happens. Changes that seem awkward at first become industry standards. Halo’s use of the left analog stick for movement, right stick for camera, and Quake’s mouselook were both unconventional for their time, but went on to become staples of the shooter genre. Consider how many platform games you've played where you intuitively know which button to press for a jump -- there was a time when that was new and unwieldy for players too.

While industry altering changes like that don’t happen very often, small developers can still make an impact by trying something new. It’s a risk that can turn a game into a massive success -- or become the main reason people won’t play.  “A big part of the industry sticks to doing what’s safe, doing what will sell,” Liese said. “It’s up to the indie developers to try something new, even though it won’t pay off most of the time.”