5 Ways to Fix Complicated Gamepads

5 Ways to Fix Complicated Gamepads

You don’t have to own a Wii to appreciate the fact that traditional controllers have become unnecessarily complex. Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 gamepads have 17 depressible buttons. Yes, you read that right – 17 buttons.* Having been a gamer for 23 years now, even yours truly has to momentarily pause sometimes to keep them all straight. As a result of the controller clutter, unseasoned players are thrown to the wolves, something many respected game designers are obviously concerned with.

“You hand somebody a game controller and it’s like you’ve handed them a live gun or a grenade with the pin taken out,” said former PlayStation boss Phil Harrison as far back as the 2008 Game Developers Conference. Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski agrees. “I’ve always felt that video game controllers have too many buttons,” he said in a recent interview with GameTrailers. “Expecting a person to figure out how to use a [traditional] controller is like saying, ‘Hey, you need to learn Spanish before you can enjoy this game.'”

It’s obvious there’s a problem, and the root of it traces back to the era of parachute pants and oversized sunglasses: The early ’90s. In 1991, Nintendo released the lovable Super Nintendo (SNES) gamepad with six dedicated action buttons… a big jump from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)’s minimalist two-button setup. Granted, the SNES’s six-button layout allowed for an arcade-perfect port of the red-hot Street Fighter II (which would have been just as fun with only two kick and two punch buttons, btw), but it also triggered a “more is more” philosophy that lives on today. Future hardware makers jam-packed their controllers with more shoulder buttons, clickable analog sticks, and menu buttons with no mind to the consequences of complexity.

And here we are today: Nintendo deciding on motion input as a solution to the issue (and being handsomely rewarded for it), while Microsoft and Sony are left wondering where to go while staying true to their audience. [And busy getting ready to launch motion control systems of their own in the form of the PlayStation Move and Kinect – Ed.] The interim quick-fix for the latter two manufacturers’ systems would be to use only half of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360’s available buttons. But as long as the complex appearance of stereotypical modern controllers remains, intimidation and confusion will persist — particularly among the lucrative casual gaming sector.

Which brings us to the future, and five feasible ways to reform complicated controllers — all of which take into consideration the principles of Universal Design:

1. Reduce the number of face and shoulder buttons

The best way to fix overabundant controllers is by reducing the total number of action buttons from the current 10 to no more than six. Developers might panic initially, having grown accustomed to mapping simple functions (such as “reload” or “use”) to a dedicated button. Then again, game developers are nothing if not resourceful, and the button limitations would surely lead to some ingenious solutions. For inspiration, one need only play the excellent (but sickeningly cute) Kirby’s Adventure released in 1993 on the NES to realize how many unique actions are attainable using only a single directional pad and two face buttons.

2. Ditch the Start and Select buttons in favor of a single “menu” button

Rather than use the Start button to pause a game, more gamers are simply tapping the menu button (Guide on the Xbox 360, Home on the PS3 and Wii). The results are more consistent and intuitive across all games. This doesn’t mean that games shouldn’t have menu screens, or that developers shouldn’t have some control over them, but the in-game menu process should be more standardized and less obtrusive. The added simplicity of a single menu button would be well worth the trade-off of two little-used buttons.

3. Remove the d-pad once and for all

Much like the arcade joystick, the directional pad is a relic of gaming’s past. The truth is, it’s not used enough to justify its presence on modern controllers. Its removal would result in a performance sacrifice for old-school-style fighting games, but there’s a performance sacrifice for first-person shooters on consoles when compared to PC controls, and that’s not stopping anyone from playing. Furthermore, keep in mind that third-party d-pads could be sold separately for the demanding gamer, much like steering wheels, and – you guessed it – joysticks.

4. Embrace motion and touch controls

Motion controls aren’t always perfect, but neither are buttons. Still, Nintendo (and some third-party publishers) have proven that motion input, when gracefully implemented, can actually heighten game satisfaction while increasing accessibility. Hardware makers needn’t copy the Wii Remote feature by feature and should only use motion when it makes the most sense, but gesture-based input is proven technology that helps streamline cluttered control schemes. Just ask satisfied Wii, Nintendo DS/DSi, Apple iPhone, Macbook Pro owners and — to a lesser extent — PS3 Sixaxis users.

5. Use peripherals where needed

Playing a plastic guitar for the first time is a lot more inviting and familiar than a traditional controller. Incidentally, the former has fewer buttons. And it just so happens that it’s regularly used for one of the most popular genres at present — rhythm games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Like motion sensors, the attachment peripheral opens a world of possibilities from dancing to drums, foot controls and a second analog stick for exacting hardcore games (e.g. the Nunchuk), all while reducing complexity.

It will take risks and some sacrifice on the part of console makers, developers, and gamers to embrace plainer controls. But the obvious rewards, such as inventive ideas and greater mass-market acceptance, are only a generation away. Be bold, Microsoft and Sony. And don’t let a worried publisher talk you into adding an ill-placed Z Button at the last minute. You know who you are.

*Four face buttons, four shoulder buttons, two thumb-stick clicks, start button, select button, menu button, and four clicks of the D-pad = 17 individual input methods.

About Blake Snow
Blake Snow is a freelance writer and editorial consultant living the good life with a wife and three kids. Since 2005, his work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal and dozens of other mainstream, enthusiast, and blogging outlets—both online and off.


  1. Honestly, I’ve been saying this for a long time, but the thing that makes console games (except Wii) hardcore is the controller.

    The games per se aren’t that difficult to grasp, but throw the xbox or ps3 controller to anyone’s hands who doesn’t play those games regularly and you will get some weird looks.

    It happens slightly with Wii as well, but the tension is still manageable since you can just say “wave at the screen and press the two buttons you have on your fingers”.

    Hundreds of times, I’ve had to spend something like 5 minutes just talking about the xbox/ps3 controller, making sure people notice there’s the shoulder buttons and so on.

    But honestly, the console games aren’t hardcore since they usually deal with very understandable elements (moving, making actions, looking into your bag and using inventory).

    Actual hardcore gameplay comes forth in stuff like Hearts of Iron or other strategy games which require deep understanding of the situation, analyzing the actions you can do (usually a dozen or so) etc etc.

  2. I really don’t see a problem with the next gen controllers. I guess it just might be an older person thing where you can embrace the new controls as much as the younger generation who grew up using this technology.

    Also, the fact that there are more buttons, means there are more ways to control your in-game character making the game more responsive and more advanced. As it is games are getting so much easier nowadays that a 10 year old can play and beat most of the games out there.

    However, with the release of Kinect I would like to see some games embrace a fusion of controller and motion game play.

  3. “but there’s a performance sacrifice for first-person shooters on consoles when compared to PC controls, and that’s not stopping anyone from playing.”

    That’s a bold statement you are making here, I’d like to see the numbers you are basing it on… I can introduce you to dozens of gamers who -next to their console- keep a PC to play FPS just because of those damn console controllers.

    Also the history of the “Joystick” is not that old that you have to stop in the middle (i.e. at the super nes date) when making “old time” references.

  4. A think you should check out One Button Arthur,a game in which you use only one button [duh]. Of course, it’s a casual browser game, so it’s easier to cut now buttons, but one can really see a lot of cleverness in its design [not as much as in Kirby, which I also love, but pretty much for a recent game].

  5. My suggestion: A touch screen. (Think iPhone.) Keep the analog sticks and the shoulder buttons but make the face buttons a touch screen. Game developers can create their own controller if needed, modify the existing controller, or, of course, just use the existing controller. Move and resize buttons for hand size or just preference, on-screen tutorials (ie highlighted buttons) or maybe even situational/evolving buttons. Evolving would be particularly useful in a tutorial setting, in my opinion. “Keep it simple, stupid.” and build complexity over time, as the player gets used to the controller. Just a thought 🙂

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