Good controls, bad controls

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While rattling through my archive of articles for Play Tech Magazine in search of samples to secure some freelance work, I came across our woefully unpublished Alone in the Dark: Inferno review for the PS3. It was meant to go into the February issue, and the highlight of the article was a little in-depth comparison we did between the original Xbox 360/PC versions and the PS3 to discuss why the developers made the changes they did.

In a way, it's a pity that a game like this had so many control issues.
In a way, it's a pity that a game like this had so many control issues.

The reason we did this was to explore just how deeply a game’s control scheme affected gamers’ opinions of a game and how much it would affect their decision to purchase a given game or pass it by. Alone in the Dark made an excellent case study for this because not only did it receive a huge backlash for some of the control-scheme choices the developers made when it was originally released, but it was changed in the PS3 version according to player criticism, and ultimately better received.

Without doubt, the biggest complaint players had about Alone in the Dark was the lack of camera control on the right analogue stick on the 360 and — was it the mouse, on the PC version? The reason the developers opted not to include it was that they needed the right stick and the mouse(?) for the item manipulation system, which enables Carnby to move items around gently, or swing them violently according to player input. In the PS3 version, they kept the item manipulation interface in there, but made it so that you had to hold down a button to access it. Otherwise, the right stick would control the camera, just like in most other 3rd person games. This was a good change, and it definitely works better, but the old way wasn’t so bad that we should have written the game off because of it, was it? I certainly found the control scheme refreshing despite my occasional, fruitless attempt to shift the camera – but then again, I have often been accused of lenience.

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Like all other survival horror titles at the time, Silent Hill 1 contained only the 3D "tank-style" control scheme.
Like all other survival horror titles at the time, Silent Hill 1 contained only the 3D "tank-style" control scheme.

Mind you, I’ve have actually stood in a game store and, on more than one occasion, watched someone bring a game back and ask to return it because they couldn’t control the camera with the right stick. I’ve also seen gamers in stores chat with the clerks and refuse to buy games for the very same reason.

Silent Hill 2 and 3 allowed the player to choose between a 2D "point-and-go" control scheme, and a 3D "tank-style" control scheme.
Silent Hill 2 and 3 allowed the player to choose between a 2D "point-and-go" control scheme, and a 3D "tank-style" control scheme.

I’ve observed a similar issue with regards to 2D and 3D controls schemes in 3rd person games. I’ve never come across a gamer who has a problem with the 2D control scheme, where you simply tilt the stick in a given direction and the character goes there. However, I have seen gamers return games or refuse to buy them because they contained the 3D control scheme, or “tank style” control scheme, where tilting the stick up makes the character move forward, no matter which direction they’re facing, and tilting left or right makes them turn left or right. This way of thinking mystifies me, when players return or refuse to buy games they might otherwise like based on a single complaint, like the control scheme. I have never written off a game based on a single complaint in my life, least of all iffy controls, and whether or not I am too lenient is up for debate, but I’d like to know just how big an issue this is to the gaming community in general.

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Silent Hill 4 switched completely to the 2D, point-and-go control scheme. Do players find this more accessible?
Silent Hill 4 switched completely to the 2D, point-and-go control scheme. Do players find this more accessible?

I realize that good controls are a large part of the experience, but it’s also just that: part of the experience. At what point do iffy controls become such an issue that it overrides the player’s will to overcome or at least tolerate it in order enjoy the rest of a game which might be excellent otherwise?

Your thoughts?

Last Updated: March 19, 2009

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