Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Life and Merciful Death of the Fad Controller

Sorry, grandma. This doesn't exist anymore. I guess you should have bought more than the launch title.
Over the years we have had console gaming, the perfect control mechanism for our entertainment has emerged.

Our thumbs, those nimble and durable pieces of flesh and bone, operate the joysticks and buttons. Our trigger fingers work the triggers. The rest of our fingers, stupid and useless, hold the controller stable. And our bodies are left to peacefully recline and decay on the couch. (Because if we wanted to actually use our bodies for anything, we wouldn't be playing video games.)

This control mechanism easily allows two joysticks, four buttons, a d-pad, a touch pad/Back button, two triggers, and two bumpers. Enough inputs to easily handle even a very complex game.

(You can also push the joysticks in to provide two extra buttons, which is how controller engineers tempt game designers into making mistakes. If your game uses pushing down on a joystick as an input, please move that command to a real button. If you don't have a button free, just lose that feature. Your game has too much stuff in it as it is.)

Yes, the modern console controller is a marvel of design and functionality.  Yet, brave game designers are never satisfied with mere perfection. They are always coming up with new, weird fad controllers to tempt us. This article will describe the lifespan of this process.

Harmonix tried to teach players how to actually do something. It didn't work out. Moral: Never hope for anything to ever get better anywhere ever.
Why Make a Fad Controller?

Part of it is artistic exploration, I suppose. The desire to elevate our new art form to new and undreamt of heights.

The real reason is money. There's a lot of money in this biz, but there's also a ton of competition. A new sort of game that catches the consumer's fickle eye will result in a fortune. Guitar Hero and Rock Band both sold well over a billion dollars. The motion controllers of the Wii led to that console winning its generation (old people like fake bowling).

Employees of game companies need to keep coming up with ideas to justify their salaries, whether you want them or not. No executive wants to go to E3 to say, "We're treading water another year. We have the same old crap. YOLO!"

In the end, all we’re trying to do is reach an increasingly jaded, desensitized audience and present something new enough to raise their heart rates above rest level for five freakin’ seconds.

You ask: How on EARTH did they ever get anyone to buy the Wii Fit board? Answer: Pornography.
Phase One: The Shock and Joy of the New

So fad controllers are made. What is a fad? Something new and exciting, which hordes rush to buy to get a bit of newness and variety in their mundane, repetitive lives.

Maybe your fad is motion control, to get the pudgy masses off their couches. Like the Wiimote, or Playstation Move, or the Kinect, or the Wii Fit Board. ("No, THIS will be the peripheral that gets gamers to exercise while they game LOL!")

Or maybe it's the plastic version of a real life peripheral, to better simulate something in the real world. Like a guitar or drums. Or maracas. Or bongos. Or, for the suicidal, a skateboard.

Most attempted fads fail, of course. Some, however, caught on and made a bunch of money. Bloggers, ever hunting for the next Hot Take, gazed upon them and proclaimed a new exciting future for gaming! Then, a few months later, reality set in.

How will we get people to play Guitar Hero again? I know! We'll make the controller incomprehensible and beige!
Phase Two: The Bloom Comes Off the Rose.

The thing about fads: The newness wears off. Purchasers start to think, "Oh. Wait. This isn't holding up that well." And they move on in droves. A fad is a massive wave, and waves always recede.

I was a diehard Rock Band fanatic. I played it a ton. I went to many Rock Band parties. Enough of them to say with some authority: For the vast majority of humans, 3 songs is all it takes to get tired of Rock Band. (Some blame the music game crash on too many titles coming out per year. This is nonsense. If your genre can't handle 5-6 titles a year, it's a crappy genre.)

Phase Three: The Fatal Flaw Becomes Apparent.

Most fad controllers fail for one of a few simple reasons:

1. They just aren't precise enough to support more than a few crude, simple games. (e.g. Wiimote. Wii Fit Board. Kinect.)

2. The controls are precise, but the games you can play on them turn out to not be that interesting. (e.g. Any music game ever.)

3. Even if it's a decent controller and a cool idea, it's tied to one platform, so no major developer ever bothers with it. (e.g. Wii U Tablet. Also, did you know that big pad in the middle of a PS4 controller is a full touch pad and you can do little drawings on it and stuff? It's OK, nobody else did either. Why would any developer who supports more than one console ever use that feature?)

4. The controller requires getting up off the couch. I'm not doing that. (e.g. Almost every fad controller.)

If the controller is lucky, a few more games get written for it after the initial release. They made bank at first, but now they are tanking with increasing severity.

Now comes Phase Four, the endgame. The company who makes the fad controller has two choices: The path of the canny businessman. Or the path of the insane Viking.

I want Star Wars Kinect dancing videos to be the new Rickroll.
Phase Four, Option One: Give Up and Take the Money

Seriously, if your product becomes a fad, you can make a TON of money. When the big cash river stops coming in, accept that your product wasn't actually going to change everything forever. Cease production, count your winnings, buy another Tesla, and never speak of it again.

Phase Four, Option Two: Double Down!!!

There are some who are struck by Divine Madness. They are the true believers, who really believe they are changing gaming forever. Like remember when Harmonix convinced itself that Rock Band fans actually wanted to learn to play a real instrument?

The greatest such tale: When it became clear that the Kinect was only good for dancing games, Microsoft could have accepted its limitations, cashed their huge checks, and moved on.

But no, humility is not the Microsoft way. They were determined to explore the Kinect's maximum possible potential. So they not only kept it around, they built their entire next console generation around it. With disastrous results.

But it's all right. We'll always have the cautionary tale, and the wonderful memories.

It's OK, VR Beard Guy, YOU GOT THIS.
Phase Five: Regret and Garage Sales

The final destiny is the same. The story starts with a beautiful dream, moves on to cargo ships full of cheaply made plastic drum kits, and ends with piles of the things filling garage sales and thrift stores everywhere.

I mean, seriously, isn't it amazing? Factories in China made millions and millions of shoddy plastic drum sets. They were shipped across an entire ocean and delivered to households in America, where they were played for probably 2-3 songs and then thrown in a dumpster somewhere.

Think about how much effort went into this project! Someday, historians and economists will look back on that whole event and ... Well, I don't know what they'll think but we're going to come across pretty awesome.

How Does VR Enter Into This?

I should point out that this whole cycle has absolutely nothing to do with the VR craze. I mean, sure, VR goggles are really expensive, make lots of people sick, and have yet to come up with an actually compelling title. But it's fine. VR is the future. Bet your mom's bottom dollar on it.

I'd like this picture but with grandparents in the goggles instead of pasty tech nerds. It could be the beginning of a really lousy episode of Black Mirror.
So What Have We Learned?


That's the wonderful thing about the game industry. Almost everyone burns out of it by the time they're 35, so whatever institutional memory they developed disappeared and a new generation of worker bees is brought in to make all the same mistakes again.

So when the next weirdly-numbered generation of XBox comes out in a few years (Working Name: "XBox Eleventy Five"), you can look forward to its new motion controllers about three years after that. They will sell ten million units, have two decent games, secretly send pictures of your clothes to Forever 21 for marketing purposes, and your kids will LOVE it. For three days.


You can buy our awesome, easy to control games here. We are also on Twitter.

Edit: Changed the Harmonix guitar caption to something a little less unkind.