Above: The humble, hard-working gamepad.
Pity the poor gamepad. He's the least popular kid on the block. The ever-evolving controller has been the primary input for almost every game that's come out over the past 30 years. From the single-button Atari joystick to the precision-engineered machine you see above, the gamepad has been an integral part of the video game experience, even has the industry has grown into the multi-billion-dollar behemoth it is today.
And the console manufacturers can't kill it fast enough.
Last night, I was a guest for the recording of the Big Red Potion podcast (I'll post the link when the show is available). The topic was play control: the state of it, how it's evolved, where it's going. We spent some time talking about specialty controllers, like the Guitar Hero guitar, and the future of motion control, especially with regards to Wii MotionPlus, Project Natal, and the PlayStation motion controller. To look at the direction the hardware is going, you'd think that the gamepad has become obsolete.
Anyone would agree that game controls are more complex than they used to be. Game designers can go overboard with button combinations and functions, sometimes with hilarious results. It's not immediately clear, from looking at a gamepad, what each button and stick does. Non-gamers can be frustrated or intimidated by these bulky, multi-functional devices. This is all true.
But look at what else the gamepad does. It stands in for a steering wheel in a driving game. It replaces a stick and pedals in a flight sim. It eliminates the need for a keyboard and mouse in a first-person shooter. It supports the split-second reflexes you need to play Street Fighter or Devil May Cry, and it credibly stands in for all the sporting equipment you can think of. This thing does it all -- no bold new paradigms needed.
Gamepad design has progressed in a steady, upward fashion. Thanks to years of iterations, dozens of good ideas have become standard, while bad ideas have been phased out. Gamepads today are ergonomic, with sleek, comfortable curves (not like the pointy-cornered NES controller at all), and triggers positioned just so. Rumble is standard. Pressure-sensitive triggers have made vehicle control miles better than it used to be. For all the talk of Wii/Natal/PSMotion being a revolutionary way to play, I'd argue that nothing has fundamentally altered the way we play as much as the move from digital to analog thumbsticks. At the time, it seemed like such a small thing, but playing in three dimensions would be impossible without it.
I'm not saying the gamepad is perfect, and I'm not saying it's a good thing when overly complex control schemes put people off. Simplicity is a virtue in game design, and hardware design. What I am saying, though, is that the gamepad sometimes goes unappreciated. It's not enough for any of these brand-new control methods to have one killer app with which they work perfectly. Natal and Sony Motion are going to have to prove that they can be as versatile as traditional methods when playing traditional games. Otherwise, I'll stick with the gamepad.