Thursday, August 28, 2008
Standards and practices
Ryan downloaded Bionic Commando Rearmed and seemed to enjoy it, although he had a complaint about the button mapping. On the Xbox 360 control pad, you press the B button to grapple and the A button to fire your weapon. Something about that seems off. For the sake of ergonomics and usefulness, you'd think playing with the A and X buttons would make more sense. Look at the picture of the control pad atop this post and tell me that wouldn't fit the human thumb better.**
A similar phenomenon has afflicted an awful lot of 8-bit remakes, for reasons I don't understand. They can't -- or won't -- properly replicate the NES experience. A few years ago, I was playing the Mega Man Anniversary Collection for the GameCube, where the developers had swapped the functions of the two buttons. They mapped firing to the A button, and jumping to the B button. This is exactly backwards.
When I remember about playing those simpler NES platformers is that all of them worked the same way. You hammered your knuckle on the rightmost button to jump, and fired your weapon with the tip of your thumb. This was an ideal arrangement. The leverage of your thumb allowed rapid-fire button presses for the main action without sacrificing the more deliberate pace of most jumping mechanics.
Why do so many remakes reverse the button positions? Partly, I think it's a rudimentary mistake: on the original NES pad, the B button was on the left and the A button was on the right. On the Xbox 360 pad, the A button is on the bottom, and the B button is on the right. Keeping the same button assignments results in a reversal of their positions.
This is a bigger deal than it might seem like, and not just because it made such an awkward experience out of Mega Man 2, which I was playing for an audience. It comes down to user experience and expectation. There is a temptation among tech people sometimes to blame their users when the users have trouble with a product. Although this is sometimes true, most of the time it's because the designers didn't do their homework with regards to usability.
The Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen likes to say that website designers ought to do the same thing as 90% of their competitors, because that's what users have come to expect. They have learned to navigate web pages in a certain way. It's the same with games. An Xbox 360 user playing a platformer will expect the A button to make his character jump. If you're going to deviate from the norm, you'd better have a damn good reason.
This isn't to suggest that progress isn't desirable. When a change in control is worthwhile, then it's going to happen. Ten years ago, any racing game you played assigned the gas pedal to one button and the brake pedal to another (mapped to a modern day 360 pad, you'd probably go with A and stop with X). Today, these functions are assigned to the analog triggers in nearly every game, because that's a better way to do it.* User expectation has kept pace. Nobody picked up Burnout Paradise and pressed the A button to accelerate.
Too Human shows some of the pitfalls of going your own way. Users expect to be able to manipulate the game camera in a 3D platformer by using the right analog stick. But Silicon Knights had a different approach in mind for their dungeon crawler, and instead assigned the right stick to melee attacks. It's an interesting choice. I don't want to knock it simply because I wasn't used to it. In fact, it wasn't even that hard to get used to, and works pretty well in some ways.
The question is: Is what the developers gave up with this new approach equal to what they gained? I'd have to say no, and not just because poor game cameras are one of my top 3 videogame pet peeves. While the melee action does what it's supposed to, using firearms is practically impossible. Cycling between enemies doesn't work too well, especially when the boss you're trying to shoot at is standing behind grunts. That's a pretty big part of the combat.
Standards become standards for a reason. Nothing is beyond revisiting, of course, but it's not helpful for 90% designers to eschew decades of user expectation because they think they've found a marginal improvement. Maybe Too Human wouldn't have been the same game if it copied the control scheme from God of War, say, and had you press the X button to attack and use the right analog stick to dodge. But one of those games relied much more on the user's built-in expectations -- maybe it's only coincidental that it was the much better game.
*Another excellent example is EA's Skate. They took a completely different approach to videogame skateboarding than did the Tony Hawk series, and it was a stroke of genius.
**John Barleycorn points out in comments that you can remap Bionic Commando's buttons, if you want to. This is always the best solution. Even so, the default configuration ought to be the most familiar one.