Conventions in Control and Design

X button is jump. R1 to shoot. WASD to move. Wave the Wiimote back and forth like a drunkard flagging down a crashing helicopter to attack. These are the conventions in control that game design companies have established. And, I posit, with good reason. Let’s consider two cases, that of an established concept, and that of one being established. For the established concept, we have something standard, like, X button is jump on Play Station systems. If you can jump in that fancy new game, you could make money betting it’s done with the X button. Why is this? Consider a game that breaks this rule, for example, one of those rare games in which Triangle makes you jump and X does something completely different, like, oh, I don’t know, turn you into a llama. You’ll spend half of the first few levels running your stupid llama head into steps, railings, banisters, and whatever else should be simple child’s play to hop over, and the other half gracefully hopping over them in llama form because you can’t be bothered to press the X button and change back, and besides, you look oh-so majestic clearing that railing with all four legs. It’s simple logic really, we are dumb, thinking creatures who like rituals and patterns, and create them everywhere, whether they are there in the first place or not. In this same way, fixing our muscle memory and pattern recognition to adapt to a new control scheme, no matter how much sense it makes (why does pressing the lowest of four buttons make you go ‘up’ in three dimensional space, anyways?), takes a great deal of time and effort. And if you play Llama Jump Extravapalooza for any amount of time, you’ll be cussing up a storm when you switch back to some other, more sensible title. Like Spyro the Dragon. Right, so that makes sense, but what about when these conventions haven’t cropped up yet? What makes them happen to begin with?

Glad you asked, recurring banal narrative technique! It seems to me that these conventions crop up when a new controller comes out (Atari, Play Station, etc.) and the first few titles are released. The most popular titles of prominent genre builds (platformer, shooter) will be the most widely played. Why would other games copy their control schemes? For the same reasons there are tons of God-awful teenage vampire love drama books on the shelves that weren’t written by Stephanie Meyers (No excuse, seriously, the rest of the literary world ought to know better). Copying off of the work of others and running with what’s popular, sells. It smooths the transition out. Now you don’t have to work to get good at game B, because it’s like game A, and hey, we all hate working for our fun, so that’s just dandy.

Let’s think about this though, because it’s a pretty interesting concept. Games use similar control schemes so you don’t have to go to the trouble of learning new ones, so you will associate an easier experience with mastering the basics of them, so you will like them better, so you will buy them, so they can make money (where ‘they’ here refers to producers and publishers, primarily). But now let’s look at a game that uses its controls to do interesting things: Metal Gear Solid. Yeah, I mean the original, for the Play Station One. At one point, there’s a boss battle where the boss is capable of reading your thoughts. The only way to beat him (and you do receive hints; it’s not all unfair) is to unplug your controller, and plug it into the second controller slot. It’s innovative (if a bit gimmicky) things like this that we miss out on when control schemes feature no variation. So the next time you’re playing a game, consider how the controls could actually be improved, or played with, if they weren’t pandering to industry standards.

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