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The Quest to Make a Better Video Game Controller

Video Game Controller

Next time you play a video game, look down at the controller in your hand. Is it comfortable? Does it work well with the game you’re playing? Are your fingers all being used efficiently? If you could change one thing, what would it be?

About 10 years ago, after permutations ranging from Atari 2600 joysticks to Sega Genesis “C” buttons, console game controllers arrived at something resembling a standard. A modern console controller must have: Two clickable sticks and a D-pad, four face buttons, a pair of triggers, a start and options button, and a pair of shoulder buttons. That configuration has held steady for at least one full console generation. The modern PS4 controller, Xbox One controller, and Nintendo Switch Pro controller all have more or less the same functionality as their predecessors. Of course, some people still think it’s time for new ideas.

The Dreamcast and later the Wii U experimented with adding a screen to the controller, reasoning that more information by your hands could make games more compelling. Sony and Nintendo have added motion controls with varying levels of success. Valve’s recent Steam Controller adds a rumbling trackpad in place of the right thumbstick, which allows for more precise movements closer to using a mouse. They also added two programmable buttons to the underside of the controller.

And then there are controllers that have been made purely to experiment with joyful and interesting ways to interact with technology. Here I am at the experimental controllers section of the 2016 Game Developers Conference messing around with Hello, Operator, a game you play using an old phone switchboard.

Other smaller innovations have included the Switch Joy-Con’s “HD Rumble” for more detailed physical feedback, or the DualShock 4’s little-used trackpad and annoying glowing lightbars. Even small things, like a switch between wireless connection protocols or the switch from mini-USB to micro-USB cables, can make a difference.

One Idea That Stand’s Out For The Video Game Controller

Custom controllers from boutique companies like Scuf and Razer often have flashy paint jobs and marketing copy full of boasts about the high quality of their parts. They usually feel better in your hands and can even give you a competitive advantage over the controller that came with your console. But until fairly recently, most custom controllers didn’t attempt to fundamentally update the overall design of the game controller. Enter under-buttons.


The controller layout for Wolfenstein: The New Order, which more or less matches the control scheme used by almost every modern first-person shooter.

The standard game controller works as well as it does in part because most modern games have been designed around it. But if you look at which buttons are assigned to which fingers, it’s clear that it could be better optimized for the human hand. Each index finger is responsible for two buttons, and each thumb is responsible for six buttons. All while six fingers—middle, ring, and pinky on both hands—just sit there doing nothing.

Game controllers are theoretically designed to allow people to easily input the largest number of button combinations with a minimum of physical movement. That’s actually similar to how many musical instruments work, particularly woodwinds. I play saxophone and other woodwinds, and each instrument I play has evolved over centuries to be as efficient as possible. Check out how my left hand sits as it presses keys on a tenor saxophone:


Taking into account the thumb-operated octave key on the back of the horn, the five fingers on my left hand are able to operate 13 different buttons without dramatically changing position. Those buttons let me input a variety of notes, many of which are modified by the nine buttons my right hand can press just as easily. To hit all those buttons, I use every single finger on both hands (aside from my right thumb), as well as my palm and the side of my index finger.

The first saxophone was engineered by the Belgian inventor Adolf Sax in the mid 19th century. The horn may be coming up on its bicentennial, but it’s actually a relatively new instrument that was more consciously designed than the older instruments—flute, clarinet, oboe—that inspired its key layout. Mr. Sax designed the saxophone to be maximally efficient and versatile, and other instrument makers have refined his initial design over the years.

Video game controllers have actually followed a similar trajectory. Some specific goals are a little different—I don’t think most controller manufacturers are striving for musical-instrument-levels of complexity—but their big-picture approach is similar. Slowly but surely, game controllers add more buttons, each of which theoretically allows for more flexible and expressive play. If you manage to snag an SNES Classic this September, put one of those controllers next to your wireless PS4 or Xbox controller to see what a difference a couple decades makes. The question now is, “what’s next?”

The paddles on the underside of the Xbox One Elite controller, as seen on Microsoft’s promotional site.

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