It is a (sad?) fact that I play far, far fewer games than I used to.
Suffice to say, there were thousands upon thousands of games available for my Atari 7800. Ditto for my original Nintendo (NES) and Super Nintendo (SNES). And when I owned those systems, I had pretty large libraries of games – certainly larger than I have now – and there were always more games I wanted (but had to wait for birthdays/Christmas… hey, games were expensive!).
I’m going to come back to the SNES later on, so if you don’t know what it is or what it looked like, go look it up now. It’s OK – I’ll wait.
When I got into college, the gaming scene was filled with things like the original Playstation (PS1) and the Nintendo 64 (N64). This was the beginning of the end for me – which at first glance seems a little backwards. I mean, I was an adult now and had a job and money to buy the games I could never afford on my own as a kid, and I still liked playing games – so what gives?
This is going to start a lot of flame wars I’m sure, but I boil it down to one simple thing: too many buttons.
Look back at the controller for the SNES. A directional pad and 4 primary buttons. (The shoulder buttons were used rarely, by comparison, and Start and Select don’t count.) Simple. Elegant. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s what I grew up on. All button pressing was done with the tips of the thumbs – all of your other fingers were just to hold the controller.
Jump forward to the PS1 and things get a little bit more complex – now there are 2 sets of shoulder buttons, but more or less the layout is the same. I liked the PS1, and still play games from it to this day.
Now look at the N64 (a system I never owned, but played in college). Look at that controller. It’s got: a directional pad, a joystick, 4 “C” buttons, A and B buttons, two shoulder buttons and a trigger button underneath. You can hold it with your hand in 2 different ways – it has those 3 “prongs” so you can hold either the directional pad or the joystick. And since the games that came out for the N64 were all trying to do revolutionary things with 3-D, they all tended to use all of those buttons.
Think about what that means.
Now, sure, you could just say “suck it up and learn the new controls,” but you could also say the same thing about computer user interfaces (a topic which I am very familiar with and very vocal on). Now, has the shape of a mouse changed much in the last 10 years? Or the layout of menus or window controls? Not very much, if at all.
But for game consoles? The PS2 came along and gave us 2 joysticks! Both of which are also buttons! And don’t even get me started on things like the GameCube, the XBox, the XBox360, or the PS3. (The Nintendo Wii is a refreshing breeze amongst all these game systems – a simple controller! But one that has an inherent power and flexibility… more on that later.)
The bottom line is, playing games that use more than a few buttons quickly becomes tedious and difficult for me. I just don’t have the time, patience, or I guess dexterity to learn to use my thumbs, forefingers, and middle fingers (on both hands) at the same time while trying to hold an oddly shaped, vibrating controller in my hands.
The user interface for these games is just too complex/difficult.
Especially now that games are so realistic. It just takes a lot of mental effort to remember that the realistic looking character on the screen will only open a door when you press L2 (with your left middle finger) while steering him with your left thumb. I mean, c’mon!
As games become more and more complex, and more and more immersive, the user interface to these games (the controller) is going to have to evolve – and that doesn’t mean fancy boomerang shapes and more buttons!
In a way, Nintendo’s Wii has sort of figured it out – although I’m not sure the folks at Nintendo quite realize it yet. There’s also a reason that the Wii has sort of a passing resemblance to products of another company that does user interfaces really, really well – and of course I’m talking about Apple.
Still, there’s hope. The other day I started playing a game I got for my birthday – Lego Star Wars. Here’s a game that gets UI right. To play the game, you really only need the 1 joystick and 3 (maybe 4) buttons. (You can use more buttons, but they aren’t strictly necessary to play – and more importantly, to enjoy – the game.)
When Amanda can pick up a game and start kicking-ass at it (she never reads manuals and is horrible at managing more than a few buttons at a time without lots of practice), that’s how I know a game has a good user interface. (Coincidentally, Lego Star Wars also does a lot of other things right – easy pick up & dropping out of a game, good 2 player mode, and basically infinite lives.)
I’ve been thinking about picking up a Wii (or maybe even a Nintendo DS – again, fewer buttons!), but maybe I’ll hold off for one more generation of game consoles, and see whether the other companies “get it,” or whether I’ll have to start learning to operate controllers with my feet as well.