Whether PC, Playstation, Switch, or Xbox the game controllers entering 2021 have settled on about 16 buttons as the norm, yet I think it’s too few in light of the complexity in modern games. Take for example Doom Eternal, the sequel to the re-reimagined Doom from 1993. The series return to fast movement now includes controls for melee combat, platform jumping, dashing, weapon mods, and equipment. For ardent fans of gaming this variety is welcome even if requires more mental overhead and dexterity. Personally though I’d rather trade the gimmicky touch inputs and multi-use buttons for more single purpose, physical buttons.
On PC players can customize their controls and draw on a full keyboard or mice with configurable buttons. Console and other gamepad-only players are stuck with a button limit from the PS1 era, dating back to 1997. Even the very experimental Nintendo hasn’t added any more physical inputs to their controllers in these past 23 years. The closest mainstream option is Microsoft’s Elite Wireless Controller which offers four more buttons, albeit with spotty game support and a hefty price tag.
My fear is that as games continue to add interesting capabilities that the same buttons will gain more and more modes until it’s as Byzantine as Apple iPhone’s home button. Weapon/equipment wheels are one symptom that this is already happening. And their impact on fast action games is so disruptive that some titles pause or slow game time to accommodate their awkwardness.
Getting stuck in a game can be an opportunity to rise to the challenge or be so annoying it feels like a waste of time to keep trying again and again. Everyone has their own threshold and unique mixture of abilities, which makes well-balanced difficulty options so critical to a product’s accessibility.
Boss fights in the original release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution were unpopular because they broke the difficulty curve so badly. For a game series with a reputation for player choice the game launched with only one way to defeat each boss, and with lethal force being the only option. Thankfully later updates provided more options, making it more consistent with the rest of the experience.
Too often the difficulty adjustments in games fall into similar traps when they focus solely on easy tweaks, like making enemies easier to eliminate or the player more resilient. Other game mechanics or mini-games such as puzzles are left largely unchanged which breaks the flow for players more interested in exploration, or less clever than their compatriots. And while I respect designers’ desire to craft an experience and set expectations, it’s hard to justify inconsistent difficulty levels as gaming audiences grow to include people with less free time and varying abilities.
Watch Dogs is another example of a game which feels like it’s only difficult adjustment is rudimentary nerfing, buffing, and timer tweaks. While I appreciated the mission variety and many of the challenges, aspects like tightly timed chases, enemies with supernatural bursts of speed, and nearly impossible to escape police and ‘fixers’ were often infuriating. Even the age-old tradition of cheat codes were unavailable here. Some game guides resorted to suggesting workarounds like shooting out a window then hiding for notoriety boasts, or swimming out into open water to escape.
Considering the resource constraints of smaller development shops it is easier to accept uneven difficulty in their releases. However, larger studios have no excuse; except perhaps ignorance, greed, or laziness. In this age of day-one patches there is little reason not to at least update a product found to have uneven gameplay, even if only to patch in some cheats. Consumers should not have to resort to 3rd-party hacks developed by the community to fully enjoy their purchase.
What do you think? What has your experience been with games and their difficulty levels?
A disturbing trend among some video games is gamepad support whose controls cannot be customized. While the standardization of gamepad support on PC’s has increased the number of games supporting them, for some games there is only a single configuration. For those of us who are differently abled, or simply prefer to use a familiar layout, control customization seems to be taking a step backwards.
This is surprising since personalizing controls has long been a feature of PC gaming for decades, even among small budget titles. Consoles such as the PS4 and Xbox One now offer the ability to remap keys for all games. This is a modest accessibility improvement, though it appears to come at the cost of less in-game remapping. So players who prefer to alternate between different games the situation often involves re-configuring one’s brain each time. One would hope the competition among PCs and various console platforms would drive progress towards more accessible controls.
It’s true that enterprising users and 3rd-party developers provide alternative means of remapping controls. Sadly, many of these fail to remap for multiple games at once. Steam is the most accessible and broadly available which does do per-game mapping. Still, being outside the game requires users know their games default controls and do the old-to-new mapping using only the abstract button names. It’s also a relatively unknown feature.
Despite the variety of games and genres there is a lot of similarity in game control: move forward-back-left-right, jump, crouch, action/shoot, sprint, etc. On PC the keyboard controls have defaulted to the WADS keys for forward-left-right-back, so why not have a means to change the defaults for all games at once? Certainly some games will have unique controls which cannot be standardized. In those cases in-game customization may be the best solution. Still, it would save gamers time and frustration if they could begin with familiar fundamentals when starting or switching among experiences.
If PCs and consoles increasingly become home-theater machines and gamers play a larger variety of games they too may be asking why controls are so difficult to personalize. Hopefully developers will take notice.