Art by Sam Woolley
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…