In my last article I referenced a Dara O Briain sketch about video games, where he complained about how hard they are to control and that they lock content. This is part two, and it’s time to tackle the crux of most video games: controlling a character on screen.

To most people reading this I imagine that it’s more or less second nature to sit at a keyboard and used AWSD and the mouse to move and look around, or to pick up a joypad and use the two analogue sticks to do the same. We know that space is probably jump, shift is run and control crouch. To someone that doesn’t play games though these controls are not second nature and, because of this, the act of moving a character through a 3D environment is a challenge in itself. Add aiming and shooting on top and you’ve already hit the capacity of a large proportion of your audience.

So, straight away, there’s a disconnect between what we, the games savvy people, see as a challenge and what the larger audience see as a challenge. Without the larger audience connecting with our game and buying it we can’t make a living. So the obvious conclusion, surely, is to make it easier to move around and thus make 3D games more accessible.


Of course, it wasn’t always as it is today:

In text adventures we’d use commands like “Go North” to move around and, if we were allowed to go that way, be greeted with an explanation of where we now were. We’d sit there and sketch out the world on a pad next to us, marking hazards such as deep wells that brought the game to a end.  In effect, they were computerised ‘choose your own adventure‘ stories.

From there graphics came along. The interaction method started off the same for a while, then direct control of an on screen avatar, be it by using the keyboard or a mouse, came about. Platform games were born, where new skills of timing jumps and avoiding enemies in realtime  Then 3D graphics appeared – Wolfenstein 3D allowed us to slide around in a flat world continually pressing walls to see if they revealed secret passages, and the controls were simple because you only had a few things to do.

Doom introduced a 2.5D world – you could still only stand on one vertical plane at a time, but they could be different heights. Ultima Underworld, out around the same time as Doom, allowed for slopes and (I think) was the first game to let you look up and down. It was clunky to control but it didn’t matter – it was an extra level of immersion. Then Duke3D brought mouse-look to the world, and thus the invert mouse argument was born.  Quake brought us true 3D worlds to roam around and create.

I have little doubt that you already know all that.  The reason to write it is two fold:

  1. There are millions of people out there who have access to a computer, and possibly own a console, that don’t know it.
  2. Quake came out in 1996.  Control methods for moving the player around have not fundamentally changed since then.


If you’re someone who can drive a car, try and think back to the first time you sat behind the wheel and started trying to drive it. Those first few moments of “oh shit” as a ton of metal starts to move under your command, your right foot. The learning curve is massive, but the reward is worth it.

To people that fall into category 1 above, every time they sit down in front of a game it’s like learning to drive. The problem with games is that, unlike cars, we aren’t very consistent with our controls. We don’t just switch over the indicators / windscreen wiper sticks, we keep swapping where the accelerator is too.

This isn’t going to change – it’s what makes games unique. But hopefully it offers an insight as to why people keep defaulting to buying big franchises: they already know how to play the game. Remember when GTA clones were coming out every month? (Well, it seemed like they were.) You’d try one, run up to a car and press TRIANGLE. If you didn’t jack the car and drive away, you put the game down. “Why can’t they just copy the controls?”.

This is what the games playing public, the people that make up the main proportion of our potential sales, want. But, as games designers, we rarely give them. I’ve been guilty of this too: simply copying another games main controls feels wrong, like some sort of plagiarism. We fear what the reviews will say. We worry about being scorned at by our peers. And, most importantly, we want to try new features out. In AvP I wanted to focus the Predator towards environmental navigation, to really try and tackle jumping up into trees accurately in first person. I know that we didn’t quite succeed, the final result wasn’t really a fluid enough experience, but there was certainly no place for iron sights with that character. So what to do? How do we strike the balance between creating something new, yet keeping it familiar?

Is there a way forward?

One thing is certain: it will require a very brave developer with a strong publisher backing it to break the mould that we’re currently in. Look at Heavy Rain for example, which tried something fairly radical with its interactions and character movement. Upon first pick up, unfortunately, it was almost impossible to walk in a straight line. You could get better at it but by then it was already too late: a lot of people had already turned off what was otherwise a great game.

Technology has tried to answer this as well – 3D headsets have been created but generally cause motion sickness. Accelerometers make you flounder around like a fool. Eye tracking cameras work to a point, but you end up looking at your wall rather than your TV. Few people can afford, both in cost and space, several monitors.

So what is the answer? I think there’s probably three parts to it heading into the future.

The first part is mentioned above and, to a large degree, has been happening over the past few years. Consistency in controls across games makes them more accessible. Keep the basics of movement and shooting the same as the big games and people will be able to play it.

The second is education – “assume nothing, it makes an ass out of u and me” (ass / u / me in case you haven’t heard that before). Tutorials are a sod to write, especially when you only lock your feature set a week before beta. So try not to do that: gently introduce your player to your mechanics. Expert players will breeze though it, learners will take it slow. Make sure that there is sufficient time in the schedule to do this.

The third is up to the populace as a whole – games are more widely accepted than they were even 10 years ago. People that don’t even realise they play games are spending hours attached to Angry Birds. There’s a whole swathe of people that are slowly learning what we learnt 20 years ago, bringing their skill set up to match. We just need to be patient with them.

There is a final suggestion, which is to devise cunning new ways of moving characters through a world. There are options out there, though they restrict some of the freedom of choice that we currently have. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: too much freedom can be a double edged sword. Choose your own adventure games used to be all we ever needed: could they be again?