The Amazing Evolution Of Video Game Controllers



The Amazing Evolution Of Video Game Controllers

WRITTEN BY: Ty Richardson
Video game controllers have come a LONG way! Controllers are how we connect with characters and their actions in the games we love. Recently, we sat down with Adam Coe, the CEO and founder of Evil Controllers, a group of dedicated developers and professionals who give controllers an evil touch. In this video we break down the evolution of controllers, from their origins, to improvements in successive generations, to their future. What do YOU think is the best controller of all time? Let us know in the comments!
Evolution of Video Game Controllers

The controller; synonymous with gaming, and as self-descriptive as a piece of hardware gets. Thumbsticks, buttons, paddles, bongo drums, hand gestures… It’s how we connect directly with the actions and characters in a game and without a controller we would be condemned to just stare at the start screen.

Welcome to WatchMojo, and recently, we sat down with Adam Coe, the CEO and founder of Evil Controllers, a group of dedicated developers and professionals who give your controllers an evil touch.

Today, we’re going to bring you the complete history of gaming's most important and memorable video game peripheral - the controller.

Chapter 1 - The Origin

The very first game controller dates back to the late 50’s when American physicist William A. Higinbotham used an oscilloscope to create the world’s first video game - “Tennis for Two”. This simple game was played with only a knob and a button. The whole thing only took a few weeks for Higinbotham and a technician to assemble. Despite a successful showing at the Brookhaven National Laboratory Expo, Higinbotham would not pursue further into developing games. Little did he know this would spark an entire industry.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s when we started seeing more diverse (and awkward) controllers. Many retained the idea of knobs, dials, and buttons, but some went a little too over-the-top. The RCA Studio II, for example, looked like an oversized calculator. Then, you had controllers like the Coleco Telstar Arcade’s, which attempted to incorporate three different controllers with one peripheral - one with knobs, one with a steering wheel, and one with a plastic handgun. (Yeah, we can’t make stuff like THAT these days…) Shockingly enough, a handful of these controllers did support eight-way directional inputs such as the Fair Channel F console.

We didn’t start seeing the joystick we’ve come to know until 1977 when Atari introduced the Atari 2600. With its simplistic design, featuring four-way directional input and a single button, the 2600’s controller made playing games feel much more intuitive than the more complex nature of their competitors.

So, why did it take us so long to get to the point between 1958 when Higinbotham developed “Tennis for Two” and 1977 when the Atari 2600 debuted? It is important to know that video games were still brand new, and we were still trying to figure out how games should be played. Adam points out that delayed communication between developers and consumers hindered progress.

Enter Nintendo in 1980. After spending years creating playing cards and toys, the House that Mario would soon build sought after other business ventures. Originally hired as a technician, Gunpei Yokoi was brought on to help Nintendo with the expansion. While the company would see success with Yokoi’s “Ultra Hand” toy and the Color TV Game systems, Nintendo wanted Yokoi and his team to do something that wasn’t the hundredth variation of “Pong”. In 1980, Yokoi and Nintendo would introduce a miniature device known as the “Game & Watch” series. The games started out with two buttons to move characters - one to move the player character right, and one to move them left. It wouldn’t be long before these handheld games would implement four buttons, but they would be a little uncomfortable to press. To fix this, Yokoi traded the buttons for a small, cross-shaped lever that could be programmed for eight directions. This was what we now know as the “D-pad”.

The controller’s next milestone would occur a few years after the events of the “Game & Watch” series when Nintendo had their eyes on the home console market. The only problem was that they also wanted their product to be more accessible unlike the obscenely priced machines from their competitors. Deciding to get rid of the keyboard entirely, Nintendo found that they would need to create a new way for players to communicate with games. Introducing the Nintendo Entertainment System, which came with the already revolutionary D-pad dedicated to one side. Of course, this wasn’t the only reason why the NES succeeded with its controller.

And how did Nintendo’s competitors handle this success? Well, Atari certainly wasn’t turning heads with its odd, remote control hybrid, and the Jaguar’s controller wasn’t any better, causing the manufacturer to dip out of the console market entirely. The Commodore 64 Games System, on the other hand, would try to bring joysticks back and keep keyboards with home consoles. Alas, the system never caught on. SEGA, Sony, and SNK would attempt their own formats while still using Nintendo’s blueprint of “d-pad on left, face buttons on right”.

Chapter 2 - Improving The Standard

Back in the early years of video games, durability wasn’t much of a thought. The 1962 game “Spacewar!” required users to be extremely careful with the machine as it was easy for someone to accidentally flip the power off. However, controllers wouldn’t be so fragile as to cause accidental shutdowns. Adam recalls controllers, even back then, being pretty sturdy. As we entered the sixth generation of home consoles with the Nintendo GameCube, SEGA Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation 2, and Microsoft’s original Xbox, one can notice where durability was becoming more of a priority. The GameCube, Xbox, and Dreamcast utilized rather bulky controllers. One could feel how compact their parts were. Clearly, the gaming giants were wanting players comfortable and unable to smash controllers easily.

Although, before we got our grubby hands on these consoles, controllers had reached another milestone. In 1996 Nintendo released the Nintendo 64 console with an analog stick to allow for smoother movement in a 3D environment. A year later, Sony introduced a reworked version of the original PlayStation controller - the first DualShock. Not only did this prevent blisters from that incredibly rough D-pad by offering dual analog sticks, but it gave developers more ways to let players control the game’s camera and make it easier to navigate through games. Indeed, analog sticks were quite the innovation back then.

Adam cites another innovation, one that is often overlooked or easily dismissed - rumble. A few months before Sony launched the first DualShock, Nintendo introduced the Rumble Pak. What’s so special about making a controller vibrate? Well, there’s more to it than just shaking the controller. This has now become a way for developers to effectively communicate errors to the player in addition to immersing them in the game world. We’ve scoffed at things like the Nintendo Switch’s HD Rumble, but this aspect of game design is just as important as thumbsticks.

We take thumbsticks and rumble for granted these days. However, if it wasn’t for these innovations, we wouldn’t be enjoying shooters and fighting games as often as do now. Because of these, our shots are more accurate, our combos can be pulled off quicker, and we can execute complex inputs without straining our hands. Now that we’ve reached this achievement, we’ve caught ourselves at a crossroads.

Chapter 3 - Perfection: The Impossible Goal

The eighth generation may not have accomplished anything too outstanding, but it defines our impossible goal of making things perfect. Adam says the most challenging demand right now is making a controller that meets EVERY demand for every particular playstyle. Sony’s DualShock 4 and Xbox’s new controller for the Xbox One have included sensitive triggers and improved rumble features, giving players more feedback than ever before. Their controller plating has gotten tougher, too! As for the Plumber’s Palace, Nintendo has managed to include several control schemes in a single console with the Switch.

However, as gaming has grown and become more popular, we’re finding new problems with our standard controller. How are we able to play with disabled people? How can those suffering from muscular dystrophy or have gone through amputation get in on the fun and feel included? While Xbox has introduced their own accessibility controller in 2018, other companies like Evil Controllers are offering to develop special controllers for disabled players.

With these ambitions in place for the industry, where can controllers go from here? We’ve already gotten glimpses of where Sony and Microsoft are wanting to take things. With their Elite series, Xbox is looking to bring customization so players can play games with the best control scheme possible. As for Sony’s new DualSense controller, the gaming giant is planning to incorporate adaptive feedback in its triggers and vibration as well as a built-in microphone to allow easier communication between players.

One thing companies need to recognize is that the controller is the connection between you and the player. It’s also important that the next wave of controllers keeps both casual gamers and hardcore gamers in mind as Adam points out.

So, where would be without all of these innovations? Would we still be able to detect hits more easily without rumble? Would we still be using D-pads had Sony not launched the DualShock or if Nintendo never went forward with “Game & Watch”? Would we be enjoying the many games we’re spoiled with today had we not incorporated some of these features? The controller is much more important than we realize. It’s something we take for granted, something that gets more beatings for frustrating gameplay than it rightfully deserves. So, keep them clean, and don’t rage so much. Who knows how much longer we’ll have with them before they’re discontinued? ...Or when we make the giant leap to hands-free controls like the Kinect. *shudders* That was ugly to imagine!