An Analytic History of the Evolution of Video Game Controllers

It is crazy just how much video game controllers have changed over the years. We went from basic joysticks with one button all the way to dual analog controllers with motion tilt, and a large variety of buttons. In this post I would like to analyze why some features stuck with us and some didn't.

byCaleb Pond10 Views

  1. To begin looking at controllers we of course have to start with the Joystick. The Joystick was one of the first human to digital interfaces that ever existed. It led the way for more innovation where digital input is concerned.
  2. The next innovation is heavily inspired by the joystick. It is called the D-Pad or digital pad. The dpad is very similar to the joystick in nature, as it is the same type of input, but the amount of inputs and the way that we interface with it is what is different. The dpad has 4 inputs that can be pressed by the user. You might think that this would be a downside as it is less inputs than the Joystick (8 directions) however the reason that the dpad was so successful is that you could press all of the inputs simply using your thumb. This greatly changed the way controllers were made by allowing you to use the rest of your left hand for other functions.
  3. The next major innovation is the analog stick. The analog stick allows for precise control in a game because it outputs a range of values as opposed to the binary outputs of dpads or joysticks. This meant that you could make a character run or walk simply based upon how far you tilt the analog stick. This method of control had been around for a long time, but it was popularized by the N64 and the game Super Mario 64.
  4. After the release of the N64 several other analog based controllers followed, and today almost every controller has at least one. In more recent years we have seen the rise of motion controllers and movement based gaming. This was largely due to the unexpected popularity of the Wii. The Wii used a primarily motion based controller, and did not have any analog sticks like the more standard controllers on the Playstation or the Xbox.
  5. As of yet motion controllers seem to have only affected a portion of the market. Even though they were extremely successful they seem to be in decline. It is also worth noting that standard controllers are still heavily used in the market. As it is now controllers are in a transitional period and it is unclear what the next innovation will be. One consistent pattern for innovation within controllers is that useful innovation stays. Features like the analog stick, or the dpad were immediately seen to be useful. Because of this they stick around to this very day. Motion gaming has involved plenty of gimmicks in the past and It doesn't seem that useful. However there have been games that have used the motion controls to great effect, so I expect there to be more controllers that have it as an auxiliary function instead of a necessary function. As it is we already have so many useful things on controllers that it is hard to imagine what could possibly improve them. One interesting development is the addition of touchscreens to controllers. Recently there has been a push for touchscreens on controllers. I think that unless there are some very awesome games that use the touchscreens features to the fullest, it will fall under the same category as motion controls: cool, but mostly just an addon. I'm expecting that the next extremely successful innovation will actually be a replacement of a current feature, such as precise haptic feedback (rumble) or a new and improved version of the analog stick, the triggers, or the dpad. It is impossible to predict the future, but whatever happens, I am excited to see it.