So, I woke up this morning excited to try out the new XBLA game, Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball. As soon as I downloaded it and started the game, my fiancée said “hand me a controller, this looks like fun.” Now, there aren’t many games which pique her interest too, so I was even more excited. Ten minutes later, we gave up.

The bad thing is, I think I gave up before she did. What is a wonderful concept is made difficult by some of the controls. Our first 15 seconds with the game were like this: move around, do some more moving, try to find a ball, figure out why they’re on our side of the line, pause. The next few minutes were spent with an extremely complicated set of instructions for the controls, of which we gleamed that X threw the ball (or attacked), A jumped, B caught the ball (though we never got this to work), and Y did some sort of special attack if you had a meter full – which I couldn’t find.

Three minutes should be enough to tell you whether or not to get the game. It certainly was with Castle Crashers (which we’re playing through a second time now). But with PvNDB, something I’d waited for excitedly, I just can’t enjoy it like I’d like to. We played against easy difficulty AI, and got destroyed every time. Here’s a short list of issues I take with the game:

  • It’s hard to find the ball, then pick it up. The “pickup the ball” radius is too small.
  • It’s easy to target (well, not a specific opponent), but almost impossible to catch. B never seems to catch.
  • I had to read the instructions to figure out the controls, and even then I couldn’t do the cool stuff the computer was doing without another 10 minutes of reading. I shouldn’t have to read to enjoy the game.
  • It took a while to figure out how to select our team. Plus, when looking at characters, we kept tilting the stick ever slightly left or right, changing our team. Select teams, then characters. Not both at the same time.
  • Seriously, why can’t I just hold down X to charge a firey shot like the computer was doing?

And the list goes on. It looks like a phenomenal game, and I’m sure that with enough play time I could figure out the controls enough to enjoy it – but with so many other phenomenal games to play, I just don’t feel like devoting the time it’d take to learn the controls for this game. Especially when I’d then be that guy when I invited my friends over to play. And honestly, this game demands local play – 2v2 matches could be awesome.

But the controls need to be really intuitive, and need to work well. With the difficulty selecting teams (expand the horizontal dead region to fix), the difficulty catching a ball (my fiancée said “I held B the whole time, why didn’t it catch it?”), and other general accessibility issues (the viewing angle is so low that it’s hard to move up and down to get the ball – graphics over gameplay in this case) – it’s just not that fun.

Your controls are how you present your game to the player. Make sure they’re simple, intuitive, and don’t require 10 minutes with a manual to learn. I don’t want to invite my friends over and say “here, read this manual while I make a snack” – I want to sit them down and play the game with them.


The other XBLA release this week was Shred Nebula. It looks like a pretty fun game, and I had a decent time with it. But I just can’t understand why I can’t move the left stick to move my ship. After Geometry Wars and countless other top-down space SHMUPS, you’d think that left joystick = move would be a no-brainer. But in Shred Nebula, left stick turns, left trigger accelerates, left bumper is reverse thruster, and Y activates “hyper drive.” I can understand having a button to activate “abnormally fast” mode, but not to move. I can also understand moving in reverse…though it’s really awkward. (Note: I may have these controls wrong – but there are buttons for everything I mentioned)

Okay, so then you have right stick to gather things (can’t this be done automatically? It seems to be done automatically half the time anyway.), X to fire (I think), right bumper to shield, and B, A and Right Trigger do something too. Now, from a player who has access to all buttons while playing Halo (I wrap my index finger around to the front to access ABXY), I had problems with these controls. Most of them could have been solved by mapping movement to the left stick.

Interaction Design

All of these problems have to do with Interaction Design – one of the more important areas of Usability studies for game designers. Over years and years of playing games on consoles, we’ve developed expectations about which buttons do what on a controller when we’re presented with something on the screen. Left stick almost always moves. Be it a side-scroller, first person shooter, top-down SHMUP, or anything – moving the left stick always moves your character.

The rest varies a bit, but B is usually cancel (on account of being red), A usually does something like accept commands or jump, X is used for shooting and commands, Y is used for less-used features (on account of being farthest away from the right stick for the thumb – read up on Fitts’ Law). The triggers can be used, or the bumpers, but not usually at the same time (except by more advanced players).

In general, trying to keep games to about 5 different controls is best for games meant to be easily accessible, and up to 9 for more advanced games (or less-used functions). This is based on cognitive psychologist George A. Miller’s research, which determined that the human brain can deal with about 7, plus or minus 2, different choices at once. Past that things become confusing, or need to be broken up into smaller tasks.

PvNDB does this fine – there are 5 controls – move, throw, catch, jump and special. However, they don’t react as expected (B doesn’t always catch, X can be used for many different throws). Shred Nebula on the other hand uses almost all of the controls on the gamepad, but does so unintuitively – requiring a button press to move. Both games seem like excellent designs with great gameplay, but they’re rendered unenjoyable because of the controls – the way the player explores the gameplay.

The bottom line is, please do some reading on usability (and take a course or two if you can!). There’s plenty of good materials out there specifically related to computers and games (you’ll find a lot on website design, which can be helpful) – Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is one of the best out there. It talks about everyday things – a teapot, a microwave, etc. If you can understand why those might be hard to use though, you should certainly be able to understand why a controller with 17 buttons and two joysticks could be difficult to use if the software it’s controlling isn’t designed well.

Edit: To add some final notes – I know that asteroids has the “push button to move, turn to aim” style of play, and that the controls on PvNDB aren’t that bad – but I had some trouble enjoying both of these games this morning in the 10 minutes I gave each of them (due to controls), and I’ve been paying games for almost 20 years. While they’re both decent games, I feel like the controls are holding them back from being phenomenal – at least to me (and my fiancée – who has trouble with controls anyway).