In last weeks article we ventured into fairly familiar territory with the mouse and keyboard, the established stomping ground of PC gaming. Today we’re going to be looking at something a little different, an (unwelcome) inheritance from the console peasants (in jest) in the form of the gamepad. I’ll try to cover what gamepads I have although I’m afraid I can’t comment on the latest batch of gamepads from the “next-gen” peasant boxes because I don’t have either. (Although as an aside I believe that the Linux kernel has had Dualshock 4 support since the last stable release). I will attempt to discuss these from what I’ve heard and perhaps comment on what I’ve seen on the prototype controller that Valve is working on.
Up until the Xbox360 release gamepads were relatively rare on PC and support for them was equally rare, only the then quite sparse console ports really required them. One of my gamepads (among my favourites) that hails from this time is the Logitech Rumblepad2 which is essentially a design based upon a Sony Dualshock controller, but with some ergonomic changes, PC compatibility and a USB connection. I will admit that this is a wonderful little pad although it can suffer somewhat from the square analogue stick bases which make a perfect forward motion difficult to achieve. A friend of mine actually cut a notch in the front centre of the stick base in order to rest the stick for forward movement in Assassins Creed, to be fair playing AssCreed you get what you get (I bounced off AssCreed so damn hard), but it certainly showed a limitation in a world of gaming that was becoming increasingly saturated with console ports.
Next up there’s the Dualshock2 and Dualshock3 controllers from Sony which never really enjoyed much PC compatibility. There are various software solutions which will rather inelegantly force cooperation from the controller and OS, but on the whole this is going to be some work to get going, again because of a certain other controller’s sheer dominance. That controller would be the Xbox360 pad of course, thanks to countless (often bad) console ports whereupon the game design relied on a gamepad or the port was so bad as to not bother with mouse and keyboard support, the 360 pad has become the de facto gamepad on the PC, and that’s a shame. Whilst the controller itself isn’t too bad and actually provides a reasonably comfortable gaming experience there are elements which make it far from ideal for certain types of games. For example the awful d-pad is a major, major turn-off. This doesn’t matter in many triple-A titles as they generally rely on the d-pad as a secondary control mechanism, relying on the sticks to provide general input. However on many PC indie titles, generally platformers the d-pad can vary on a scale of inconvenient to painful. The design is just awful and the angular surfaces (on a d-pad) actively cut into the thumb. From what I’ve seen the new Xbone pad may have improved this but that’s a long way off becoming a standard and I can’t see the 360 pad vanishing any time soon. That being said, on many games a pad is essential: Sleeping Dogs for example, whilst it actually has good mouse and keyboard controls (thank you devs) it does generally gain from the use of analogue input… except in shooting.
Any game on PC with shooting or rapid aim as a main mechanic (such as an FPS or a shooter heavy 3rd person shooter) shouldn’t rely on a controller support. I mean really, the thought of playing a first person shooter with a controller just strikes me as ridiculous. Then again, the thought of most console FPS is actually unpleasant as that market contains much of the most jingoistic bullcrap and encourages and breeds many of the least pleasant elements of whatever might be considered a ‘gaming community’, but that’s not for this article. One interesting development in the field of dealing with the issue of gamepads sucking in certain circumstances has been the development of prototype controllers by Valve. Valve, of course are responsible for the largest and most prevalent digital game distribution platforms in the world; Steam. For the past few years Valve have been moving forwards in their plan to advance beyond the purely PC orientated market and create a living room gaming platform. To do this they’ve been instrumental in quite a few significant changes, including being one at the forefront of the current expansion in Linux gaming (along with the Humble guys). Another of the changes that they’re making is the necessary move towards finding a control input that is controller-like enough to be used on the sofa, yet offer the advantages of a mouse. These prototypes have proven quite interesting and whilst they are still in development they set an interesting precedent as the traditional sticks have been replaced by circular touch pads, much like those on a laptop but tuned to provide much greater gaming potential and apparently some tactile feedback. Where this goes could be interesting and I personally cannot wait to get my hands on a Steam Controller just to see how far they’ve managed to come in creating that hybrid of mouse and pad.
In a slight change of plan to what was stated on last week’s article, this will not be the last in this series and next week will continue to look at joysticks and some of the more novel input devices that have made an appearance recently.