How controllers evolved to serve more gamers
Inclusivity and accessibility? Key considerations in game development. But don't sleep on how they're influencing controllers, too.
Picture the layout of a controller. What comes to mind first? A pair of analog sticks? A four-button setup? Shoulder or rear buttons?
It should come as no surprise that improvements in the comfort and performance of a game controller are a perpetual focus for the companies that make them. But you might not realize that their evolving designs are also trying to improve inclusivity and accessibility so that more players with disabilities can join in the fun.
Morgane Amouyal, head of the Accessible Gaming Division at Evil Controllers, said the peripherals company has seen increased requests from occupational therapy and rehabilitation centers. Some gamers even model their ideal controller in 3D for them to develop.
The company has designed many flat box controllers that can lay on a table or a bed tray, she said. The style, similar to a computer keyboard, offers a different approach than a traditional console controller, which may be difficult for some gamers to use.
“People with disabilities rarely get the whole experience like non-disabled gamers do,” Amouyal said. “We tried to integrate every single function with this device, so they don’t need anything else.”
It helps to have so many designers interested in gaming in the first place. Industrial designer Shivendu Verma developed a concept for a gamepad using the design philosophies of Dyson, the household appliance company. The concept looks at the style of a modern controller through the lens of industrial design and accessibility.
“We try to understand the different types of users by studying them,” Verma said. “This is the only way to make a product accessible. All designers should empathize with the users.”
Gamers might have to wait for a controller that can also vacuum their living room, though.
The interplay of controller and the game itself is a critical part of improving accessibility. Some gamers, for example, may have difficulty reading fast-moving text; improved audio options make sure those gamers aren’t left behind.
A controller with integrated speakers can play a key role. In MLB: The Show, the controller can amplify your coach yelling at a player to slide or hit the cut-off man. The Grand Theft Auto series has plot-advancing phone conversations that can be heard from the controller.
Rumble features, designed to immerse the player in the game, can also aid accessibility because they emphasize or replace activity on the screen. The adaptive and haptic triggers on the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, for example, react differently based on what’s happening in the game. Opening a heavy door in the Horizon series requires a little extra oomph as the controller “fights back” with resistance. Plodding across sandy terrain in Astro’s Playroom is strenuous, much like walking along a sandy beach. Trying to sprint with tired players in NBA 2K won’t be as easy as when they’re fully rested.
Turning off those haptics can be just as helpful to disabled gamers. In Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, the trigger haptics that intentionally make it more difficult to fire certain weapons can be turned off.
Sean Hill, who goes by seanyboy05 on Twitch, said these physical controller features don’t just engage actual players, but also an audience watching gameplay on a stream.
“In Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, your controller will change to match the color of your lightsaber,” Hill said. “That’s a cool feature for streaming because we’re all getting to experience it together.”
Modular controllers, which allow players to use re-mappable buttons to give themselves an edge (especially in first-person shooter games), are growing in popularity. These devices offer more action buttons and configurations than a standard controller. For players who have difficulty pulling off certain maneuvers, it’s a way to keep them in the game.
The real achievement, though, will be making the “standard” controller more capable and therefore more accessible, Amouyal said.
“There are a lot of defaults used for accessible gaming,” she said. “The next step is to make it as similar to the standard controller as possible so [gamers with disabilities] don’t have to give up features or require assistance.”
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