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Remember the days when you could just glance down at a controller and tell right away what game console it belonged to? Not because it was tethered to that specific console by a five-foot cable, but because it had an undeniably unique sense of character and layout?
Those were the days.
Over the last two or three years, the gaming industry has both grown exponentially and boiled down into a handful of basic elements. The greatest example of this is seen in the gamepad. Unless your controller connects to something with a Sony logo on it, there’s more than a good chance that it looks and feels like and Xbox 360 controller. Sometimes you find little differences, like the placement of the joysticks or the labels on the buttons, but the basic form-factor has spread to everything from little connected devices like the Ouya and Amazon Fire TV, all the way up to Nintendo’s Pro Controller for the Wii U.
In many ways, this evolution of controller layout started with the Gamecube controller. The thicker center design with buttons that were comfortably spaced from the joysticks with wide-angled handles was around for three years before Microsoft unveiled the thoroughly refined Xbox 360 controller. Despite Nintendo’s initial push into this design, it’s more than a little obvious that everyone is now aping that flat black controller with the battery bulge on the bottom and the center menu controls at the top. Everything from the dual trigger layout to the matching D-pad-and-diamond-face-button layout is the standard, and it’s going to be that way for a while.
Microsoft has already improved beyond the Xbox 360 controller with the existing gamepad, which supposedly cost the company $100 million in R&D to put together. While that figure certainly sounds outrageous, comparing the Xbox One and Wii U gamepads to the blocky Fire TV and Android TV dev kit gamepads reveals their differences in design philosophy. The same goes for Sony’s DualShock 4, which not only stands out in the crowd but is much sleeker and slimmer than anything anyone else is doing right now.
There are a lot of good reasons to have similar gamepad layouts. We’re seeing multi-platform games where developers can publish to multiple stores with significantly less effort than in the past. This opens the door for indie game developers to seamlessly move between digital storefronts, like Steam and mobile app stores. It’s a great thing for developers and gamers, but it’s hard not to look at the landscape and feel like there’s a lack of gamepad improvement. Have we reached the pinnacle of gamepad design, or has this part of the industry slowed to appreciate the state of the market?
Even future controller designs, like the Steam controller, are based on this same basic design. Valve claims to be doing some impressive things with vibration and touch with its upcoming controller, but it feels like the same basic formula is being followed. It feels like attempts to improve in this space, like Sony’s SIXAXIS controls and DualShock 4′s nuisance of a light bar, are quickly written off as gimmicks instead of being thoroughly explored by game developers.
It’s hard to tell whether we should be cheering or mourning the fact that most of our gamepads look the same. On the one hand, you can pick up a gamepad for just about anything and quickly fall into a comfort zone, but on the other hand, the lack of forward momentum is a sign of the gaming industry as a whole right now. The lack of risk-taking, the never-ending push for sequels, and the ever creeping arm of the bro-shooter could very well be a symptom that we’re busy being told what to like. Whether or not that’s the actual case, it looks like things will be this way for a while.