Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Computer RPGs and the Game Controller

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 29, 2014

GamingKeyboardI love my keyboard and mouse for gaming.

Before mice were common, I loved the keyboard.

I remember playing Ultima III and IV, where there was a command for almost every key. It seems a silly idea today, but back then, it at least made the game feel like it was incredibly interactive. Look at all the verbs! Okay, so it was kind of kind of redundant at times, and some commands were used so infrequently they didn’t really deserve their own key. But it felt like a rich command set!

I’ve been a PC Gamer ever since. Sure, professionally, I made games for consoles for a living. I was young and needed the money! Okay, seriously, there were times when I was convinced it was the most awesome job of all time. And I learned to love the consoles, especially the original Playstation. But there was a richness in PC gaming that I felt lacking in many console titles. The console gamers might jeer and call them boring, but those of us playing the original X-Com, Daggerfall, Falcon 3.0 (and later 4.0), and Civilization games knew better. Console ports of games like Diablo paled in comparison. Ditto for the console versions of most PC RPGs.

Once upon a time, back when there really was a larger distance between console and computer games, I remember a journalist explaining that the difference was often depth vs. breadth. Console games – like fighting games – tended to go for greater depth of play within a limited breadth of interactions. PC games tended to go for more breadth of interactions. Over time, that has converged a bit, though I do still love having that breadth of interactions.

Nowadays, from a technology standpoint – there’s not such a difference between consoles and computers. As far as what’s going on under the hood, it doesn’t really matter. As Microsoft’s Surface and will-conceived Windows 8 attest, mobile devices are closing the gap as well.  We have HD TVs now that display text almost as well as computer monitors. And the controllers? Well, console controllers from the last couple of generations of systems have been pretty dang interesting. I’ll bet you could eliminate some redundancies, put a few rare controls on a menu, and map the old Ultima controls onto an XBox controller pretty well. While mobile games have diverged a bit in the style of gameplay (mostly owing to small screens and touch interfaces), PC games and console games have converged much more. It’s not always a good thing – I do feel like there’s been a bit of “dumbing down” as a result – but there are good things to be borrowed from both sides.

There’s still something about the keyboard and mouse for me. Especially the mouse. It’s convenient. It’s precise, unlike thumbsticks and touch screens. Even though the world is changing and people are using a dedicated desktop (or laptop) less and less, I’m still a fan. I’m still a PC gamer. I think in those terms.  Sometimes to my own detriment.

But reality intrudes. I have to show my next game, Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath, at Salt Lake Comic Con in about a month, and … well, people really respond better to controllers, especially when faced with a new game. The left stick and right buttons are the first to be experimented with. And – as the adventure games of the 90s illustrated, context-sensitive verbs are a pretty good thing. I really want to hand them a controller, not point them to a keyboard and mouse.

SONY DSCSo now I’m frantically re-thinking my UI in terms of game control input. And it really changes everything. It’s actually a good thing, to a point – because it really forces me to think in terms of simplifying controls for the player. Players of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon and its rather ungainly UI will no doubt appreciate the effort. This doesn’t mean that players of my beloved keyboard and mouse are going to be stuck with something like an emulated console controller… no way, no how.  Keyboard and mouse are still going to be, in my mind, the primary way to play the game. But it does force me to think about economy of movement, careful nesting of what menus are necessary, and – well, simplifying the control of things, even if the stuff going on underneath the hood is still pretty hardcore.

I know it’s the right thing to do. I know it’s the necessary thing to do. I know the game will be better as a result of me streamlining things. I know that I will still be able to play with keyboard and mouse in the way that the gods of PC gaming intended. But there’s still a little part of me that feels guilty about it.

Filed Under: Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 17 Comments to Read

  • The Old Farmer said,

    I will defer to your experience on how people respond better to a controler, but how in any way shape or form are the console users your target audiance? This kind of dumbing down of gaming is what drove me nuts from 2000 to 2010 when the vast majority of pc games were some form of crappy console port where the mouse and kbd was a poor substitute for the controler. Now if this preping for the use of a controler means you tighten up your UI and makes your PC game a better overall experience then it could be a good thing too.
    I guess I am jaded because of too many years where as a PC gamer I was forced to endure controler optimized UI in games that were in most other ways far better on the PC, so now any time I see a controler as an option in a PC game I automatically think of a crappy UI.

  • Felix said,

    Controls are so important for a game, I could make a case for designing the game around the controls. And what controls you put in depends on more than just the target platform.

    When I made Square Shooter, it was designed around a single-button mouse to maximize cross-browser compatibility — in summer 2009, HTML5 games were still somewhat of a novelty. Adding touchscreen support was a no-brainer. More of a surprise was that the game plays just as well with dual analog sticks… in a very different manner, but still entertaining.

    With Buzz Grid it was similar: I wanted a game that could be played with the cursor keys and one fire button, on the idea that one day I’d port it to Java ME (which I did, but never released that version). Naturally, that also means it can be played with any game controller — even those that lack analog sticks. For a touchscreen, however, I’d have to add virtual controls, and I’m just too lazy.

    Last year I finally wrote a couple of roguelikes. While I made them use the traditional one key per command, I limited the number of commands so that I could show all of them on a line at the bottom. But they still require a full keyboard. The much more famous POWDER doesn’t — it’s made to work on a variety of portable consoles, so it relies on a system of icons and menus. But it still supports keyboard commands for everything on the PC — why would it not?

    Last but not least, my recent Attack Vector was designed to use the cursor keys and two fire keys, before I realized that the up and down keys are sitting useless… I’m still thinking what to put in the game that would make use of them. But that’s part of the fun.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Old Farmer – I’m pretty good at making crappy UI even without a console controller. But I totally empathize, as the article above says. My current thinking is that the UI will be different between console and keyboard control. But trying to share as much code and behavior as possible, it does suggest that there will be as many similarities as differences. I suspect the game will still be “best played” with KB + Mouse, but I’d like game controller input to at least be reasonable.

    Felix – Yeah, most of the early games I grew used to on the ol’ C-64 used the Atari-style joystick with a single button (although the Commodore’s function keys were often used in the menu).

    One of the issues – and this is not wrong – is that when you design the control scheme, to a degree you are designing the game. To a degree, console games tend to have a certain “feel” because they are designed to work with a game controller. That is often why ports between consoles and PC don’t often work well. I’m not going to pretend that I’m going to solve it – Frayed Knights is and will remain a computer game first, and I’m not positive it will ever appear on any console. It will probably remain best played with a keyboard and mouse. But it will be playable with a game controller.

  • Anon said,

    I have the old version of the G19 (actually, I have two: one is on stock ;-)) and it’s not only great for gaming but also for developing! You see, I run only one app on the display: “LCDMisc” which shows CPU usage, network throughput etc. – but also a task manager that is able to shoot down tasks/processes when the regular keys aren’t responding anymore (the display keys on the G19 are a separate affair).

    This means that when a game or other program goes amok you can gracefully go back to the desktop without the need to reset the PC.
    This is a major time saver if you have problems with games, drivers or when a program in development doesn’t behave the way you want.

    Also, my G19 is four years old now and not a single bit of the key coating vaporized…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I shudder at the prospect of spending that much on a keyboard, but… I think my current one is starting to show its age. The G19 is an object of lust. I mean, desire. I mean… okay, yeah, I want one.

    Maybe when I finally upgrade my desktop. I’ve made a goal NOT to replace it until FK2 ships. So … maybe when it ships, if it exceeds my expectations, I’ll be able to afford a G19…!

  • Noumenon72 said,

    The Old Farmer has it right. This game isn’t coming out on console, people use controllers on PC for racing games and first-person shooters not RPGs, and you are a one man team with much higher priorities. Why don’t you wait till Comic Con, and if anyone asks “Will you be able to control this game with a controller?” then say “Sure, I just didn’t bring one” and code it afterwards. Or why don’t you give an exit survey to everyone who tries your game that says “Are you buying this game? Y N — if not, would you buy it if you could use AN X-BOX CONTROLLER?” If that changes more than one vote then you can make it a feature, I will also eat my hat.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Depending upon how soon we can get the demo ready, I may be asking YOU that question first (but we only have 5 weeks, so… we’ll see). I really want to try some of these things out with the audience here via the web-based version when I can. We’ll have a hard-core RPG fan audience here to keep me honest, and a far more general public at the Con. Hopefully I’ll be able to gather some good information out of the range of opinions.

  • Xenovore said,

    +1 to what The Old Farmer said. While having a controller might appeal to the consoleers, for most of us PC gamers, it just means the game has probably been dumbed down and is now shallow and insipid.

  • Xian said,

    I like having the option of using a controller, though primarily I prefer mouse and kb. Sometimes I just want to kick back on the couch and play on the HDTV in Steam Big Picture mode instead of sitting at the desk.

    It depends on the game really. Some need a mouse/kb, where some play better with a controller, and some can go either way. I played Skyrim and The Witcher 2 with m/kb, but when it came to Dark Souls, the controller was clearly better, though some of that may be due to porting issues. It had some of the most satisfying combat controls of any game I have played.

  • Cuthalion said,

    I just spent the weekend implementing controller support (and the ability to remap said controls) for my game, which already had keyboard and mouse. It was a learning curve to find out, for example, that the triggers on the 360 are an axis (with the polarity reversed from the sticks) and that the d-pad is neither a button nor an axis, but behaves like an axis. But man, I forgot how much fun it feels to play a game with a controller.

  • McTeddy said,

    I think you’re a bunch of whiners… CONTROLLERS ALL THE WAY!

    I’ve never liked the mouse/keyboard setup because it forces me to sit at a desk. With a controller in hand I can lean back and enjoy the experience.

    On that note, most of my unplayed Steam games don’t have controller support. I just require a certain mindset to sit at a desk and play computer games. Controller games can fit into my “I’m relaxing” times.

    Absolutely, focus on the PC control scheme. But I sure as heck wouldn’t complain about getting to use a controller.

  • Modran said,

    Mouse and keyboard all the way for PC gaming. Only possible exception are racing games and rogue-platformer (because it make my hands cramp up on a KB).
    But hey, you da boss :-).

  • ogg said,

    I’m very new to posting here, but I personally think a mouse and keyboard works best for anything first person, but I also think its good to have plenty of control options and to not hardcode them. As I understand it helps those who have a disabilty that makes standard controls problematic. You can lookup some of the controls nintendo made for hospitalized players for the NES as examples. I vote for the possibility of using a non mouse keyboard controls. I thought most of the ui in the first game was quite good. It certainly beat skyrims default mouse keyboard controls by a mile.

  • Modran said,

    Oh, yeah, I’m not saying there should’nt be any other possibilities ^^. Also key rebinding is a must have too, some people don’t have a qwerty at home (me).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, key rebinding might not be *fully* implemented in the test demos, but it’ll be in the final version for sure. (Here I go, making promises again…)

  • bob said,

    I actually do not buy games on steam that have “the big picture” logo as that states to me the keyboard and mouse wasn’t the primary input devices for the game and it will have a list for an inventory and ridiculous steps and clicks for what would be easy in a real crpg. I hate games made for controllers with a passion.

  • Daniel King said,

    I have no intention of playing FK2 with a controller. It amazing how many big games are dumbed down because of matching console versions. Fallout 3 is a prime example, why oh why can’t you open the Map with the M key…