Controllers are undeniably one of the core components of designing a video game experience. The controller is the tool that allows the player to connect and immerse themselves into the experience. A sloppy design choice can immediately tear a player from the game.  While the controller is a quintessential piece of the gaming experience, indie game developers don’t design the controllers; they’re usually given a choice of whatever technology is out on the market, more specifically those which are most commonly used in their audience’s households.  While the developer can’t control the hardware that the end users will have, they can design around it.


Know the differences between a keyboard and controller

On a controller a majority of the movement controls will be on the left side of the device as thumbsticks and directional pads are placed to the left. Action buttons will usually be on the right side, with the trigger buttons depending on the game.  These button choices will also vary depending on the genre. Games with heavy combination keys will be heavy on the action keys, while turn based games will be more reliant on contextual menus.

While keyboards have much more freedom in the options of controls, there are common trends with the placement of the controls. Typically keyboard controls will be based around the “WASD” format, with the player’s hand resting on W, A, S and D respectively.  Peripheral keys are then used as action keys, such as the Q, E, R, F keys and sometimes the bottom row of Z, X, C, and V.  The keys used vary from genre to genre,  where fighting games will try to emulate an arcade setup with the middle and bottom row, while MMOs will push players towards the “WASD” format.


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Never assume the player will know by default.

Each game has it’s own unique experience.  Not only with the hardware differ from player to player, but the knowledge will as well. Do not assume that every player will know that “E” is interact unless the game specifically informs the player of that mechanic. Assuming too much of a player will leave gaps of information that the player should be fed, leaving the player with a frustrating experience. Similarly, if the game leaves room for the player to explore and experiment with controls , the game should set aside some time for this. A common thing developers end up saying by the end of a play-testing session is that they’re surprised that the players didn’t know how to do something very basic.  Give the players the knowledge of how to handle the game, even if it’s instructing them that they’re supposed to use WASD to move. Small tool tips, or a page with the controls are great tools to utilize and take advantage of.


Allow players to adjust their controls

Not every player is the same but it’s within the designer’s job to make sure that each player has a unique experience delivered to them. While controls should be thoroughly thought out, they should also be flexible. By allowing a player to tweak the controls to fit their play style, the player is able to interact with the game on a much more personal level.  Having a player quit a game because the controls are unintuitive or too hard to reach isn’t something a developer wants to hear; it means a lot of the content wasn’t even seen.  Preventing this problem can be the difference between a player buying and dropping the game and a player ranting and raving about the story to their friends.


Keep the controls simple

While frustrating controls can make for a fun and temporary game like QWOP, most game experiences aren’t built around the controls alone. While an experience can be based around the controls, if a designer is looking to craft an enjoyable experience based around the story, characters, or environment, then they should look to make their controls as unobtrusive as possible. Controls shouldn’t prevent a player from engaging with the game. If the player has to stop and think about the controls, then it’s a break in the immersion.

Consider the basic controls of some older video games that have withstood the test of time. A classic game like Pokemon typically uses the directional pad, and two buttons; the functions of these buttons changes as the context of the game does.  Movement in the directional pad becomes a way to direct selections in the battle screen. Interactions with the A-button become confirmation buttons.  Simply put, a game doesn’t need a button for each possible interaction. In our daily motions, we don’t think about the process of walking. It just happens. That’s the experience that developers should aim to create, controls that flow with each player.

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