The Future of Video Games is a series that takes a look at the past of video games in order to examine certain pieces of technology to figure out the direction the industry is taking. The first part tales a look at the joystick.
The joystick controller is iconic for the video game industry.
They come in all shapes and sizes. But when it comes to the layman’s vision of what a video game is, more often than not, the joystick will be mentioned or visualized in some way.
Why start here at the joystick? There were other controllers that came before. The Magnavox Odyssey had the paddle. Other consoles used a dial nob. Surely those controllers still inspire modern day gaming. So why the joystick?
Two reasons. First, it’s incredibly influential. Every video game controller since the late 1990s used the joystick in some way (analog sticks). Any idea that is so long lasting clearly deserves a close look. Second, it’s possibly the perfect controller for navigating the x-y axis. Or the x-z axis. Or even the y-z axis. When you use dual analog sticks, you will end up getting full 3-D movements that’s so easy and intuitive to use. This is why it’s on pretty much every controller out there today.
The Importance Of The Joystick: Uncertainty of Technological Adaption
The joystick wasn’t originally created for video games. It was created for aviation purposes, to control planes. Nazi Germany found a way to use it for their Henschel Hs293s. So when we think about the joystick, we should try to see it as one of the first pieces of non-computer technology used for video games. But the thing is, the joystick didn’t really have to be used for video games.
While the joystick may look like common sense to us as a video game controller, it wasn’t so back then. There were other possibilities that could have been used. Remember the Magnavox Odyssey and the paddle? It was possible that the paddle could have been modified to do exactly what the joystick did. Seriously. There could be two dials, one to allow movement on the x-axis and one on the y-axis. Put a button on the top of one of the dials, if not both dials, and you would have roughly the same utility as the joystick.
Or maybe the trackball! That technology was around at the same time. The trackball is nothing more than an upside down mouse. I’m positive it would have done pretty much the same thing as a joystick. It moves on the x and y axis just the same!
There’s no guarantee that technology will progress in a way that we assume it will. So this first part should serve as a word of warning / caution. Technology will often advance in ways that we cannot see now, but will appear inevitable in the future. For example, there are some toys today that you can control with your thoughts. It’s possible that this sort of technology will have applications in the video game industry. I can remember that sort of technology being talked about in the movie Back To The Future II, so there could be a sort of expectation for it.
The Importance Of The Joystick: Form and Function
A lesson for Nintendo with the Wii-U: a controller should be able to fulfill a function AND look good while doing it.
The other controllers out there really didn’t look very good at all. Seriously. They were ugly.
That’s the paddle for the Magnavox Odyssey. It’s clearly not comfortable to hold nor very easy to use. Plus, it’s not very attractive at all. It looks like a stamper rather than a video game controller. Compare that with this.
This is the original joystick for the Atari 2600. It’s far more intuitive to hold. It’s about the perfect size as well. Not too big. Not too small. Plus, there’s no way to describe holding it without making sexual innuendos! Check it out. In order to hold the joystick properly, you have to have one hand on the stick and grip it firmly. The other has to be tight on the base.
Perversion aside, sorry about that. Couldn’t resist (that’s what she said). If you compare the Atari’s controller to the Magnavox’s, the superior controller is obvious. You know everything about it just by looking at it. Now compare that with this
It’s not clear if this is a controller or a hand-held console. A video game controller should look like a video game controller. It also should fulfill the function, primarily, of a controller. The touch-screen, though interesting, takes attention away from the game played on the television screen. A controller shouldn’t take attention away. Heck, when a gamer is playing a video game, they should only look at the controller when something goes wrong with the controller. I know when I am playing a video game, I barely notice I’m holding one half the time.
Or look at the Atari Jaguar’s controller.
The controller just cannot function as a controller. It’s closer to a calculator. Also, the size makes it unwieldy. Nor does this look like a controller.
What Does The Joystick Tell Us About The Future Of Gaming?
The joystick tell us a couple things about the future of gaming.
First and foremost, this is the design that persisted since the 1970s. We can see that the practical form and function of the joystick has more than enough utility to last. So we will see the best elements of the controller survive. This could mean touchscreens. It could mean the dual analog sticks.
Second, we can see the video game industry has adapted technology from the very beginning. Though this seems like an obvious statement, there is historical precedence to say the industry will continue adapting any and all technology that will improve controllers and gaming experience in general.
Coming Soon: Part 2 – Competition