So you’re tooling along on the open road with the top down, the wind buffeting your hair, the soft, late-afternoon sunlight falling in dappled radiance across the dashboard as your nimble little two-seater darts beneath a copse of sycamore trees. Maybe it’s early autumn, and the air whistles the first sharp notes of winter, which are faintly redolent of woodsmoke and fresh fallen leaves. The stereo speakers scream above the rush of road noise and the throaty growl from the engine, and frankly, you can’t remember the last time you felt this good. Then something shitty comes on the radio and spoils everything.
You’ve got ten station presets programmed into that baby, so you should be able to reach down and instantly change the channel, right? Oh, surely you jest; your car might be the finest in automotive whatchamacallit, but your radio is a port by some second-rate electronics developer who doesn’t grasp the essentials of designing an interface to fit the hardware for which it’s intended — in order to change the station presets on your radio, you must activate a bidirectional toggle up to five times before you hit the station that you want. After much fumbling, you locate a station that isn’t playing a four-day whine-fest suck-a-thon, but by now it doesn’t matter because you’ve spotted that logging truck bearing down on you in the opposite lane, and hey, how did you get over here, anyway?
Leave it to Counting Crows to illustrate the importance of good interface design. I always knew those fuckers were dangerous.
A good gaming interface is never a matter of life and death, but it can mean the difference between fun and not-fun, which in industry terms is essentially and metaphorically the same thing. Having to wade through five steps of input in order to perform a task that could be accomplished with one or two steps can wear on your last frazzled nerve faster than being trapped in an elevator with a wolverine and a four-year-old — it might not seem so bad at first, but the effects of each scenario are frighteningly cumulative.
Play a game like Terraria on the Xbox for an hour, and you might not mind the cumbersome inventory controls. Play for three hours, and you might start to notice that using the LB and RB buttons to cycle through the hotbar items is not exactly optimal, especially when things are chewing on you. Sure, you can map four specific items to the directional pad, but that effectively leaves you with a four-item inventory in times of stress and tribulation, like when you’re fighting the Destroyer or the Twins. Play Terraria on the Xbox for six hours, and the inventory controls might induce facial tics and random spontaneous utterances. Play for twelve hours (total, not consecutively) and you just might become capable of biting a cat, though such actions are neither recommended nor condoned.
The inventory controls in the PC version of Terraria are just fine; hotbar items are selected almost instantly, using either the mouse wheel or the number keys, and the interface is designed around these hardware options. Instead of employing a redesigned interface to fit the console controller, the Xbox and PlayStation 3 versions of Terraria retain the PC’s item selection method, substituting the LB and RB buttons for the mouse wheel and the directional pad for the number keys. This provides six fewer hotbar slots on the directional pad, and makes navigating the hotbar an exercise in tedium and extra tedium; the item farthest from your current position in the hotbar is always five button activations away, and unlike the PC version, the game cannot be paused while in the inventory screen. What does this mean, in practical terms? Death. A lot.
The primary method of input on a console controller, meaning that which receives the highest number of individual activations, is the analog stick. The analog stick’s range of motion is a circle. Why, then, is the hotbar in the console version of Terraria still a line? Minecraft on the Xbox suffers from the same (and greater) interface shortcomings; the hotbar can only be navigated with either the directional pad or the LB and RB buttons, requiring up to five times as many input activations as the PC version.
One might argue that the PC is a different machine, rendering this comparison invalid. This would be true if other cross-platform games hadn’t already solved the PC-to-console interface conundrum; Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses a traditional hotbar on the PC, and a selection wheel on the Xbox and PlayStation 3. The wheel concept is simple — hold a button, the wheel pops up on the screen, select an item (a weapon, a consumable, or both) with the analog stick, release the button, wheel disappears, done. Three steps. Maybe two, if hold and release each count as half a step. Efficient, economical, and dare I say, beautiful.
Saints Row: The Third also uses a wheel for weapon selection, though it maps grenades to the directional pad. Skyrim uses a text-based interface, with number key mapping available on the PC and limited directional pad mapping on the Xbox and PlayStation 3, but it works well on each platform — there’s never any repetitive cycling or needless input activations required to accomplish something that ought to be quite easily accessible through a more elegant, hardware-centric solution. Both games — Saints Row and Skyrim — are designed to be played for hours upon hours, with little thought spared for such trivialities as friends, family, work, food, or personal hygiene, and each game’s interface supports this deliciously antisocial and thoroughly immersive agenda.
Who’s Crying Now?
I don’t mean to state or imply that the console versions of Terraria and Minecraft are not good games. They’re both spectacular — people who haven’t played these games on the PC will probably spend hundreds of hours with them on the Xbox and the PS3, in spite of the control shortcomings. I don’t know if the creators of these ports (Engine Software and 4J Studios, respectively) were given the latitude to deviate from the PC templates when designing the console interfaces, but they should have been. I don’t know if this decision was made intentionally, in order to keep the console versions as close to the originals as possible, or whether it was simply an oversight, a failure to ask the ever-present, essential “why.” As in, “why are we doing these things this way?” This question is the catalyst of all innovation, whether we’re talking about something as relatively inconsequential as a videogame interface, or a controversial social policy, or an artificial heart valve. In spite of what you might have heard from various authority figures over the course of your life, asking “why” is never the enemy — it is the future.
Sometimes playing it safe — staying in your lane, keeping quiet, not making waves — is the wisest, smartest, and prudent…est thing to do; most of the time it will keep you alive, but it will never get you ahead. Sometimes you’ve got to turn up the radio, floor it, and see what’s around the next bend.
And if something gets in your way? You know what to do.