Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Interaction Design

     The way we see games has changed a lot over the years- and by “see” I mean in the most literal sense. The consoles that lounge seductively across our floors and TV stands with air of aloofness are a very different creature to the black and grey boxes that once squatted under our TVs and delivered silent, motionless nods of encouragement as Airman beat the living crap out of us.

     It’s no surprise, though- these days, everything has to be streamlined to sell. Electronics now have as much pressure to stay in fashion as the clothes we wear; just look at each new iPod. Actually, bad example, iPods are old-fashioned now, it’s all iPhones instead. Who still has two separate devices to play music and call someone in this day and age? (Me.)

     I don’t think this is as new for games consoles as it is for other technology, however. Let’s look back to only the late 90s- remember those cream boxes with curved glass screens and their matching cream towers? I’m pretty sure that even in the 90s, magnolia wasn’t exactly the height of aesthetic genius. And it was a disaster for keyboards and mice (mouses? Mice just doesn’t sound right for the electronic kind), which showed up every tiny build-up of general skankery your greasy human hands left behind, so that after about a month they appeared to have collected years’ worth of filth.

     My point is, PCs looked dorky.

     Games consoles, on the other hand, were quite a few steps ahead. This was the ages of the Dreamcast, the Playstation, and the Nintendo 64. The former two were still in the grey ages, but the Dreamcasts controller not only looked a bit like the Millennium Falcon, but had a space for the little screen on the memory cards in the middle. The screen had about 20 pixels and didn’t do a lot but who cares it was a controller with a screen on it and that was mind-blowing. The N64 was way ahead, though- the standard colour was a sexy teal-ish green because haters gonna hate and it was semi-transparent. You could see through it because it had nothing to hide since it was awesome all the way through. And the controller had three prongs because there just wasn’t enough room on two for all the win the N64 had to offer.

     The last part is slightly subjective, but seriously, anyone that complains about the three prongs has obviously never played an N64 game ever- every game just picks either the D-pad or the control stick and sticks with it and never expects you to switch between them like everyone is terrified might happen.

     Basically, my point is that games consoles had to look cool (or as we said in the 90s, “wicked”. That was a bad move, I will never say that word again) even back then. This was based on the generation of consoles before it- at that point, gaming wasn’t just for nerds, gaming was cool, and if you had cool consoles you were cool. The N64 might look like a squashed block of jelly now, but in its day it was…still a squashed block of jelly, but the jelly tasted like rainbows.

     Now let’s look at the generations before and after that. The SNES and the Saturn had radically different designs- while the SNES was still a grey box of grey buttons and grey panels and general greyness, at least it had a bunch of “neato” (I’ll stop soon) add-ons, such as the Power Glove and R.O.B. the robot (how well they actually worked was irrelevant, I suppose). Meanwhile, the Saturn looks a bit like Knight Rider. In the next generation, consoles hit some kind of gawky teenager phase. I mean just look, seriously. The PS2 and Xbox are a pair of big black monoliths that look like they had the ten commandments written on them once, and the Gamecube just looks like a handbag. I honestly have no explanation for this, they’re all ugly now and they were all ugly then. Bad examples.

     Back to the point I was trying to make. Look at the Atari 2600- see that wooden panel and unsightly black grill design? Look at some TVs from the 70s. Yeah, everything looked like that. Which is why it kind of stands out- the Atari was one of the first home consoles, and so bringing games from the arcade to the living room was still a novel thing. And yet it fits in nicely with your tacky 70s décor- this shows that Atari cared about the appearance of their console, even way back near the dawn of home gaming itself.

     Which brings us to today, and into the streamlined age. The PS3 is still a hulking black monolith, but now it has smooth curves across the top. The Xbox360 is now a hulking grey monolith with curved edges and some nuclear jacket potato logo, and the Wii is a shiny, slimline white box with a neon blue light in the disc slot. Well, at least Nintendo got it right. Everyone knows that all machinery in the future is made of white plastic with neon lights, after all. The Wiimote (possibly named by Jonathan Ross) is innovative- the idea of “being” the controller was huge at the time, even if the idea has been milked dry by now. The huge problem with it was the way it was exploited by third-party companies for party games and spin-offs, and how unresponsive it could be. I still prefer the 360 controller, purely on the grounds that it’s an actual classic controller. As for the PS3, Sony haven’t changed the Playstation controller ever. And it’s probably the worst controller since those crappy toaster-things attached to the Odyssey. I mean, pick up something with both hands. It doesn’t matter what it is, just pick up anything. Where are your thumbs? Are they craning down toward the bottom of the object? Or are they pointed upward at a roughly 45 degree angle, about level with the first joint of your index finger? That’s where the left analogue stick should be. That’s how people hold things, it’s where people have always held things, and it’s where the main directional control, which has been the analogue stick ever since 360 degree control was possible, has always been. It’s like people have been building submarines out of steel for decades, and then Sony came along and said “Nah, let’s make them out of bread”.

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