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December 8, 2008

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

The Joy of Mouselook

It took a broken console for me to work out exactly why playing shooters on a thumbstick gives me hives.

With the XBox out of commission, I went back and finished Darwinia, Introversion's charmingly odd RTS. Darwinia uses a kind of FPS-like control system: the mouse moves a cursor around the screen, rotating to keep it close to the center of the view pane, while movement is controlled using the standard WASD (or in my case, WAXD) keys. In perspective, the game reminds me of Black and White, but without that game's idiotic mouse-only policy. Remember movement in B&W? In order to travel somewhere, instead of using a perfectly-reasonable autoscroll, players had to click-and-drag, like moving Google Maps, but without the ease of use or search function. Doing that for an hour at a time was an exercise in repetitive stress injury.

Darwinia, being far more sensible than B&W, uses the same basic principle that shooters use for movement and selection/aiming: it creates a direct connection between mouse's physical movement and the onscreen change in view arc. The reason this works is because computer users have been training for it during the entire life of the GUI. When the mouse moves a certain amount, the cursor moves correspondingly (factoring in a natural acceleration factor). In 3D space, the entire view moves instead of the cursor, but the relationship between physical change and virtual shift is preserved.

Compare to aiming with a thumbstick. Now, if you want a certain amount of change, you can't move the corresponding amount with your hand. Instead, you have to hold the stick in the desired direction for a variable length of time, then ease it back into position as you reach the target. If the target is moving, you can't follow its movement directly. You have to match its vector, both in direction and in amount (scaled to the bounds of the joystick).

Is there a way to solve this, and to make console shooters less tank-like? Probably not. You can't link movement directly to thumbstick position, because there's no way to reset the view center (you can't pick up and move the stick to its new position like a mouse). One fascinating idea I've seen is to replace the thumbstick with a trackball--as a long-time Logitech Marble user and RSI victim, I heartily approve of this idea. It will, of course, never happen, even though it would be tremendously awesome.

But short of reinventing the hardware, which no-one but Nintendo seems interested in, designers can at least minimize the annoyance. I noted, while I had a working XBox, that I found Gears of War much less fiddly than most shooters on the platform, probably because its emphasis on cover lowers the importance of precise aim. Gears gives much higher priority to movement, where consoles have an advantage in analog control, for getting behind cover and spraying suppressive fire. It also uses the cover mechanic as a way to guide players into a two-level stick sensitivity--when popping out for aimed shots, the view zooms in to make up for the stick's imprecise movement. Finally, the art design in Gears strongly supports the "feel" of its control: tank-like aiming seems natural given the hulking, ungainly build of Fenix and the other characters, in a way that it feels unnatural for most nimble FPS protagonists.

The best argument I've seen for why mouse hasn't been added to XBox, given the USB ports that could obviously support it, is that it would segment the player population: mouse users would have an clear advantage over the others, an advantage they would have effectively gotten by paying for it. It's unbalancing to give players with more money a leg up, and I can see why they want to avoid it. But when I'm playing the single-player campaign at home, I'd like to be able to do it in comfort instead of fighting constantly with the controls. The inability to do so is a constant source of frustration. Of course, this is a microcosm of the entire console-vs.-computer debate--my preference for an adaptable, hackable platform explains why I identify as a PC gamer in the first place.

August 10, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Wii Point

For my own reference: WiinRemote connects a Wii remote to a Bluetooth-enabled computer for manipulating the mouse cursor or keys.

Because I could buy a Bluetooth mouse, or I could just use one of the Wiimotes that we've got, and that we almost never use...

April 14, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Tough Scrape

To: SquareEnix, makers of Chocobo Tales
CC: Everyone else making games for DS

Dear entertainment software teams,

So, how about those minigame collections? I see that you've discovered them again. As long as they don't wear out their welcome, either in the individual segments or the overarching structure, I approve. But let me make a quick suggestion: any game, micro or otherwise, that involves scribbling furiously at the DS touch screen needs to be redesigned, ASAP.

Because while you may be thinking that this is going to be an enjoyable diversion, I'm thinking it greatly increases the risk of gouging deep scratches into the screen, and that makes me twitch a little. Repeat after me: the stylus was not meant to be used as a replacement for button-mashing.

Sincerely,

Thomas

Tip for protective DS owners: If you don't particularly care for screen protectors, but you need to pass one of these obnoxious minigames, a piece of scotch tape makes a fine temporary solution. Just lay it down across the screen, scribble away, and then peel it back off. This used to be the height of Macgyver-style cleverness back in the early PalmOS community.

January 25, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Armed and Dangerous

As Hackaday observed, I wish I had an industrial robot to play with. A couple of robotic engineers linked the Wii controller up to a robot arm with a fast response time, and quickly had it playing tennis or swordfighting. The motions are basically canned and matched to a set of prerecorded swings, but they explain how it could be converted to a more real-time system.

I wonder what the price tag on one of those arms would be? Not even just for this. I'd train it to spray water at the cat.

December 12, 2006

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Rise Up with Fists

The news that the motion-sensitive Wii controller can be used with a Bluetooth-enabled PC is both intriguing and puzzling. It's intriguing because the Wii remote is relatively cheap, considering its capabilities, and probably very durable.

It's puzzling because once I got it hooked up, I have no idea what I'd do with it.

Frankly, the Wii likely makes a poor mouse. We've got the Gyration Air Mouse at work, and we usually end up using it like a regular mouse on the table. On a system where the interface can be designed for shaky hands (i.e. large buttons, forgiving dead zone, circular menus), it's probably much easier to use, but computer interfaces have gradually become more and more precise, with small OS widgets and lots of data onscreen. It also looks to me like it requires the sensor bar to handle yaw measurements and pointing with any degree of accuracy (although let's not be conventional--turning the controller to its NES-style orientation solves that problem, and would certainly be more usable for the Half-life 2 video that's floating around).

So I've been trying to figure out what I would do with something that could measure force in three dimensions, but not position or relative orientation. Knowing my obsessions, I've been trying to relate it to gestural control in music without having to write a really complicated wrapper for it. I'm not coming up with much. Any ideas?

August 27, 2006

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Soap

This project for a wireless mouse controlled by rolling it around inside a cloth sack is very cool--they're calling it soap, because it's like rolling a bar of soap in your hand. Cheap and easy to make, too. Cue lots of jokes about dropping the Soap, but it does look like a really good way to control a GUI wirelessly without having to use a surface or adjust to a trackball. I'm filing it under Gaming because they tested it playing Unreal Tournament.

December 28, 2005

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Circuit Bent

You are looking at the new remote control for my computer. When I read a while back that the xBox controllers are just USB devices with a funny plug, I knew eventually I'd be buying one, even though I don't own Microsoft's jumbo-sized console (nor do I feel any particular urge to do so). Much to my surprise when I picked up a used wireless Pelican pad, I also discovered that the same programmer who reverse-engineered the xBox controller drivers had created an effective key-mapper for Windows, including mouse control. I've been looking for one of those for years.

I don't play console games on my PC, and I don't really want to. What I can use the Pelican to accomplish (when it works, because apparently it isn't really the most reliable hardware) is to run my .mp3 player, along with my DVD player and occasional light web browsing. That sounds pretty trivial, but the ability to move around my playlist while the computer is locked, or to pause a movie from across the room (my PC is my only DVD player right now) is uncommonly handy. It's cheaper than a "real" wireless computer remote, and all it took was some soldering.

This is probably how hardcore circuit-benders start. Circuit-bending is the repurposing of everyday electronics for new tasks, often musical--Speak N' Spells that act like synths, Furbys that sing as a chorus, and keyboards that don't really key any more. My xBox pad doesn't do anything near as complex, or require anything near as much skill. But now I've started thinking about new applications for it, just with software. There's a program called Rejoice that controls midi instruments with a joystick--with the dual thumbsticks, could I create a virtual theremin? Could I run a drum machine, even down to individual drums (kick on the triggers, snare/toms on one stick, and hat/cymbals on the other, with samples on the buttons)? What about a synth? And perhaps most interesting, because the gamepad has become pretty a widely accessible control mechanism, could I just hand it to an audience member and invite them to join the show?

Ever since I started working on Electroplankton as a musical tool, I've become more and more curious about using games to redefine the relationship of performers, instruments, and audiences. After all, I could probably give someone a 30-second tutorial in the Luminaria or Lumiloop, and then turn them loose for a jam. There used to be a band called Dog Talk that would pass out percussion instruments during its shows, so that everyone could be a part of the music. If my experimentation works out, audience members for the Four String Riot may be able to do the same, but with a circuit bent twist. If you were there, would you join in?

November 16, 2005

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

DrumPad update

I'm still working, off and on, with getting my gamepad drumkit running. The Pelican has been ditched for an outlandish Spider-man pad ($20 and more reliable) which you can barely see in my last studio shot. It's ugly, but it works, and it matches the new bass.

Here's the point: before I was interrupted by the new job and a host of other priorities, I had built the basic skeleton of the drum machine in Excel using Visual Basic for Applications. I did this for three reasons: Excel has a warm place in my heart as a prototyping framework, VBA is quick and easy, and it's a reasonably portable build without resorting to Java--I'm convinced that Java is a language designed by spiteful CS professors just to annoy me.

However, I'm running into two problems and a possible solution. The first problem is latency, which may be due to the ControlMK application, because I didn't seem to have any problems with it when I just used the keyboard to play the kit. I can handle a slight delay in the controls, but too much and my drummer will sound permanently drunk. Realistic? Perhaps. But too frustrating for the audience member using the pad.

Second, VBA--and possibly Visual Basic, period--doesn't have an easy way to mix non-blocking sounds. The kit plays fine from the keyboard, but only one sound can be heard at a time. I need at least two sounds at once (kick and snare, for instance), and optimally three (both "hands" and a "foot").

Now, the possible solution is that I do have a free copy of Visual Basic.net, ordered through some twisted Microsoft promotion. Once it's installed, and I work out all the kinks with my laptop and the .net VM, I could have a real programming environment instead of just a handy scripting language. But I'm guessing I still need a library that will handle joystick input and sound output to conquer my problems.

Let's make something clear: I really don't want to learn how to open and lock displays, or initialize subsystems, or do my own mixing. I haven't done hardcore programming in a long time (nor do I want to), and when I did it was mainly clever greyscale hacks. Surely there's something out there that can do the heavy lifting for a simple task like triggering .wav files, right? Any suggestions?

Future - Present - Past