Random Access Controls

March 10, 2022

The Dev Game Club podcast sat down with Halo: Combat Evolved designer Jamie Grisemer to discuss the origins of Halo’s development, constraints that turned into boons, and design considerations that have become staples in first-person shooters today.

I was particularly fascinated by their discussion around controllers, limited input, and removing friction from action at timestamp 57:43:

Jamie Griesemer: I think a really fundamental aspect of… I think it is Bungie’s design, but also my own, is something I call “Random Access Controls”. You can activate any ability with one button press. There’s no state or preamble.

When we were working on Halo, the way that you would add a grenade to your game is that you would switch to the grenade weapon and use the fire button to throw it. Everybody did it that way. We were like, “I just want to throw the grenade now!” Melee attack is the same way. You don’t switch to a melee weapon. It’s like, “now!” It’s all available right now with no delay. I think that makes your experience much more engaging because instead of having to plan to throw a grenade with your conscious mind, it moves it down into the hypothalamus; like, “no, I’m just going to react with a grenade.” At that point, the controls are just going to disappear and you’re not thinking about the controller or the keyboard or whatever anymore. You’re just thinking and having actions happen. I think that’s a really important aspect of games, that I enjoy at least. So I definitely try to recreate that.

Brett Douville: If you have to plan, you’re never going to touch the right stick. You’re never going to switch the weapon.

Tim Longo: You snuck in there “the triangle” (melee, grenades, guns). You melded it into the thirty-second conversation. You wouldn’t have that otherwise. It would be so inaccessible if you had to switch between all of those modes. As it is, you can react on the fly and tap, tap, tap.

JG: We called it the “Golden Tripod”. It keeps them all top-of-mind.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot over the current project is… we’re developing it for the PC and it’s really tempting when you have a whole keyboard in front of you to just invent a bunch of new abilities and just assign them all to different letters and numbers and what not. But I really think the controller is the complexity that it is and no more complicated because that’s kinda the maximum number of things you can have at the top of mind. Like, you wouldn’t improve the Dualshock by adding eight more buttons to it. It would just become more difficult to use, I think at that point.

I wonder if controllers got more complicated because players got more capable of holding all those actions in their mind at once.

TL: I think there’s actually some papers out there about this — the evolution of Nintendo’s controllers specifically — and how each one of their generations brought something new, like the D-pad and then the analog stick… not to give them all the credit, but there’s an evolution you can see; gamers evolving with it.

BD: It’s interesting that you don’t really see that with arcade controls. Those just locked into a stick and two or four buttons. They were always kind of limited in that way. They never matured because you never knew who was going to be plugging quarters into that thing. It had to be lowest common denominator. Anybody could walk up to it an do the thing.

This bit pairs nicely with Chris Plante and Jered Petty’s conversation about Wii Sports and the Wii Remote as well as my thinking about there being too many buttons for casual gaming, of which I’m beginning to turn around on.

(Hat tip to Rahim Sonawalla on the podcast recommendation.)