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Understand and improve game controls
by on 09/27/11 03:37:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



If the controls don't feel right, players might hate the game, even if the rest is amazing. During the past 10 years, I've realized that a lot of game developers still struggle at designing game controls that are optimized, feel intuitive or natural. It's even more surprising that many game studios are already eager to work on motion controls when they barely master or understand the classic controllers of the current console generation (360 and PS3), but I understand the excitement.


Actions and priorities

In order to design greater controls for a more traditional model such as the Xbox 360 game controller, it's important to understand that there are different layers of actions.

An illustration of the different layers of actions

The primary actions are the fastest, the most important. Those are the actions that a player can perform while moving his character and camera at the same time. The primary actions would usually involve:

  • Primary fire such as ''Shoot''
  • Secondary fire such as ''Grenade''
  • Melee
  • Jump
  • Move character
  • Crouch
  • Iron sight or zoom
  • Use/ Interact (First-Person perspective)
  • Etc.

The secondary actions are slower and doesn't allow the player to move his camera, but he could still move in the environment, hide or avoid attacks. The secondary actions would usually involve:

  • Use/ Interact (3rd person perspective)
  • Reload
  • Cycle through weapons
  • Cycle through grenades
  • Etc.

The tertiary actions would be the ones on the D-Pad and would even be slower, because the player can't move his character while doing it, but could still move his camera. Similar to the secondary actions, but just a little bit slower.

The quaternary actions are the ones that are usually located on the Select or back buttons and start. Usually, those buttons aren't gameplay related.


The creation of shortcuts

Sometimes designers struggle when it comes to complicated actions. Fortunately, game controllers might not be a keyboard, but there are ways to offer shortcuts. A good example of that can be found in the Rainbow Six: Vegas franchise in which the player can hold down the reload button and point his left thumbstick in one direction to add or remove a weapon attachment such as a sound suppressor or laser sight.

Logical layout

Sometimes, designers have the opportunity to create more natural button layouts; something that makes more sense. A good example could be Tekken, a fighting game.

X (left): Left punch

Y (right): Right punch

A (left): Left kick

B (right): Right kick


If the front leg of your boxer is left, you might connect the dots and expect that the left punch is going to be used to jab.


The power of the HUD

The HUD can help you make the controls feel more natural. If the player uses his grenade with the left trigger, it would make sense if that information was displayed on the left side of the screen. If he uses the right trigger to use his weapon, that information should be on the right side of the screen.

HUD of Halo Reach

Image of Halo Reach, developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft Game Studios.

The Gears of War syndrome

A lot of current games suffer from the Gears of War syndrome, one button for too many things. By example, we are playing a shooter game and players need to arm an objective. Everyone will try to arm or disarm the objective and die around it. The problem is that they have to use the ''B'' (reload) button to arm/ disarm an objective, but the same button is also used to pickup a weapon. How hard will it be to actually arm or disarm the objective?

That situation can be avoid quite easily, if the players would instead have to hold ''B'' (reload) to arm/ disarm and hold ''Y'' (switch weapon) to pickup a weapon. Make sure while designing the controls of your game that you aren't adding more problems or creating conflicts. Sometimes, it's better to remove a feature.

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Salim Larochelle
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Nice article Christian! It's a great read!

Patric Mondou
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I love your primary/secondary/etc actions approach. Identifying these action layers can indeed be a crucial step towards finding the correct scheme for your game. However, while the most part of your analysis is true for mainstream FPS games, it’s not the always the case for adventure games, platformers, so on.

In Dragon Age, for example, there is only 1 primary thumbstick used for moving around and the ABXY buttons are (rightfully) used for primary actions. In Gears of War, the designers had a good reason for re-using the same buttons over and over: usability. In fact, I feel that most actions that are considered secondary can (should) still be mapped on an accessible button, by assigning many of them on the same one if necessary. Remember Ocarina of Time? The same button was used for jumping, talking, opening chests, etc. Each of these actions taken individually were not used very often, and almost never at the same time as another one, thus allowing them all to be mapped on the same, very accessible button. There’s nothing more frustrating than a forgotten button; one that you so seldom use that you forget its use. There's nothing wrong with using few buttons in a game. The simpler the better!

But all in all, I think every game calls for its own control scheme, based on its features, target audience, mechanics, multiplayer modes, etc. It’s been said here before in an article: there is unfortunately “no control scheme to rule them all”! (

Koodos for the post!

George Blott
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I've always felt that the user should be able to fully remap the controls themselves. Implementing that system allows the user to figure this stuff out for themselves individually, instead of designers having to establish some 2-3 'universal' standards to choose from.