Saturday, 25 June 2011

Innovation: The Directional Pad (D-Pad)

In 8brit’s “Innovation” feature we will be looking at great innovations in the history of gaming. Moments and developments that permanently altered the course of the games industry, enriching the gaming experience and evolving the medium. This first edition focuses on that basic staple of the gaming controller – the humble D-pad.

The D-pad, for those who are perhaps uncertain, is the four-directional cross input method found on many gaming controllers. Now, this is a challenge that is achievable but also one that can be taxing - think of a dedicated gaming device that hasn't had in any way, shape or form, a D-pad? The elder statesmen among you may have instantly leapt to the Spectrum ZX-8 or perhaps the Atari 2600 which featured keyboard control and joystick/paddle control respectively. But regardless, since its introduction the D-pad has become ubiquitous, and although not as widely used today as in its heyday, a consistent staple of gaming controllers.

The D-pad in its modern form was popularised and introduced by Nintendo with the Donkey Kong Game & Watch handheld. As always, necessity is the mother of invention and the design of the D-pad was driven by the difficulty in implementing any of the contemporary control schemes in a handheld such as the Game & Watch. Although credited with the D-pad's invention and certainly the holder of the patent for the most recognisable form of the D-pad, Nintendo didn't draw the notion from thin air but rather developed existing concepts, including the Intellivision's 16-directional circle pad, into the simple but intuitive D-Pad we know today.

The reasons for the D-pad's success are easy to extrapolate. While a joystick offered an intuitiveness of its own, the nature of the joystick meant that the user had to make a relatively distinct physical motion with their hand to indicate a direction, this coupled with the physical size of joysticks at the time meant that, while easily accommodated by arcade machines, as the home-gaming movement flourished it was only a matter of time before an alternative was sought.

Unlike the joystick, the D-pad is discrete and controlled by a slight movement of the thumb. While it achieves nothing that four distinct buttons in a diamond arrangement couldn't achieve, the use of a cross with arrows indicated clearly to gamers what the D-pad did and allowed easier manipulation that individual buttons.

Nintendo's patent for the recognisable cross-shape that it utilised in almost every significant handheld and home console release following the Donkey Kong Game & Watch meant competitors had to find unique, often insufficient ways, to emulate this control method. Sega, that once bitter foe, tried introducing an unusual square shaped D-pad with its Master System controller before settling onto a more commonly used disc-shape for the Mega Drive.

Sony found it’s own innovative side-step, maintaining the standard put in place by Nintendo but, on the surface at least, superficially separating the cross into four buttons. Importantly, the basic technology "under the hood" so to speak was unchanged, under the plastic casing the four "individual" buttons led to a disc that functions much as any other D-pad. In the picture below you can see the exposed component that connects the four apparently individual buttons within the controller.

Microsoft also opted for the frequently used “disc” variant of the D-pad. Interestingly, however, noting the insufficiency of their D-pad in fighting games such as the popular Street Fighter 4, Microsoft introduced the “transforming” D-pad with it’s most recent variation of the Xbox controller. This D-pad can alternate through a clever twisting motion between the standard disc-shape and a Nintendo-esque cross variant.

Despite having lost ground to the far more versatile and popular analogue stick, another innovation largely credited to Nintendo and the N64, the D-pad continues to evolve and see developments. Notably Sony introduced an analogue D-pad with the Dual Shock 2. Most D-pads are digital and have two states, on or off – a button is either depressed or not. An analogue input has a variety of states, ranging from unpressed to fully depressed.

An analogue D-pad, for example, would mean that a game could read how hard a player is pressing and adjust the ingame movement accordingly. This move to an analogue D-pad echoes the development of analogue triggers – whereas the N64’s were digital and either on or off, modern triggers such as those found on the 360 controller have a range of states.

As is increasingly being recognised, different games operate best with different control schemes. Not only do some games function best with motion control, but there are even layers to which form motion control is most appropriate. Although the D-pad is now resident in a competitive sphere - it's most recent challenger, the circle pad, usurping it on the 3DS - it is, nonetheless, still there. Here lies the mark of true innovation, the D-pad has, since its introduction almost 30 years ago, persisted, and will almost certainly continue to persist into the foreseeable future. It is the implementation of a simple idea that was born out of the need to tackle some of the logistical limitations of the dominant control schemes in the late 70s and early 80s and one whose very appearance has become all but synonymous with videogame as a whole.

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