The British design agency Cxpartners has a nice little infographic showing the phylogeny of video game controllers since those prehistoric days of Odyssey and Atari.
The diagram maps key design transformations, from wireless control (Atari’s 2600) to motion detection (Mattel’s disastrous Power Glove), against time. The conclusion: Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “better.”
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Take the Power Glove. Released for Nintendo in 1989, it was a radical departure from the controllers of the day, the first to dispatch a player’s hand gestures to the TV screen. But it was terribly imprecise; it all but guaranteed Mario would end up in some fiery pit whether you knew your way around the Mushroom Kingdom or not. So it flopped, which the chart makes pretty evident. Note that more than 15 years pass before similar technology comes out.
Contrast that to PlayStation, which started out with good controllers and made incremental improvements over time. Or Nintendo’s successful designs, like the super-old school d-pad (at the top of the chart) and the Wiimote (at the bottom). As Cxpartners’s Steve Cable tells it:
“The d-pad was designed because a conventional joystick would not fit on a handheld clamshell device that needed to fold. The Wii mote was designed because Nintendo were in a loosing battle in an arms race of hardcore gaming machines. They needed to re-think gaming as a whole, which included how games are controlled. This shows that innovation in interface design can be a great success, but you should only use it if its absolutely necessary.”