DeadZones: Part One

Apologies in advance to anyone who feels this set of articles is a bit obvious. DeadZones, right? If you don’t have them confused them with a Jason Statham movie, you know what they are, and why they’re there. They’re self evident. Right?

Well, yes, admittedly yes. Mostly. Dealing with deadzones is so straightforward in practice that no-one really ends up talking about the subtleties. There are like, 5 subtleties, I’m guessing. Missing these subtleties creates the creeping irritations which undermine a game. So subtle are these that most players won’t be able to articulate why they’ve not been able to engage fully with the game.

Guerrilla Games QA hard at work on KillZone 2 controls. Sure, they look happy. But they are Dutch.

So yes, we need to talk about this stuff. It’s fundamental. It will save you some time and heartache. And although it’s currently focusing on the XBox 360 controller (thanks commenters: I am aware that other devices exist), there are principles here which expand out into other interfaces.

I tend to find that although games come out with great feeling controls, it’s not without a lot of tweaking. One might think of Super Meat Boy’s control scheme as “simple”, but 2 solid man months of work were poured into getting it just right, and it shows. It’s not just for the end user, either: that attention to detail no doubt made a labour of love easier to develop than if the core game play was off for the entire development*.

This trial and error process is expensive: Just one of Tommy Refenes’ man hours lasts about 28 earth days. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is trivial. The iteration involved is always necessary to some degree, but these articles aim to stop you stepping on some obvious, and not-so-obvious landmines.

Below is a simple little character controller: like last time, you can plug in an XBox 360 Controller, click on it, and start moving the guy around. I’m simply moving the origin of this little capsule around over time, based on the “deflection” of the joystick.

With the raw input signal coming from the joystick affecting the character, notice how hard it is to stand on the spot. Not good if you’re looking to get this fella to move around on tight platforms. If your joystick is especially knackered, it’s a nightmare to re-center the stick perfectly, and your character (or reticle, or whatever you’re controlling with raw analogue inputs) slides around, despite the fact that you may not even be touching the stick at all! This is why games almost always add an area around the zero of a joystick where no through-signal is yielded. This is called a “DeadZone”.

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*Spending every day of development with underwhelming controls is going to get you down. Trust me on this. Trying to add extra features to hide flaws in something so fundamental isn’t fooling anyone, either. Just respect their importance, and fix that shit.

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