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Click. Click. Click. Click. That was the sound we heard as we went inside the previously secret lab where Microsoft is testing game controllers for the Xbox One game console. It’s the sound of a robot pushing a controller four to five times a second, which is probably faster than you’ll be doing if you get your hands on these controllers. At the Xbox One revelation yesterday, Microsoft took the press through the labs to show how thorough its research was in devising a controller that was just right for you.
Game controllers are a critical accessory that can make or break a system, particularly for hardcore gamers, who develop passionate feelings about the devices that they hold for hours at a time. If there are problems with the controller, it could cascade into a general dislike for the console, which is anticipated to be a multibillion-dollar platform. Fortunately for Microsoft, the feedback yesterday from people who held the controller is positive. It isn’t dramatically different from the current Xbox 360 game controller, and that’s a good thing.
Those with long memories will remember what an embarrassment Microsoft faced when its first game controller for the original Xbox in 2001 was too large, partly because it required two slots for bulky flash storage cards. Anyone with small hands couldn’t even wield the bulky thing well. Microsoft quickly redesigned the controller to be smaller. Since that time, the company has learned a thing or two about industrial design.
With the Xbox 360, Microsoft created a widely acclaimed console controller with the help of outside industrial design companies such as Astro Gaming in San Francisco. But this time, Microsoft was able to do a lot more of the process inside its own walls, said Carl Ledbetter, the senior principal creative director and a leader of the Xbox One industrial design. During our tour, Ledbetter said the team in one building could create a design and walk it over to the Model Shop in another, where Vince Jesus, the lab director, could print out a 3D prototype. That enabled Microsoft to preserve secrecy on the whole project more easily.
“We could bring people in-house and watch them play games in Studio B,” Ledbetter said. “We watched them, with their permission. We videotaped them.”
One of the big changes is a new magnetic trigger that feels different when you pull it. The haptic triggers give you immediate touch feedback. The device also has much more accurate and nuanced force feedback. Older controllers would simply shake when you were shooting a gun or during an intense part of a game. But the force feedback on this sends you different signals depending on what is happening. If you are driving a car, you can feel the bump of the wheels on the road, and you get a different sensation when you hit the brakes.
You can also get precise feedback that feels like a beating heart. Together with the fact that the new Kinect can actually detect your heartbeat, this feature could make for some very interesting effects in future games. The device can simulate a different kind of feedback when you fire a gun. You can feel the rumble of helicopter rotors in another demo.
The device does not have a touchpad or “share button” like Sony’s does with its new PlayStation 4 controller. But Microsoft’s device includes an infrared LED on the front of controller to enable seamless player pairing and identification. Using Kinect, Microsoft can clearly identify a person who is using a controller. The results — players easily jump in and out of games.
Ledbetter said that gamers didn’t really complain about the Xbox 360 controller. But there were things that annoyed them. People with bigger hands felt the battery case on the bottom of the controller get in their way. The screw holes on the bottom of the grip and a plastic seam were also things the gamers could feel. This new controller removed those problems. The seam no longer runs across the bottom of the grip, Ledbetter said. You can still change the batteries. Everything felt nice in my hands.
“People were sensitive to the holes, but we took close-up photos in tests and could tell,” Ledbetter said. “These are things that make it a better product. We wanted it to be more comfortable and we wanted a wider range of hand sizes that could fit it.”
The new controller weighs almost the same as the current Xbox 360 controller. But it feels different because its center of gravity has changed. The battery pack used to be perpindicular to the controller’s front, and it jutted down from the bottom of the controller. Now it has been turned sideways and it is embedded in the body. That was enough to shift that center of gravity so that it feels different in your hands. The AA battery case is still removable. The new controller feels lighter.