So I recently jumped back into the age old debate of controllers vs. the keyboard and the mouse. This argument is an old favorite of mine because I honestly believe that the player matters more than what controls they use. After all, U.S. pilots in WWII created tactics for defeating the much more nimble Mitsubishi Zeke. Not being one to trust the debate to words alone, I set out to prove that the difference between controllers and keyboard was minimal.
The first thing I did was installed Pinnacle Game Profiler on my computer and boot up the Unreal Tournament 3 Beta demo. I had originally downloaded the UT3 demo to see how hard it would hang my computer but, amazingly enough, it ran. I say amazingly because my system specs are:
2Ghz AMD 64 3200+ (single core)
2 Gigs of DDR RAM
512 Meg GeForce 7300 SE (PCI Express)
So yeah... It was astounding that UT3 ran on it at all...
I found that I could run the game with the textures and post processing cranked and still get about 15 to 20 frames per second. This turned out to taint my results a little bit, as you'll see later.
Back to the story, I was unable to find anyone that was willing to duel me and allow me to post the results on YouTube. So I had to use my own performance with the in-game bots as a guide. This isn't that big of a deal since the Unreal Tournament series, as anyone who's been in the FPS scene for any amount of time will tell you, has the best bot AI in the industry. Even at their highest difficulty setting, the bots don't cheat. Let me restate that: The bots don't cheat. And the bots don't have to cheat, they're that damn good!
For the sake of the test, auto aim and mouse smoothing remained off. The initial results seemed to confirm the bias that a keyboard and mouse was superior, with my kill ratio dropping from 5 to 1 against average bots with a keyboard and mouse to 2 to 1 with a controller. At this point I was wondering if the results were just a product of my lack of experience with the controller. So I spent several hours over the next two days practicing and, sure enough, I was able to pull my kill ratio with my controller even with that using my mouse and keyboard.
The catch was that the controller still felt too jerky in it's movements. Often times I would find myself tensing my entire arm and hearing the creak of the controller under my vice-like grip because of the unconscious feeling that I lacked control. The mouse and keyboard controls felt smoother, but still more stuttery that what I was used to in an FPS. A light went on above my head and I decided to take a new track with this. I installed the earlier Unreal Tournament 2003 on my computer for the next batch of tests.
Unfortunately, the installation wouldn't accept the CD-Key that I bought it with and I didn't feel like downloading a Key generator off of the web for software that I had actually paid for. Thus I had to download the demo of UT2003 and use that for the test. The only reason I bring this up is because this is part of the reason I've been slowly migrating to consoles over the last five years or so. Console games don't treat me like a fucking thief when I decide to play them again five years down the road.
At any rate, after I installed the UT2003 demo and downloaded the controller profiler for it, something magical happened. The experience of playing UT2003 with a controller was no different than playing it with a mouse! I was completely shocked. I wasn't just winning by grabbing armor and splash damage weapons either. I was making headshots with the lightning gun! HEADSHOTS!!!! And that's without auto aim of any kind!!! Not only that, but I was able to do this against bots on the skilled difficulty level!!
At this point I know that many of you are going to say that I suck because I was only playing against skilled bots and not Adept, Masterful, or Godlike. Truth be told, I have trouble against Adept bots even with a keyboard and mouse. This has never stopped me from finishing in the top three during 16+ player deathmatches on public servers though. I guess most people that play either suck really badly, or just don't practice with the bots before going online.
This is hardly conclusive evidence, but it does hold more weight than someone who has only played one console FPS game on the Nintendo 64 when they were in grade school. Maybe this would be a good time to explain a few things about controllers and console FPS games in general.
How Auto Aim Works:
There's actually no single answer to this. Every game does it differently. In the early N64 games, there was the crosshair magnet method that would drag the crosshairs over the nearest enemy on the screen. This method was used blatantly in titles like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. Later, developers started using a sticky crosshair that would automatically lock on to any enemies it passed over until said enemy died or the player nudged the right stick away from the target. You can plainly see a sticky crosshair at work in the XBox version of Doom 3. Finally, there's the crosshair aim skew. The skew is a very subtle form of auto aim that you aren't really going to be aware of unless you're looking for it. In this technique, aim is skewed to hit anything that falls within the bounding box of the crosshairs. Let's break this down a little more...
With regular aim, you generally have a point that's very close to one or two pixels on the screen to determine the vector of a projectile to the opponent's bounding sphere, cylinder, box, or whatever. With aim skewing, the crosshairs become a bounding plane and any point within that plain can be used to make a vector to a target. In layman's terms, if it falls within the crosshairs you can hit it. This happens whether you're firing a shock rifle or an M4A1. You don't see the gun adjust to the new vector, the bullet just hits.
Skewing works in more modern settings because we expect the recoil on something like an Uzi to have a wide firing cone. It doesn't work so well with the example of the shock rifle since the energy beam moves in a laser beam straight line.
But if console controls are not worse than a keyboard and mouse, why did auto aim get implemented at all? That's because it was only recently that controllers got good enough to use without auto aim.
A Brief History of The Joystick:
Okay, so I'm not going to go all the way back, just to the Atari 2600. Most people don't know this, but the 2600 joystick was really just a five button controller. When you moved the stick, there was a plastic piece that would push these bubbles (buttons) on the sticks board that corresponded with the direction that you pushed the stick. Nintendo built on this by adding three more buttons and ditching the illusion of a stick when they brought out the NES. Interestingly enough, home computers like the Commodore 64 and Apple II used joysticks that were set up the same way.
Somewhere between 1986 and 1990 however, PC joysticks began using the voltage in two pointometers to determine the X and Y values of a joysticks position. This was a boon to flight sim fans who required a greater level of precision in order make the games they play feel more like actually flying. Consoles of this generation were still stuck on digital and even arcade machines used digital sticks.
This shifted with the release of the N64 and arguably the ugliest controller ever made. It's kind of interesting that while consoles generally launch with the most sophisticated graphics hardware available, they're generally cheap when it comes to everything else. The best example is the original Playstation that, after a year, wouldn't read discs unless you turned it upside down. A lesser known example is the cheap analog controls of the N64, which was of a much lower resolution than its PC analog counterparts. The smoothness of analog was apparent however, and Sony was quick to release the Dual Shock controller that was just a smidge more sensitive than the N64s stick.
And that's pretty much where we stayed until the XBox 360 came along. As far as I know, Microsoft made the original XBox controller to the specs of Sony's Dual Shock controller. Also as far as I know, Sony hasn't changed the specs of the Dual Shock stick one wit since it originally hit the market. Microsoft on the other hand, improved the sensitivity of the controller and drastically reduced the dead zone of the sticks on the 360 controller.
To put a finer point on it, controllers have evolved to the point that they no longer handicap a player that's using a controller. Nowadays, it's just a matter of what you prefer.
Of course, there's a much easier way to settle this. If you own a PS3 you can play UT3 with a Keyboard and a mouse. I'm not sure if you can play it split-screen but you can always find another PS3 owner at the yacht club and have a quick controller vs. keyboard and mouse duel while comparing the size of your trust funds just before jetting off to Milan to have sex with high society hookers that look like super models.
Just be sure to let those of us who work for a living know the results, eh?