Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

Bad Controllers: The Duke

Posted by nfinit on December 20, 2009

The opening years of the 21st century saw America at the height of its economic and political power. We were loud, we were brutish and we didn’t particularly care what the rest of the world made of us. We had the best economy, we had the best bombs, and we had a government that had no compunction about using those bombs on possibly wholly fabricated political grounds. All in all, it was a great time to be an American.

That political hubris was mirrored in our consumer culture. We didn’t produce a lot, and maybe we didn’t necessarily produce the best quality anymore, but what we did produce was the biggest, loudest, and most excessive– and a lot of these things turned out to be terrible, terrible ideas.

For instance, the Hummer H2

You remember Hummers, right? Hideous beasts driven NBA stars and populist Libertarian governors? They where the very rolling symbol of America’s might and material excess until crude oil hit two hundred dollars a gallon and GM suddenly realized the entire Hummer brand revolved around a fleet of vehicles that averaged 9.5 miles per gallon. Hummer is currently in the process of being sold to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company Ltd, as the Chinese are the target market for hilariously inefficient Chevrolet Tahoe derivatives.

Hardee’s Monster Thickburger

With eight strips of bacon, three hundred grams of beef, approximately seven cubic meters of American cheese and enough calories to feed a Nike sweatshop for a week, the Monster Thickburger remains the ultimate symbol of American culinary might, and was single-handedly responsible for laying to waste the entire genus Bovinicus Angusarius
And the Microsoft Xbox.

The original Xbox was a brutal, clumsy mess of a videogame system; little more than a Celeron-based PC stuffed inside a slab of glossy black plastic. It was America’s first foray into the videogame hardware market since the Atari Jaguar and looked the part– big, loud, uncouth and generally ominous.

At first glance the XB1 doesn’t seem like a failure. After all, it got Microsoft’s foot in the door of hardware development and laid the groundwork for the Xbox 360. However in Microsoft’s haste to produce the Xbox they managed to perform a rather remarkable feat: they produced a console they didn’t own the rights to produce.

Microsoft was operating under the impression that the ready availability of inexpensive Intel CPUs and mid-range Nvidia graphics chips meant that there would be a steady supply of cheap chips and that economies of scale would mean that the system itself could quickly be sold at a profit while at the same time offering a price point comparable to Sony’s PlayStation 2. What Microsoft refused to take into consideration was that it cost Intel and Nvidia money to keep production lines open– Entire fabrication divisions had to be dedicated entirely to producing chips for the XB1. For a traditional console this isn’t a problem– If say, Nintendo found that IBM wasn’t willing to produce Gamecube chips anymore, they could just sell the rights to produce the chip to whatever chip fabricator was willing to submit the lowest bid. But all of the XB1’s chips were owned wholly by their parent companies, and Intel and Nvidia were not willing to produce chips at a discount for Microsoft.

By 2004 Microsoft was selling a rather respectable four hundred-dollar Linux/Myth TV box for two hundred dollars. As a result Microsoft was forced to hurry through a design for the successor, the Xbox 360, cutting the supported lifespan of the first Xbox to an unheard-of four years– And in the process creating a successor console that’s been riddled with production errors to this day.

All of this hubris, this bravado, this complete lack of oversight leads us to this monstrosity:

All discussion about the Duke begins and usually ends with the size of the blasted thing, so let’s get that out of the way first:

In Microsoft’s defense this was the age of Bonds and McGwire and Canseco so maybe Redmond was operating under the impression that Americans would start imbibing human growth hormone to offset the 4200 calories they were taking in by eating at Hardee’s three times a day. Or maybe Manute Bol was on the design team. Either way the design of the original Xbox controller was a farce, and all the more frustrating in that Microsoft had experience creating perfectly competent, if uninspiring PC game controllers:

But then again we are dealing with the same company that would later think that this:

was a good idea, so maybe we should have seen this coming.

But I’d be remiss if I were to cite the staggering size of the Duke as it’s only flaw– after all, I could just put up any number of webcomics from the period and save myself 1400 words and a Sunday afternoon. But this is about more than just the Duke’s pain-inducing girth– this controller’s got issues.

For instance, what’s up with that button layout? Yeah, they managed to shove six face buttons onto a dual-analog pad, but Microsoft was forced to do so in such a way that placed two of those buttons so far north of the rest of the rest that your thumb needed two Sherpa guides and a Snow Cat to find the stupid things. Meaning that for the only real use for six face buttons– 2d Capcom fighters– was ruined.

If anything, The Duke goes to prove why you don’t really need six face buttons on a modern game controller– even if you manage to produce an abomination of a game pad that could actually fit a half-dozen buttons under your right thumb, by this day and age you don’t really want to move your thumbs off the sticks more often than necessary anyway.

Oh yeah, about that:

Apparently at some point in the Duke’s design Microsoft decided that placing your hands roughly twelve feet apart from one another wasn’t enough for the player to easily discern which hand was controlling which thumb– Maybe they had a point there, the nerve damage that came about as a result from using The Duke probably confused the central nervous system of many play testers. So in order to differentiate between the left and right hands Microsoft decided to lift the right thumb stick from designs first described in the lost texts of the Marquis De Sade.

Also there’s this:

At some point Microsoft’s designers realized that creating a game pad the size of a baby’s head would leave an enormous swath of unsightly black plastic sitting between the thumb sticks.  Microsoft’s solution for this quandary was to slap a garish Xbox logo in that space– a huge round emblem that for the world looks like it should do something when pressed, yet is just a big dumb puffy sticker.

But Microsoft needed used the big gulf in the center of the Duke to house twin memory card bays, one of which was used to house a headphone adapter– you may remember that Sega used this vast cavern in the middle of the Dreamcast controller to at least house a PDA– The Big Green X wasn’t even useful in controlling the headphones. It was just there, like some sort of big green supernumerary nipple, begging to be played with but ultimately not attached to anything fun.
Like many failed American ventures, Microsoft was forced to look to Japan to make something useful of the Xbox 1 controller and salvation was

found in the excellent Controller S. Although the S would place the black/white buttons in an even more inconvenient location, by the time the Controller S became the de facto controller for the Xbox worldwide, developers realized the best use for the black/white buttons was as a sort of second and third Select button, used for activating map screens and the like. The Controller S is in fact one of the all-time great controllers– with twin thumb sticks, a decent face button arrangement and twin analog triggers the game pad design had finally settled into a useable standard and would later go on to form the basis for the excellent 360 controller.

But the story of The Duke does have a happy ending– unlike most controllers hellbent on terrible game pad design, Microsoft realized the staggering mistakes made with The Duke and went on to base the Xbox 360’s controller on the successful and beloved Controller-S design– they even remembered to do something useful with the big dumb button in the middle.


2 Responses to “Bad Controllers: The Duke”

  1. hugh betcha said

    The XBox controller was the first one I was actually afraid to throw in a fit of rage. It had the mass necessary to function as a bola, concussing or entangling wild elk when hurled with precision.

    These are incredibly educational segments, by the way. I knew nothing of the taxonomy of Microsoft’s consoles and their monolithic controllers, and I’ve made 2 games for them. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so if it weren’t for you, I very well may have created Tony Hawk: Ride or something.

  2. nfinit said

    The most interesting subtext of Microsoft’s entire foray into the console market is that the ultimate goal may never have been to try and leverage gaming revenue away from the PC, but instead to force Sony into doing something wholly insane with their next hardware revision, such as release a six hundred dollar multimedia center in the middle of a recession.

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