Survey of game movement control options

Note: This survey is not comprehensive yet. I may expand on it later as needed for my own game development. It’s current state is sufficient to lead me to a solution for my current needs.

As I have been working on my next game, the issue of controls has been of great concern. Usability is something I think is very poorly implemented in most of the computing world. We live in a world where defacto is often given a high weight, and a steep learning curve is often considered not worth it to obtain a more optimal solution. I think this can stifle innovation in many cases. I like to explore. So, here is my attempt attempt at classifying all of the different possible mechanisms to control movement in a game. For this, only options that are available to home PC users with keyboard and mouse are considered. Options obtainable only by alternative controllers are an interesting separate subject.

  • Indicate a direction
    • Keyboard with arrows, asdf, numpad, etc.; mouse by movement, clicking, or dragging. (or joystick for those that have them)
    • Examples: FPS, shooters
    • Pros:
      • Direct control (if that is desired)
      • Keyboard provides high temporal precision
      • Possible to be “precise” in 3D, but limited in granularity
    • Cons:
      • Low input bandwidth
      • Very low decision/action ratio
  • Indicate an arbitrary point
    • Primarily mouse clicking. There are ways to accomplish the general case with keyboard via screen subdivision but is likely  except in special cases. May involve pathfinding.
    • Examples: RTS
    • Pros:
      • Direct control (if that is desired)
      • High spatial input bandwidth for the mouse case but tradeoff for mouse imprecision
    • Cons:
      • Low decision/action ratio (though can be less low if zoomable)
      • Difficult to do in 3D
  • Choose one of small number of points
    • Keys directly mapped (mouse clickables also possible, but far less efficient). May involve pathfinding.
    • Pros:
      • High precision
      • Medium decision/action ratio
    • Cons:
      • Low input bandwidth
  • Manipulate behaviors
    • Choose between preset behaviors
      • Keys directly mapped (mouse clickables also possible, but far less efficient). May involve pathfinding, optimization and/or AI.
      • Pros:
        • Can have high decision/action ratio
      • Cons:
        • Player may feel less “in control”
        • In some cases, may limit possible actions of player
    • Choose and weight preset criteria
      • Keys can be directly mapped (mouse clickables also possible, but far less efficient). Involves optimization and/or AI.
      • Pros:
        • High decision/action ratio
      • Cons:
        • Player may feel less “in control”
    • Write code for behaviors
      • Including both textual or visual, this can be as simple as “go north” and “eat apple” in text adventure games, or visually manipulating logic and operations, or as complex as supporting a general purpose scripting language.
      • Examples:
      • Pros:
        • Highest flexibility, power, and possibilities
        • High decision/action ratio
      • Cons:
        • High learning curve
        • May be too difficult, time consuming, boring, or uninteresting for some users


  • I should better specify low/high bandwidth, precision, and performance.
  • Input bandwidth is the amount of information from the user into the computer
  • Decision/action ratio is an important concept to me I’ll explain in another post.
  • Direct control: some players/games consider being in direct control part of the immersion of a game, but in other cases, it can be distracting or tedious. It depends on the goals and approach of the game and player.

Some thoughts on hard science fiction in space

I’m going to use this game as a way to discuss some of my thinkings regarding “hard science fiction” in space games.

Starfighter, Inc. Kickstarter

First of all, I expect this will be a great game, and I’m looking forward to playing it. So for all I say here, it is not a criticism of the game itself, the efforts and brilliance of its creators. Secondly, the kickstarter page doesn’t use the term “hard science fiction”, but this article does:

Starfighter, Inc. is go for Launch

Putting “hard science” into a game is something I prefer, and think it should be expected rather than something special. I thought it was absolutely hilarious when I was playing a “space” game and when I moved left and right the “spaceship” would rotate left and right like an airplane. It was comical. These guys aren’t going to do that, great. But the article mentions “hard science fiction” which is something far more than just including newtonian physics. So how far are they taking it? Authors’ attempts at “hard science fiction” typically break down fairly quickly. Here are comments on some things from the above two links:

Ship designs: In the article, they recognize that the ship designs that they are actually showing on the kickstarter page are not hard sci-fi based. They are eye candy. I could describe why they don’t make any sense, but since there is already agreement, let’s leave it there.

“Pilot a single-seat recon ship”: Why would there be manned recon ships? I can’t think of a good reason. Risking an expensive trained pilot would be far less likely than using mass produced unmanned probes. We’re already seeing that trend today in the real world, let alone 200 years in the future.

Human controlled turrets: Software can outperform any human in targeting a turret. We are already very near the point where we could develop software that could optimally control turrets. In 200 years, it will be technology that would have been taken for granted for a long time.

“decks… are perpendicular to the thrust of the engines”: For that to mimic gravity you would have to be constantly accelerating with no stopping or even slowing ever. “The whole time you’re moving through space, you can walk around like you have normal gravity.” Uh, no. There’s a lot could be said here, orbit, fuel, using planets’ gravity, 1 g requires a lot of thrust vs. efficiency of propulsion technologies, etc. that makes it unfeasible to always have 1 g, but… I’ll leave it at that. It’s true that doing it perpendicular might make more sense, but the assumption that that will give us normal gravity for most of the trip is unlikely.

Weapons:  “mass drivers, lasers and nuclear missiles” “And while it’s possible to engage at very long ranges, the chance of success at those ranges is minimal due to the target’s countermeasures.”

First the key thing: against a sufficiently close and slowly moving target: a computer controlled laser will never miss. That makes missiles useless. And by “sufficiently close”, I mean not close at all. We already have technology that can “hold a laser beam focused on a dime 400 miles away,” the hubble telescope. 200 years from now, targeting will be a non-concern.

Lasers lose very little energy across distances in space, so if any countermeasures exist for them, then they apply at all distances so either they can be long distance overpowered snipers, or they can be worthless.

Mass drivers might make sense but it seems that sufficient armor would make them ineffective.

“If I pull up on the stick…”: Spaceships will not be controlled with a stick. I understand that Star Trek only mildly attempts at realistic sci-fi, but the point where they pulled out a joystick on the bridge achieved a new level of absurdity far beyond my ability to suspend disbelief. I’m still gobsmacked just thinking about it. There is no way a human can pilot a ship better than a computer in the near future. We’re not quite there today, but we’re already close enough to make it a foregone conclusion.

I apologize this post probably comes across as critical. To soften that, I want to emphasize that “hard” sci-fi is just that: hard. Extremely hard. So, I saw this as an opportunity to put forth some ideas that have been formulating for a very long time. It’s part of a much bigger issue about giving up realism for the game. It’s my opinion, and goal, that one can make an extremely realistic game that is still very interesting to play. But it requires an immense amount of careful craft in creating controls, mechanics, etc.

Also, it relates to the game I’m working on right now. Especially the two points about software controlled targeting and movement are issues I’m tackling and will be taking forward more and more across the games I plan to produce over the coming years.

Indie Games are the Particle Swarm Optimization

I just read this wonderful article: Brain Wave: The PhDs Changing Games and had to write a post about it. First of all, it’s reassuring to hear that others are scrutinizing things at the same level of detail as I do. Second, for the shock to keep you reading, this article is completely incorrectly titled. It should read: “Brain Wave: The PhDs Making Games the Same”

Consider the search space of all possible video games. The AAA studios that have the resources to do what this article discusses start in one place on that space. There are several starting points based on genre, but they start with the tried and true. That fundamentally means that the absolute best they can do is find a local optimum. They will spend millions of dollars moving up the optimization hill, when just across a valley there might be a mountain they could climb to many times the height.

“It does make it harder for indies to keep up with that because they don’t have the same kinds of resources and the same kinds of labs,” he says.

Indies don’t need to keep up. And the gaming world does not want indies to keep up. It would be a horrific tragedy if indies just focused on keeping up. Why?

There is a near infinitely sized search space of video games. AAA titles put enormous amounts of resources into developing a title.  They can’t take major risks. But indies can. Indies can do anything. They can create a zero player game. They can create a game where all you do is hit the screen occasionally. Probably with your forehead. Really hard. They can explore game concepts that AAA studios can’t even dream of.

Indie developers are the particle swarm optimization to continue the search for global optima.

Each indie developer can start anywhere in the search space. They could build something that seems utterly absurd. Will it be at a local optimum? Certainly not. They don’t have the resources to do that. But it might be 1/4 of the way up a huge mountain. And that huge mountain may be so high, that 1/4 of the way up is already higher than the hill that the AAA’s are so expensively trying to go the last little distance to the summit (remember 80/20 rule).

It’s likely indie developers don’t even realize that they’re part of this global search process. I think it’s wonderful. I’m very grateful that I get to be a part of it. So, my fellow indie developer, if you ever get discouraged, remember you really are part of something larger. Something global in scale–the global improvement of games in general. The fact that you’re a randomly chosen point in the search space and the function might not be differentiable… well, it’s ok. We love you anyway.

Experimental Keyboard Control Design

We are experimenting with a lot of gaming concepts in Quip nebula and one of these concepts is how we deal with keyboard controls.

The reason why we are exploring new keyboard controls is to provide solutions to the following problems experienced by gamers using typical shortcut controls. . .

  • Gameplay can be interrupted when gamers need to look at the keyboard to make sure they hit the right shortcut keys.
  • Accessing shortcut commands can be difficult when playing in the dark or with one hand.
  • Gamers must memorize and practice many shortcut keys to be competitive.

Our Quip Nebula keyboard shortcut system will experiment on the following ideas.

  • Creating a control system that will make the game playable only by one hand on the keyboard.
  • Having the keyboard controls spatially related to the items on the screen.
  • Gamers can also choose to play the game using entirely the mouse or the keyboard or both.
  • A keyboard shortcut system that can be easily accessed even by non-touch typing gamers.

Who would benefit from this new keyboard control setup?

We are optimistic that gamers who are fond of multi-tasking like eating while playing will appreciate the new keyboard shortcut system we are developing. We have a poem that we have painstakingly come up with after hours of pondering and contemplating in pseudo Zen-like meditation that accurately portrays the entire goal of this new system of keyboard controls.

With one hand, I explore the stars,
With the other, I stuff my face,
A yummy taste of burrito heaven.

Yes, with one hand, you can eat your favorite meat-filled tortilla snack and have your other save the entire universe. Anyone caught putting that poem to music will be embarrassed across our social media. So please let us know if you do.

We are aware that our approach to keyboard controls may result in a steeper learning curve for some gamers, but we are confident that this is an experiment worth exploring.