Microsoft Doesn’t Understand The Point of the D-Pad

Posted in Xbox 360 by Michael Pica on the September 16th, 2008

It’s obvious that Microsoft JUST DOESN’T GET IT…

They obviously don’t understand why people use the d-pad and they obviously don’t understand the problem with the current one. All you have to do is look at how well the D-Pad functions toward it’s intended purpose to realize how epically their chosen design fails.

They’ve been bashed on the d-pad problems since the early days of the 360, to be perfectly honest the Xbox 1 d-pad was pretty bad as were the d-pads on most of the old Sidewinder PC game pads they produced way back when. They’ve obviously heard the complaints because they’ve done market research and are planning on releasing a new controller with an “improved” d-pad but the changes they’re making are a step in the absolute WRONG direction.

Eurogamer reports that the new and “improved” d-pad features 32 direction inputs. This is astounding… They just don’t get it… In the words of XKCD “You’re Doing it Wrong!”
I truly believe that the problems with the d-pad’s original design are due in large part to the fact that MS doesn’t understand why it’s used. The 360 controller has some additional design problems that probably weren’t intended.
The D-Pad is used in situations where the user wants the console to understand an EXACT input. This is different than an analog stick where the idea is to interpret the exact position of your thumb. with a D-pad  you want the input to interpret the users actual intent. It’s usually a good vehicle for this because it’s simply 4 buttons, so the user can put a direction or a combination of directions and the game does not misinterpret what the user was attempting to accomplish.

In a typical 3D game a gamer will use the analog-stick They’ll input a direction that’s roughly where they want to place movement and they’ll use visual feedback on the screen to help fine tune their input on the stick. That is perfect for a 3D environment and any type of input where you want something to move “that way” where “that way” isn’t an exact direction and changes with the movement of the in-game camera.

The D-Pad is completely different. People keep saying “precision” but to be honest, everything on a controller is about precision. The D-pad is REALLY about INTENT. Lets use Dance Dance Revolution as an example. playing DDR on the controller is a very good example of why the d-pad exists. The game is about timing and matching. There is no “that way” there is “up”, “down”, “left”, and “right” The user isn’t trying to input “up-ish” they’re trying to input UP and ONLY UP, and NOTHING ELSE. Now Lets apply their new 32 direction d-pad, will that work better for DDR? NOPE, because there’s too much noise and the user’s intent gets lost.

Really the D-pad should be nothing more than a second set of ABXY buttons  that just happen to be all connected. How would the user feel if they tried to push A and half the time it interpreted A+B? That’s the frustration most classic gamers feel with the D-Pad

Microsoft seems to think that the D-pad should be surrogate Analog stick, as if people don’t like the action of the stick so they use the d-pad instead. That’s not the point. If I want to use something with 32 direction then I’ll use the analog stick plain and simple. The analog sticks purpose it to offer non-discrete directional input. If I want to use an input where the console has no chance of misinterpreting what I am telling it, then usually I turn to the d-pad, but that is unfortunately lost with the Xbox controllers.

If I can’t navigate an on-screen keyboard or similar menu without occasionally seeing the cursor move some place I didn’t intend it to move, then the d-pad has completely failed.

Lets take a look a the design flaws one by one

Pad Thickness -  If you pull open an Xbox 360 controller you’ll find that the D-pad is quite thick meaning the distance from the thumb surface to the actual mechanical interface on the circuit board is excessively large when compared to other BETTER D-pad Designs. This causes a problem because the larger this distance the more difficult it is for the user to push the right button. When you push down on the button it’s like an inverted balancing act, the button pad inside the controller becomes a pivot point and the user is forced to balance on that point less they accidentally push directions adjacent to the one they’re intending. Imagine if you will attempting to balance a quarter on your thumb versus a broomstick, now nudge your finger in a certain direction to move the thing your balancing. Obviously this is an extreme example but the concept is the same. The thicker the d-pad the more difficult it is to input discrete actions without any “accidental actions” getting entered as well. This is the same reason the Xbox 1 D-pad was a failure as well
Sensitivity -  Another thing that doesn’t do the Xbox 360 pad any service is the fact that actual buttons on the surface of the circuit board inside the 360 controller are incredibly sensitive. Combine this with the fact that when you push a direction adjacent directions are semi-depressed as well. This is a change from the Xbox 1 design and it seems as if it was done intentionally (again more reason to believe that MS just doesn’t get it). These design characteristics lead to more and more accidental direction inputs.

Manufacturing Tolerances -  This is perhaps the most noticeable failure of the Xbox 360′s D-pad design. The “slop” between the d-pad and the shell of the controller is large enough that the pad can actually float off to one side and when the user pushes that direction the d-pad will hit the shell. This results in an audible “tap” and can actually prevent the controller from registering the input being pushed. Essentially the shell stopped the d-pad movement before the button on the circuit board was fully depressed resulting in the user KNOWING they pushed the button because they heard and felt the button “tap” but the game simply ignored the input as if it wasn’t pushed. Experiencing this in a menu is annoying, experiencing this in an intense game can be infuriating.

Tactile Feedback -  Not a major issue, but important if you want the d-pad to be perfect. The user needs to know exactly how their thumb is positioned over the d-pad before they push it, the shape of the pad and or bumps leaving tactile clues as to the direction is important. Users get this on the analog stick with the spring resistance, but on a d-pad it should be more like reading braille. This needs to be in good balance though because if the bumps and edges are too sharp it can be painful to use. Along with this feeling a satisfying “tap” when pushing a direction and a similarly satisfying “pop” when the button is released and returns to it’s un-pushed location is important to good d-pad design. There should be no semi-depressed direction on the d-pad, every direction should be depressed, or not depressed, and the user should know exactly which is it from feel alone.

Other Controllers do a pretty good job of this. Nintendo has never made a bad d-pad, some of them are a little on the small side for some users but their mechanical design and tactile feedback is DEAD ON. Sony’s D-Pads are fantastic as well with their only real problem being that the physical shape of the pad is uncomfortable on the thumb during long play sessions and in my opinion their pads can be a hair on the stiff side. Sega’s D-pads are hit or miss. The Dreamcast suffered from the same problems as the Xbox controllers, the Genesis 3-button was good in theory but was overall too large. The gen 2 Saturn controller was probably the most perfect D-pad ever made, with just the right balance of accuracy and comfort.

A Test I would like to propose to the Microsoft Engineers. If your D-Pad passes this test then it’s a good design. Use the d-pad to navigate an Excel spread sheet. Allow users to tap cell to cell where 1-tap = move one cell. allow them to move in any of the 4 diagonals by pushing two directions at once. Make it a game where a cell lights up and the user has to navigate to the cell. If they can do this for say an hour without ever seeing the cursor move in an unintended direction, without ever seeing the cursor move two space to one press, and without having a sore thumb. then you’ve succeeded in d-pad design.

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2 Responses to “Microsoft Doesn’t Understand The Point of the D-Pad”

  1. mholt215 Says:

    Wonderful… Totally agree with everything said.

    If it wasn’t true, then why would modders such as RDC go through such trouble to take the D-Pad out of a PS3 controller and stick it into a 360 shell?

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