Friday Debate – It’s time to ditch the D-Pad

When Nintendo introduced the idea of four directional buttons to mainstream audiences outside of arcades with a handheld version of Donkey Kong, it was a revolution. Here was an idea, that just about anyone could grasp within seconds. Press left to go left, press right to go right etc. The directional pad would soon evolve and go massive with the classic Nintendo Entertainment System console, creating a hardware feature that everyone from Sega to Atari would adopt in kind.

The D-Pad was, is and most likely will still be a concrete feature in any video game controller. Maybe it’s time to dump it in the trash of history.

I look at controllers today, and they’re ergonomic beauties. From the rumbly goodness of the Xbox One input device, through to the Dual Shock’s wondrous touchpad and perfection personified in the Nintendo Switch pro controller. The big three all have a D-pad link in common, which I believe is holding games back today.

There’s only so much real estate that designers can dedicate to a controller, with old-fashioned directional inputs taking up at least a healthy quarter of what’s available for your hands. If you’re using the same input ideas for games all the time, then sooner or later you’re going to hit a creative block. And before you too frothed up, yes I am aware that the D-Pad is still the best when it comes to playing certain genres.

Hell, the fighting game fans among you are probably calling for my head here, but get this: I am the world’s greatest digital punch-game player of all time (It’s true, go look it up or gaze at my spray-painted cardboard World Title belt) and I prefer analogue sticks. The D-pad is quickly becoming a niche way to play games, much like fully dedicated steering wheels are for racing games and waggling your arms around futilely in virtual reality wiggle experiences. Those are still valid input methods with their own smaller audiences. Maybe the D-Pad should join them.

I’m not saying that the traditional controller needs a radical redesign, merely a certain portion of it. In a future where games will be determined not by how they look as soon as the 4K uncanny valley is breached but rather how they are played, someone needs to take that first step and present a new idea to players. Valve’s Steam controller might be a good example of this, but I think the industry can do better.

It’s time to ditch the D-Pad once and for all. Because tradition is merely the baggage of the past. What do you think?

Last Updated: September 15, 2017

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