The original Xbox controller was huge…in size. If you listened to the Xbox Turns 10 Major Nelson show you would hear about how the Xbox team settled on the Duke Xbox controller. Settled is the important word here, because it’s clear that the people who worked on the controller knew that something was off about it.1 Microsoft later shipped the Controller S model for the original Xbox, a smaller Xbox controller made for human hands.
With the Xbox 360 Microsoft proved that they learned their lessons from Duke. In my opinion they surpassed both original Xbox controllers by leaps and bounds with the Xbox 360 controller. I’ve used video game controllers since I was a little kid and out of all the ones I’ve used the Xbox 360 controller is the closest to perfection.
The layout and size of the 360 controller feels just right to me. All my fingers have a place to go. My thumbs naturally rest on the analog sticks. My index fingers rest just right on the triggers on top, which is important for Microsoft since Halo set the standard on how first person shooters should work on consoles.
But it goes beyond the layout and how big the buttons are. The remaining three fingers on each hand don’t just dangle around in the air—Microsoft made the Xbox 360 Controller big enough so that all three of those fingers would naturally lay where they could firmly grip the controller. The analog sticks are concave, so your thumbs can stay inside the sticks, rather than merely sitting on top of them. The trigger buttons have an upward slant so that your index fingers can’t stray far from where they should be. The 360 controller weighs 9.35 ounces, so it doesn’t feel like it’s going to go anywhere. All of these design choices let the 360 controller feel secure in your hands.
Since my 360 died I haven’t used this controller much since I got a PS3. But every time I use the PS3 controller I appreciate how good the 360 controller is and for a moment consider sacrificing my principles to go back into the 360 fold.
My biggest criticism of the Dual Shock 3 is that it’s pretty much the same controller as the original Playstation controller, minus the addition of rumble and analog sticks.2 Sony didn’t add analog sticks to their controller until the Dual Shock debuted in November 1997, two years after it launched in North America. In 1999 they released Ape Escape which was the first Playstation title to require a Dual Shock controller.
I mention this only to put the Dual Shock 3 into its proper place in time, because the currently shipping PS3 controller is essentially a controller from 1997. The Dual Shock 3 controller still gives the D-Pad the left thumb sweet spot in the age of Battlefield and Call of Duty. The D-Pad is a priority on the Dual Shock, but how often do games use the D-Pad these days? D-Pads get used for secondary actions like selecting weapons, not for primary actions like moving, which is what analog sticks are used for.
Yet, the analog sticks on the Dual Shock 3 are demoted. It’s apparent which one should get priority. Using an analog stick on a Dual Shock 3, to me, feels awkward because I have to stretch my thumb out to do those common things.
The placement of the analog sticks is the most immediate flaw on the Dual Shock, but after that it’s death by a thousand cuts. The shape of the analog sticks are convex, not concave, so your thumbs don’t get a sense of security when using the analog sticks. A small PS button is placed awkwardly in the center of the controller. Pressing that brings up the PS3 cross media bar, similar to how pressing the Xbox button brings up the Xbox Guide, but the Xbox guide button is at the top out of the way, whereas the PS button is dwarfed by the analog sticks.
The trigger and bumper buttons are little bumps at the top. The curves that are on the 360 controller’s triggers aren’t present here. The Dual Shock triggers haven’t changed at all since 1997, before the deluge of FPS games that came out for consoles after Halo proved it could be done without feeling weird. Dual Shock 3 weighs less than the Xbox 360 controller, which makes it feel cheap. And the three fingers that had a sense of place on the Xbox 360 controller? They just dangle from your hands because they have no place to go.
The result is a control experience that makes it easy to mistake one button for another. I always feel like the controller is going to slip out of my hands.
I’m hopeful that Sony creates something new for the PS4, but it appears that they’re going to try milking Dual Shock for all it’s worth.