In his first Develop column Billy Thomson, the creative director of the newly-formed developer Ruffian games, takes a look at the art of designing workable control schemes.

Ground Control

I know, it’s a cheap pun for the title to my first column, but allow me to redeem myself. Because it ties in perfectly – work with me here – with one of my strongest views on game design: that control is everything.

As far as I’m concerned, as a designer the control system is the launch pad for every gameplay feature you’ll ever add to a game. Even the strongest, tightest design can fail to take off if you don’t get the controls right.

I see it far too often in games where it’s obvious that the team has spent a large amount of time and effort designing and implementing an impressive range of cool features, only to ruin them at the last minute by making a complete arse of the control setup. It’s so infuriating because it’s not that difficult to avoid.

In this column I’ll try to list and explain all of the mechanics and methods that I generally employ to ensure that the game has a solid, intuitive control system that compliments the feature set.

Obviously, different genres of game have completely different features and game mechanics which lend themselves to different types of control methods, so for this article I’ll focus purely on the type of control you would need in an action oriented game of the first and/or third person nature.

Reaction Time
Whether the player presses a button to initiate an action or attempt to interrupt one to perform a new action, I believe they should get an instant reaction on screen. My preference is to instantly perform the action expected rather than delay; so when the player says jump the player character had better jump. I don’t want to see a laborious animation leading into a jump, I just want to see them jump. The same thing goes for interrupting animations. It should be instant control over aesthetics every time.

The best controls barely need to be taught to the player, they just instinctively know what to do. Usually this is due to the fact that the controls are in some way familiar to them, due to their previous experience with another game that had similar features with the same button mappings. It’s not lazy design to use an existing control method: if it’s been done before and it works well, don’t feel the need to re-design it. It may make you feel better as a designer, but the player won’t thank you for it.


Good control systems allow players to perform multiple actions at the same time so as to perform more complicated and generally more effective actions; like jumping into the air, throwing an explosive barrel, taking aim, then shooting the barrel causing it to blow up as it lands at the target’s feet. Fantastic! If you’ve got your controls mapped properly this series of events will be possible with relative ease, if you’ve got them wrong it will likely be a difficult and frustrating task that will very rarely be used. The key here is to ensure that linked actions can be performed at the same time with different fingers and thumbs. Tangled fingers at any time means you’ve failed.

The best games make sure that there is always consistency to the controls, ensuring that any new equipment or abilities that are presented to the player later in the game use similar methods of control to the equipment and abilities that preceded them. This ties in closely with Familiarity, but this time it’s the controls that they were taught earlier in your game rather than a previous game that make the difference. If you get this right you should be able to introduce new features to the game without the need for constant tutorials.

Finally, I’m a great believer in making controls easy to pick up and play for beginners so that everyone can enjoy your game, but I also try to make sure that there is enough depth to the features and controls to allow players of higher skill to master the controls and become a far superior player. If you have any sort of online element to your game then this level of depth and mastery of the controls is vital to create a vibrant and competitive online community.

These may well seem like obvious areas to focus on, but in my experience too few games appear to have taken all of them into consideration. As far as I’m concerned, if you manage to nail all of these areas you’re going to have the best control system possible for your game. Fail in more than a couple and it’s likely your game will fail to take off in the way you had always intended it to.

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