Since the earliest days of video games, the industry has done an extraordinary job of making controls more complicated. Atari games could be played with a joystick and a couple of button; with NES games, all you had at your disposal were A, B, Start, Select, and a D-pad. Now, the "traditional" controller is an ergonomic marvel loaded down with joysticks, face buttons, triggers, bumpers, and still that old D-pad for good measure. All three major console companies are working with motion-based controls as well, and Nintendo is in love with touchscreens and tablets. But are we really any better off?
In a few genres, we're doing fine. Games like Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man offered perfect platforming controls decades ago, and modern titles like Super Meat Boy and 'Splosion Man prove that developers still haven't lost the touch. Racing games can be as user-friendly (Burnout) or as realistic (Forza) as you want them to be. The controls for first-person shooters have more or less been standardized, whether you're playing on console or PC.
But why are there still so many games where the controls just do not work?
The free-running controls in the Assassin's Creed series are a great example. Sure, what the developers are trying to do is pretty difficult: The main character needs to pull off a variety of movements, from running to climbing to hurling himself off of tall buildings, on short notice and with great precision. Further, all this takes place in a 3D environment, and you can adjust the camera however you want, which throws off the movement controls. But this series is home to four games and counting, and it has brought in millions for its creators. You would think that a well-funded team of top-notch developers would pretty much have this down by now.
And yet even in the most recent game, Revelations, it's frustratingly easy to send Ezio hurtling to his death when all you were trying to do is hop over to the next ledge. The "claw" grip—the right trigger plus the bottom face button—is needed to make him run at top speed, but it also sends him clambering up every wall and lamppost you run past. AC is supposed to be an exhilarating experience—when you look at the city, full of huge buildings, you're supposed to know that you can go anywhere you want at great speed. But it often becomes a comical slog as you miss jumps and unintentionally climb walls as heavily armed guards hack away at you. The team behind Assassin's Creed 3 promises that the controls will be overhauled for this next installment, with the trigger button bringing your character to top speed all by itself, and the face button required to make him climb tall objects. I say it's about time.