There's a lot of vintage Peter Molyneux doing the rounds right now, thanks to a spate of interviews before and after the Fable designer's decision to quit Microsoft in March. Here's a chunk from the Soundbytes section in the latest issue of Edge, plucked (I suspect) from a Game Developer Conference interview, in which the Molynaut takes issue with samey design. "Every single controller-based game I pick up now demands that I strap my left hand around the controller, my thumb to the thumbstick," he declared, adding later: "every experience on Xbox is the same."
Molyneux's capacity for standing on verbal chairs is legendary, as is his more recent devotion to controller-free gaming, and here as elsewhere it's easy to pick holes. The Xbox 360 pad has played host to experiences as wide-ranging as Catherine, From Dust and Halo Wars: claiming that all three titles are identical because they share a handful of basic inputs is like claiming that all English novels are identical because they share a language. Oh, Peter. You're such a big silly. Getting all carried away with yourself as usual.
Nonetheless, there's a germ of truth here that's worth chewing on. Modern analog stick controllers like the Xbox 360's old faithful are triumphs of ergonomics, yes, compressing a range of options into something that grips the palm naturally. But their versatility has limits - or rather, they do some things better than others. And the result is that certain types of game get a bigger slice of the pie.
It's probably a mistake, for instance, to attribute the first-person shooter's popularity solely to franchises like Call of Duty, Halo and Battlefield. A crucial underlying factor may be that the analogue sticks suit first-person shooting down to the ground and back, allowing the player to swoop the perspective gracefully yet efficiently. The intuitiveness of this has transcended ubiquity. Were I dumped into a mirror dimension in which down is up, black is white and Notch is a Twitter-averse, clean-shaven suit who executive-produces Harry Potter games, I'm fairly sure I could still play any given Xbox 360 shooter with my eyes closed.
Conversely, analog isn't so hot when you're dealing in precise, staccato actions - scanning a complicated inventory, or sidestepping an attack in Street Fighter IV. D-pads fill the breach to an extent, but prolonging an input is more awkward, and you sacrifice control over the speed of movement. For the sake of fighting games at least, some sort of halfway house seems necessary.
Molyneux's quitting Microsoft lends his aside to Edge more weight than might otherwise be the case, of course, but the controller conversation is worth having for other reasons. Eighth generation machines are even now mustering in the shadows like a pack of Balrogs, taking shape under a bombardment of leaked specs. That the Xbox 720 will be a more powerful, better connected machine is an idea we're all entertaining. That it will offer a controller alongside the next wave of Kinect technology also seems likely. But what form will that controller take?
Matt argues that Microsoft should keep the Xbox 360's design, and with some reason: the more established and standardised the hardware, the wider the catchment area for software sales, and the freer developers are to focus on the ideas, rather than how they're achieved or sold. "Wild innovation might get old-school gamers like us excited, but the masses thrive more on familiarity," he observes. "There are millions of casual Call of Duty players out there who've spent years learning the 360's controller. Will these guys appreciate having to learn afresh?"
They probably wouldn't - but then, they won't be the first people buying Xbox 720 anyway. And the equally unappealing opposite of a console that's too damn newfangled for comfort is one that's crushingly staid. I don't want to pay £300 or more for the privilege of playing today's shooters in higher resolution. And if the Xbox 360 pad returns in force, I suspect that's what I'll be presented with.
It's not like I have a single replacement in mind. Kinect's fun, but it imposes design priorities of its own. I just want there to be alternatives, however fruity, so developers aren't lulled into worn-out design orthodoxies by an omnipresent hunk of plastic. I want at least a modicum of change, something to unseat the apple cart. Don't you?