In 2003 I wrote this preachy little rant about how gamers and developers could benefit from adding trackballs to their controllers. Enjoy!
The trackball is a better control mechanism for console first-person shooters
I’ve occasionally heard people say "thumbsticks are just different – Once you get used to them, they work as well as a mouse". But those who have used both extensively will tell you that there are major differences. Here is what we know:
With joysticks, you do not directly control the position of your cross hairs. You control the rate and direction at which it moves across the screen. For example, if you move the joystick slightly to the left and hold it, the cross hairs will move slowly until you bring the joystick back to center. That means that every movement of your cross hairs actually involves two small movements in the joystick. This is a subtle difference, but it is multiplied thousands of times when a game is played.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, cross hair movement speed is capped with joysticks. "Twitch" movement is all but impossible when using a joystick to control your view. In fact, the higher the maximum speed allowed with joystick control, the more imprecise the joystick becomes. Theoretically, the same is true with mouse or trackball control (ever maxed-out the sensitivity of your PC mouse?), but to a much lesser degree.
With a mouse or trackball, you control the rate and position directly. If you roll the mouse to the left and hold it, the cross hairs will do the same. This is a fundamental advantage in usability, as there are less movement decisions to make and less potential mistakes overall.
Although there is a theoretical limit to cross hair speed/sensitivity with mouse and trackball input, accomplished users can achieve near-instantaneous "twitch" movement with them. Obviously, this is not desirable in every game, but the speed can easily be limited by game developers, when appropriate. Good things happen when game developers are given more freedom.
A trackball controller will allow for other game genres on consoles
Real-time strategy games like Warcraft would benefit greatly from a trackball gamepad. These types of games were originally designed for PC’s with mouse input, and that is still the best platform for them. Click-and-drag, multiple-selects, and clicking way points are fundamental to RTS games, and mouse-style input is the simplest way to do it.
Adding a trackball to controllers and gamepads opens up new possibilities in game design. Imagine being able to play classic trackball-based arcade games like Centipede and Golden Tee the way they were meant to be played. Developers would be able to create new golf, bowling, and other types of games well-suited for trackball input.
Trackball controllers would be better for the console maker
By now, just about everybody you know has used the internet. If you’ve ever used an internet browser, you’ve used a point-and-click interface. Game and console developers could decrease the learning curve for their software by taking advantage of pointer-driven interfaces. This is primarily a benefit to the console maker, because a shorter learning curve ultimately opens the doors to a wider market, and creates a competitive advantage.
A neat additional benefit of implementing pointer-driven interfaces in console games is that user interfaces could be standardized between PC and console software. This would naturally decrease development time for games developed for both platforms.
Feel free to comment below with questions or suggestions