Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

Archive for January, 2012

The “ABC”, Part I

Recently, I’ve been getting back into fighting games, and one thing that’s piqued my curiosity is joystick-less controllers, or “All Button Controllers”, otherwise known as ABC.  As I get older, I find that the joystick maneuvers are the parts that I get hung up on more than the button sequences or timing.  That, and I’m becoming very aware of how good / bad some games are about joystick input philosophy.

You know the urban legend about the origin of the QWERTY keyboard, right?  That it was intentionally designed to slow typists down because of the physical hammers that could easily jam?  Not exactly true, but it seems that some fighting games are embracing that notion for the same reasons.

The design of character inputs has to be a very tricky thing, but it feels as if the inputs that the designers demand in certain games aren’t the most elegant; they’re there to slow you down and create an artificial barrier between those that can and those that can’t.

Dhalsim in SFIV has a “bnb” (bread and butter) combo that involves sb. mk to lp hcb (yoga flame).  So that means you start with back + medium kick, then within just a few frames have to push the stick all the way forwards, do a half-circle down and back, and hit light punch.  Personally, I don’t know why they didn’t optimize Dhalsim’s flame attack when they had the chance — some earlier games switched it to just a down to back fireball motion — but whatever.  The link is inelegant and has a barrier to effective use; they even removed some of his other combos that were elegant (c.lk to fb, for example). It’s as if they intentionally wanted to slow ‘sim down and make a barrier to better play.

Not all of SF is like this of course.  Most of the shotos’ have a classic combo (j. hk, c.mk, fireball) that’s a great example of good flow.

KOFXIII seems to embrace flow.  While they have even crazier narrow timing & input windows than SFIV, they made most characters have very elegant combo input design; the combos flow from one move to another, typically ending the last input in the start location for the next input in the combo.  This makes it more about getting the rhythm down for timing, not the input itself.

When it comes to me and using a joystick in fighting games, I’m better being on the right side and doing motions that face left than I am on the left of the screen doing right-wards motions; my muscles just work better for motions in that direction.  I’ve tried to practice on this, and yes, there’s improvement, but it’s slow going, especially for things like dashing — I just have to move too many muscles to get the inputs correct.

But with buttons, that’s pretty much eliminated.  So, I’m going to try it out and see if it gets me closer to what I really want: A fighting game experience that’s less about input challenge and more about timing and appropriate usage of the character’s skills.

Currently, in the world of ABC, there’s only one commercial one on the market, HitBox, which I’d happily buy (and still will) once the 360 ones are available.  The wait has been frustrating though, as they’re reliant on a PCB from Japan and it’s been… dragging.  So while waiting, I decided I’d make one of my own.

Of course, I could just buy a wired controller from the MS store and hack it into an ABC with little effort… but what’s the fun in that?  If I’m going to do this, I need to do it right.  So what does that mean?

  • 360 / PS3 / PC support
  • Sanwa or Seimitsu buttons
  • SOCD cleaning
  • Built from scratch (no modding of one of my existing sticks)

So yeah, not as simple as just soldering up some inputs and done for me.  If you want to do that you can wire directly from a PCB in a pad, and if you want to mod an existing stick, there’s a lot of great parts you can get for Matcatz TE / SE sticks that make it rather painless to mod into an ABC.  But I don’t want to touch my TE stick, and my SE one already has a CHiMP in it, so those are out.

So, from scratch it is.

The PCB

There’s lots of choices you have for what drives an ABC.  Like I said, you can use pretty much any wired USB controller and get it working with some soldering for any one specific platform.  I’m just being difficult by wanting one that supports multiple consoles.

When it comes to going multi-console, my choices for PCB are limited.  Toodles has a bunch of great stuff on his site you could use, and there’s also eTokki who offers the Joytron PCBAkihabara shop will have one (the one that Hit Box is waiting on) as well. Although I think that Toodles and Akihabara have superior products (simply because they can be firmware updated), I went with eTokki on this project because the PCB looked relatively painless to work with. I also ordered a joystick and button wire harness to keep the board clean (my soldering isn’t horrible, but having organized cables is nice) and a few cable loops to keep the cables organized when I install it.  I also picked up some PCB mounting feet (3 for the board, 2 for the SOCD) to make everything cleaner inside the case.

So, total so far: $79 (shipping eats $10!)

SOCD (Simultaneous Opposite Cardinal Directions) cleaner

There’s a big debate in the fighting game community about ABC input mechanics, since essentially, you can block in two directions at once, which a joystick just can’t do because of the physical limitations of being tilted in one direction or the other.  So when it comes to games, many don’t know what to do when two opposing inputs are held at the same time, and you can get random results from the software.  Hence, the SOCD cleaner.  You can wire your inputs to do exactly what you want when multiple opposing inputs are held together.  This gives you guaranteed consistency in results.  The HitBox has this built-in, but he Joytron does not.

Toodles makes a SOCD cleaner kit, which costs a whopping $7 (shipping is $6).  You have to solder it together yourself, but it’s pretty straightforwards.

Total now: $92

Buttons

Of course, for an ABC, you need buttons.  At least 12 of ‘em (8 buttons for attacks, 4 for direction), not counting the start / turbo / back / home buttons.  The HitBox features a larger jump button than the other inputs, so I decided to do something similar.  That means I need 15 24mm buttons and one 30mm button in order to cover all inputs.

You have lots of choices for where to purchase your buttons.  There’s plenty of good online suppliers in the US (such as lizardlick) or you may have a local arcade supplier in your town who likely carry buttons.

This brings the question of panel thickness.  For snap in buttons, you’re assuming a certain thickness tolerance for your panel and plexi. Personally, I prefer screw-in buttons since they can handle different panel thicknesses easily.

Of course, again, here I decided to get fancy, and fancy = $$.  I ordered from Akihabara, and not just buttons, but the clear Seimitsu buttons you can use LED rings to light (Toodles can hook you up on those and the controller board for ‘em as well).

With the current exchange rates (and pretty steep ($23!) trackable shipping) for 17 buttons (I got one extra) from Japan, that’s another $69.

Current total: $161 ($39 of which is shipping!)

Now if you’re keeping score, the Hitbox is $159.99.  In a nice sturdy metal case.  All assembled for you.  With Sanwa buttons.  Bottom line, it’s a really good deal.

My .02: If you’re going multi-console, there’s no reason to build one yourself.  The Hit Box guys are giving you a great product at a reasonable price.

But of course, I can’t get a Hit Box for the 360 yet, so my project will continue.  Parts are all due in over the next two weeks.

Up next, case planning and layout.  There’s some inspiring stuff out there.  I may attempt laser cut acrylic for the case, as we have a local shop in Seattle that can do the work.

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