How analog sticks and triggers work on gamepads

The transition of the gaming industry from 2D to 3D coincided with the appearance of sticks and triggers in gamepads. This is easy to explain: the third dimension needed additional controls. Today we will analyze how the analog sticks and triggers of the controllers functioned then and work now.

A bit of history
The first mainstream console was the Atari 2600. It received a controller in the form of a joystick. He read four commands – forward / backward and left / right. That is, with the same success, Atari could have used not a joystick on the platform, but a platform with four digital buttons that recognize only “On” signals. and Off.

Atari 2600

The familiar D-pad – the cross – was popularized by the NES prefix. Its gamepad also had face buttons, or action buttons, and service buttons.

NES gamepad

The manipulator for the N64 introduced millions of gamers to the analog stick and removable vibration module. In the mid-1990s, it was believed that it was the vibration module that would revolutionize the industry, and not the stick at all. In reality, the opposite situation occurred.

Nintendo 64 gamepad

In the second half of the 1990s, controllers began to grow in the periphery. It’s not just about the vibration module. So, for the Dreamcast gamepad, it was necessary to purchase a memory card. It was inserted into a slot in the front of the controller.

Dreamcast memory card

There was a screen on the memory card that displayed, for example, tips during the game. The Dreamcast gamepad is notable for the fact that it is equipped with a stick and two triggers on the Hall sensors. We will talk about this below.

Dreamcast gamepad

In the second half of the 2000s, the fashion for wireless controllers burst out – remember the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Nintendo, meanwhile, experimented with touch screens. The idea, tried out in the portable DS box, blossomed in the Wii U. The gamepad of the latter is a kind of tablet. The touch screen is used to control and display useful information, for example, a map in Pikmin 3.

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While Microsoft isn’t really changing its Xbox Controller, Sony is testing different approaches. On the DualShock 4 controller, she placed the touchpad and speaker underneath. Another manipulator PS4 has a Share button for recording videos and taking screenshots. Before the PS4 / Xbox One era, taking screenshots in games on consoles was problematic, you had to turn to capture cards and other expensive devices.

PlayStation Dualshock 4 Camouflage Ver.2 Camouflage ControllerAn interesting approach was offered by Nintendo in the Switch hybrid console. Its gamepads, “joykons”, are small “bars” that fit well in a child’s hand and tolerantly in an adult’s hand. However, they include the main controls. Both Joykons can be attached to a special holder for a full-size gamepad. The main advantage of this approach is as follows: for “sofa” multiplayer, you do not need to buy a second controller, because there are two “joycons” in the box.

“Joykons”

A modern gamepad usually has analog sticks and triggers, D-pad, action buttons, service buttons, bumpers. And on the “elite” versions of the Xbox Controller, you will find petals. They are placed on the bottom of the gamepad and duplicate the front buttons (if desired, you can configure other commands). Petals are needed when you need to run, adjust the camera and shoot at the same time. This is definitely an evolution: if earlier there were enough thumbs to control games, now in fact, in addition to index and middle fingers.

Variable resistor sticks and triggers
Sticks and triggers are sensitive elements of the controller, they have few “On” positions. and Off. In gamepads, they are based in most cases on potentiometers (variable resistors) and rarely on Hall sensors. Thanks to them, you can adjust the pressure and move the character and the camera in a wide range of values.

Gamepad Microsoft Xbox Wireless Controller white 4 399 *
A potentiometer is also called an analog sensor. If you disassemble any modern gamepad and remove the stick cap, you will see two potentiometers. One fixes the values ‚Äč‚Äčalong the X-axis, the other – along the Y-axis, they are set perpendicular to each other. A spring drives the stick to the neutral position. In a potentiometer, the slider (sliding contact) runs over the resistive layer all the time. As a result, the resistive substance is erased, and plastic dust accumulates on the base. This leads to malfunctions of the stick – it reads the movement when it is not there, for example, your hero is carried away, although you do not touch the stick. To fully understand how it works, watch the intelligible video from the iFixIt channel from 1:26 to 2:20.

The problem described is known as stick drift or drift. It is typical for all gamepads from the second half of the 1990s to the present day. Stick modules for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are purchased from the Japanese company Alps. According to the pessimistic forecast given in the iFixIt video, the potentiometers fail after 417 hours of active play. In fact, it all depends on the controller model. You can hang in virtual worlds for years and not be aware of problems with sticks.

Xbox Wireless Controller

Interestingly, the first potentiometer stick was at the Atari 5200 controller. The console was produced in 1982-1984. Subsequently, potentiometer sticks found use in flight simulator controllers and arcade machines, see Space Harrier (1985).

Atari 5200

In gamepads for consoles and PCs, variable resistor sticks are still the default choice for manufacturers. Whether you are holding a DualShock 4, DualSense, Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 or Switch Pro Controller, be aware that potentiometers are blown out inside.

Gamepad Nintendo Pro grayWith triggers, the situation is somewhat different. But more on that in the next paragraph. In the same, finally, we will briefly touch on the Sony experiment from the PS2 and PS3 era. In the DualShock 2, the Japanese company, using proprietary technologies, made most of the buttons analog, sensing pressing force: front, D-pad, L1, L2, R1 and R2. The option was tested in a small number of games, for example, in GTA and Gran Turismo, where the speed of the ride depended on the force of pressing. In the DualShock 3, the manufacturer reduced the number of “sensitive” buttons, and by the release of the PS4, the idea was abandoned altogether.

GTA: San Andreas

Hall effect sticks and triggers
The advantage of sticks and triggers on Hall sensors is the absence of rubbing and contacting parts. One magnet is inserted into a stick or trigger, Hall sensors are placed on the board under or behind this element. The sensors then accurately track the fluctuations in the magnetic field. As a result, there is no wear and, consequently, stick drift or trigger breakage.

Hall sensor-based sticks have no dead zones either. The dead zone is the deflection of the stick, which the potentiometer does not fix. Very annoying problem especially with cheap controllers.

In the history of the gaming industry, only one mainstream gamepad has been equipped with sticks and triggers on hall sensors. This is a heavy Dreamcast manipulator. The video below shows the controller board and magnets in the stick and triggers. Even 20 years after its release, the Dreamcast gamepads are barely problematic, and the stick travel feels very smooth.

Prior to Dreamcast, Sega tested the Hall sensors in the 3D Control Pad for the Saturn console. In general, the Dreamcast gamepad grew out of it. Sega has released a 3D Control Pad specifically for the arcade game Nights into Dreams by Yuji Naki, the “father” of Sonic the Hedgehog. The controller was compatible with a number of other projects on the Saturn, but was not widely adopted.

3D Control Pad

Hall sensors have limited use in games these days. They can only boast of controllers for the Xbox One and Xbox Series – where they process data from triggers. There are also sticks and triggers on the Hall sensors using the SteelSeries Stratus Duo controller.

So far, in the battle of potentiometers and Hall sensors in the gaming industry, the former have won an unconditional victory. Why won’t platform holders switch to the latter? Perhaps it’s the price or the unwillingness to part with old partners. What do you think prevents Hall sensors from gaining a foothold in the gamepad market?