Xbox 360 Controller for Windows: great hardware, weak software [Update 1]

We're going to put the conclusion right here at the top: if you use or would like to use a gamepad for Windows gaming, then it'd be hard to do better than the Xbox 360 Controller for Windows. Nothing tops this controller from a hardware perspective.

However, there are some major software problems that prevent us from fully endorsing the controller. Because anybody can create software to run on Windows, and because Microsoft doesn't manage, certify, or quality-assure software released for Windows, the gaming experience on Windows lacks the conformity of the Xbox 360 gaming experience. You can pick up an Xbox 360 game and be relatively confident that the "A" button will serve as the primary action button, that the right trigger will usually be mapped to "accelerate" or "shoot" (depending on the genre), that the left analog stick will map to character movement or steering, and so on. There is a set of established conventions that lead to ease of use.

The PC environment lacks such standards. As a result, not one PC game in existence right now supports the Xbox 360 Controller for Windows as fully as the Xbox 360 supports the same exact controller. This is a basic issue of menu systems and usability. The image below demonstrates the problem.

Pictured above is the configuration screen for the Xbox 360 controller within the game Moto GP 3. In order to map an action to a certain button, one must click with a mouse or hit the "enter" key on the computer's keyboard. It is impossible to set buttons using the controller alone.

Furthermore, control labels such as "Y Axis" and "Button 0" through "Button 9" are meaningless. What do these buttons map to on the actual controller? When changing control schemes in an Xbox 360 game, developers use small, colored icons to make such configuration tasks painless. Configuring the Xbox 360 Controller for use with Windows games is frustrating and annoying.

The pain doesn't end with configuration. Playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with a keyboard is painful because it's a game that was designed for analog joysticks. And yet, the game is actually unplayable with the Xbox 360 Controller for Windows because the game's developers forgot to allow players to remap the camera controls to a second analog stick. This means that the camera is stuck in one position unless the gamer removes his hand from the controller and uses the computer's keyboard. That's like having to configure your television remote control by setting it down and pushing buttons on the TV itself.

It's unrealistic to expect already-released games to fully support a controller that wasn't even released when they were developing their games. Furthermore, it's probably also unreasonable to expect that games on the Windows platform will ever support the Xbox 360 Controller as fully as the controller is supported on the controlled, simplified Xbox 360 itself.

However, it's not unrealistic to expect Microsoft to cajole developers into compliance, to provide them with tools that make it easy for gamers to use this fine piece of hardware on a PC running Windows. There's some evidence that this is already happening at some game makers.

"Microsoft's new cross-platform controller will make it easier for Electronic Arts to develop games for both Windows and Xbox 360," said John Schappert, Senior VP and Group Studio General Manager for Electronic Arts, Inc., in a Microsoft press release.

That's the promise, anyway. Will Microsoft ever succeed in taming the diverse and wild world of game development for the PC platform? That depends, in large part, on the extent to which the company can make it easy for developers to implement good user interfaces.

When we asked a Microsoft spokesperson about these issues, he responded, "Game developers have had access to the XInput controller API since early October of this year and we have been working closely with industry partners to ensure compatibility between games and controllers."

Still, this controller is good for Windows gamers. No other company has the clout or the resources to encourage developers of PC games to write code that will support a specific controller. We envision multi-platform games being released for the Xbox 360's Live Arcade service at the same time that they're released for Windows Vista. In these cases, the Windows version of games will sport the same, simplified, controller-friendly interface as the Xbox 360 version of the same game.

Until that day arrives, however, we'll remain skeptical of the value of any controller for PC games. The hardware is strong. The software is weak. The holistic product offering is therefore weak.

As for the hardware itself? We summarize:

  • Form factor: it fits well into gamer hands of all sizes. Its feminine curves and attractive colors make it inviting to pick up and hold.
  • Quality: it feels solid. Nintendo's well-designed WaveBird controller feels cheap and flimsy in comparison.
  • Use: The two analog sticks have a bit too much travel in them for comfortable thumb use, especially for smaller hands, but this is a minor detraction from overall solid execution. Four tiny nubs and a concave surface at the top of these two sticks makes them easy to grip and move. The analog triggers have just the right amount of travel in them. The directional pad feels nice, but requires precision use because it tends to register multiple directions even when a gamer feels that he's pushed in just one direction.
  • Annoyances. (1) Cord length is fantastic for console gaming, but too long for PC gaming. (2) The guide button doesn't light up when the controller is plugged in to a Windows PC. It doesn't even do anything. As the physical embodiment of the brand of the Xbox 360, that button should do something, donchathink? (3) The cord also tends to develop minor kinks during normal use. It might look downright ratty a year from now. (4) You'd rather use the cordless model, you say? You can't. Windows only supports the corded controller for now. That's a real bummer, as we've already got too many wires in our computer area. (5) The controller also requires installation of special software. This software is a bit difficult to find on the Microsoft website. (One reader reports that users are invited to download the software from Windows Update upon plugging the controller in, but this was not our experience with installation.) (6) Games generally don't support the controller's vibration feature. It feels dead in the hands compared to the way it lights up and rumbles on an Xbox 360.

[Update 1: Inserted more information about driver installation in final paragraph.]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.