Joystick Setup – The Confessions of an OCD Space Sim Addict

My first ever computer was a BBC Model B1 which my parents bought when I was about 9 or 10. I credit this machine with two things: firstly it got me into programming and ultimately set me on my current career path; but secondly it also got me addicted to space sims.

Elite, when it came out, was an absolutely ground breaking game in many ways. It was the first game to truly blow me away and, in many respects, I consider it to be the best game ever made. The premiss behind the game was simple: you fly a space ship between star systems, buying and selling goods to make money, and fighting off pirates (and/or the police if you took the piracy route yourself). The implementation, given it had to fit into 32K, was near flawless with eight rich and varied galaxies to visit with numerous star systems and space stations you could dock with. I was hooked, and have been looking for something to match it ever since2.

It’s little wonder that when David Braben said he was raising money through Kickstarter for a new version of Elite I simply threw my wallet at him and say “here, take my money”. I also threw vast sums of money at Ebuyer to order a new gaming rig to handle the game.

The one thing I didn’t have to buy was a joystick. As a long standing fan of space and flight games I’ve owned a CH Products HOTAS3 setup for years. It’s a far cry from my old Elite setup where I had a non-self centring graphics paddle with a single button (made docking a cinch as I could set the ship up and leave the joystick where it was). The CH Products HOTAS I have has 3-axis on both controllers, 4 individual buttons, 3 sets of 4 way hat switches and one 8 way hat switch, for a total of 24 buttons per controller, or 48 physical buttons in total. One of those buttons can be set as a shift button giving you 94 virtual buttons. You can also set one of three modes using another button which, in theory, gives access to 276 virtual buttons, and 18 virtual axis. Finally you can write custom scripts which basically give you any combination of Axis and Buttons you could ever want4.

Personally I don’t get on with the mode settings on the joystick so I tend to just use a single shift button. Also, one of the buttons is difficult to activate thanks to it’s location, plus the throttle axis on the joystick is made redundant by the throttle controller, so generally I set the sticks up to give me 5 axis and up to 92 virtual buttons. That’s still quite a few things to configure, especially when I have my own preference for setting things up and the fact that games never conform to this.

When you consider the above you can start to understand why, for a good game with many configurable controls, it takes me in the order of 3 days just to configure the joysticks. Elite has 8 usable axis and somewhere in the order of 70 actions that can be bound to buttons (of which about 50-60 are relevant as some simply provide alternatives to axis – e.g. bindings for increase and decrease throttle as well as the option to use a throttle axis). Deciding which of the 8 axis to map to the 5 axis I want to use, and where to group the 50 or so buttons takes time. A lot of time.

The new beta release of Elite Dangerous has introduced new control settings which means my old configuration has been lost – annoying, but it gives me a chance to sit down and refine things. This quite literally involved two hours of me sitting at the control settings screen in game, noting down the various controls available on my laptop, and making notes on special joystick layout cheat sheets that I have. I also have the joysticks to hand so I can test out how comfortable/intuitive certain combinations and layouts may be.

Stage two will be to start mapping the primary axis and controls and checking I’m comfortable with those (usually fairly quick as the whole up/down/left/right/shoot thing is fairly straightforward, although Elite prioritises roll over yaw which takes some getting used to). Stage 3 is to then map all the other commands, a process that can take a while to refine as you sometimes don’t find issues with the layout until you’re using it in anger – there’s nothing worse than ejecting from your ship by mistake because in the heat of the moment you pressed down on a hat switch, not forward.

Stage 4 is to actually play the damn game 🙂 Thankfully, with Elite still being in beta and having featuring missing and some annoying bugs I’m happy to just dip in and out getting the setup perfected. It means that when the full version of the game is released I’ll be all set and ready to go day 1.

For those of you who think that investing the amount of time I do into setting the game up correctly is ludicrous, you need to consider that I will easily spend hundreds of hours playing this game (in fact, if I don’t rack up over 500 hours I’d suggest the game didn’t meet expectations). If you’re going to spend that much time doing something you want to make sure it’s setup right.

1 We later upgraded it to a B+ with 64Kb of memory, and a daughter board that contained a spreadsheet, database and word processor all on ROMs which meant loading this applications was incredibly fast.

2 Privateer 2 came close, which is why I’m very excited about Star Citizen and what that may be like. Much as I loved Eve it’s not really flying the ships so not quite the same thing. The X series of games tried really hard, but ultimately they were just too buggy and just lacked… something.

3 H.O.T.A.S.: Hands On Throttle and Stick; a pair of joysticks similar to the setup used in fighter planes where you have the throttle in one hand and the joystick in the other, and then a bunch of buttons on both meaning you can control everything without taking your hands off them.

4 What limitations there are are really imposed by Direct X, not the joysticks.