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How Microsoft built a better controller ... again

At $150, the new “Elite” controller is a luxury purchase

Microsoft spent more than $100 million figuring out how to evolve the Xbox 360 controller into something suited for the company's next big console: The Xbox One.

It may sound like a lot, but the controller is a player's connection to console and game, an interface that can make or break a new gaming system.

Microsoft needed perfection. Whether that was achieved remains in the hands of the player.

Next week, Microsoft releases a new controller. The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller offers "limitless customization" and "pro-level accuracy." But it also raises the question: How do you perfect "perfection"?

If the Xbox One controller is the realization of $100 million in Microsoft development, all aimed at creating the perfect controller, how can the company release a better one just two years later?

"That's a great question," Navin Kumar, senior product marketing manager for Xbox, told me in a recent chat about the new controller.

In many ways, Kumar says, it boils down to redefining the audience.

"In the arena of controllers in particular we saw an opportunity to deliver more for gamers who play at the highest levels," he said. "I think we've created the most capable controller ever made. We knew it would increase all levels of gameplay.

"We went in thinking that this is for the top one percent of players, but people all across Xbox seem to like it."

Microsoft worked on the Elite controller for about 18 months, he said. The investment was spurred by the growth in eSports as both an activity and as something people watch.

"We started by doing ethnographic research on the top one percent of Xbox gamers," he said. "That was based on tournaments, people who play professionally and gamerscore.

"We evaluated what they liked."


The next step brought Microsoft researchers into people's homes, where they watched these top tier gamers play game.

"We completed a lot of human factor studies around paddles, thumbsticks and D-pad designs as well," he said.

From there, the team narrowed down the things people cared most about, and complained most about with the current controller. Along the way, the designers discovered some of the concepts they had were much more broadly appealing then they thought they would be.

For instance, the controller's hair triggers were designed originally with fans of shooters in mind, but Forza players used them too.

"From there we built a bunch of working prototypes, took it back to those one percent gamers and let them play with it for months," he said. "That helped us lock in concepts and designs."

Improving on the Xbox One controller, Kumar said, was very similar to the process of improving on the Xbox 360 controller.

"I think the thing people liked about the Xbox One controller was the geometry in terms of how it fits into their hands, the build quality, the triggers," he said. "A lot of what we did with designing the Xbox One controller was taking the goodness out of the 360 controller but then we optimized it.

"All of those things came into play with the Xbox Elite controllers."

One of the major things the Elite design team discovered was that pro-gamers and those top tier gamers, are harder on their controllers.

"They expect more and are gaming for hours," Kumar said. "They wear through them faster."

For instance, the team saw that thumbstick durability was an issue.


To extend the life of the thumbsticks, the team redesigned them put in a stainless steel shaft and then added a hard plastic ring on where the sticks rub against the controller.

After the change, the thumbsticks now have steel pressing against hard plastic, rather than metal on rubber.

"It creates a buttery smooth feeling," Kumar said.

Perhaps more importantly, it also almost completely removed the wear that was breaking down those thumbsticks over time.

Another thing the team did was added texturized grips to the back of the controller. This makes the controller sort of stick to a players hand and allows them to hold it with less effort.

"Think of like a golf club, it feels better in your hands," Kumar said. "Similar logic applies."

Finally, the team noticed that pro-gamers tend to interact differently with a controllers buttons and triggers. They often try non-traditional grips, he said.

So the controller ships with thumbsticks of differing heights, two d-pads and removable back paddles.

All of those pieces and parts can be quickly swapped or removed without tools, another important element of the design.

"That was something we wanted to do," he said. "We wanted the parts to be extremely reliable, but easy to switch."

The answer was magnets for the d-pad and thumbsticks, and a mechanical design for the paddles.


Earlier this month, Scuf Gaming announced that it had signed a licensing agreement with Microsoft for those paddles.

As part of the deal, Scuf becomes the exclusive third-party accessories partner for the controller.

Kumar declined to discuss the deal or whether it was the by-product of accidental infringement by Microsoft.

"The terms of the Scuf deal are confidential," he said.

Kumar did confirm that the Elite controller will be getting new custom parts down the line and that they will be coming from a third-party partner. He declined to say what sorts of parts they might be.

The $149.99 Xbox Elite Controller includes three thumbsticks of varying heights, two d-pads, four removable paddles, hair trigger locks, a USB cable and a carrying case.

The controller will also have an Xbox One app that allows players to reprogram their controller and set sensitivity levels.

That app will also feature pre-built settings for games designed by the game makers, something Kumar says will expand over time.

"We do want to give a ton of choices and options to players, but we also don't want to overwhelm them," he said. "It's an interesting balance to strike."

Here's how Microsoft's $150 Xbox One Elite controller is customized