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Gaming's space race puts one manufacturer's joysticks front and center

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Before Richard Neville went to work for peripherals manufacturer Saitek he worked behind the counter of UK-based retailer PC World. Even before Saitek's senior product development manager helped to design them, Neville was selling joysticks faster than he could keep them in stock.

"Whenever you sold a PC," Neville told Polygon, "pretty much everyone bought a joystick to take home with it, because that was what they felt they should be doing."

In the '90s any computer worth its salt had to be able to run the latest flight sims, including Microsoft Flight Simulator but also games like Wing Commander and TIE Fighter. That meant that just about every PC gamer owned a joystick.

Even adventure games used to come with joystick controls baked right in

The controller was so ubiquitous that even adventure titles like Grim Fandango included controls pre-mapped to the latest models.

Saitek, originally a manufacturer of chess computers, quickly became one of the leaders in the joystick industry in the mid '90s. But the flight sim boom was short-lived, and peaked sometime in the 2000s. Sales of joysticks inevitably tailed off for the better part of a decade, making Saitek a plum acquisition for peripherals giant MadCatz in 2007.

Whoever pushed that acquisition through must be pretty happy with themselves, because all of a sudden sales are on the rise again at Saitek.

"Right now our biggest seller is the X52," Neville said. "We can't make them fast enough. And that is all thanks to Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen."


How important is the Saitek brand to the future of space combat? Even though creator David Braben likes to play on an Xbox 360 controller, he had the X52 Pro model moved 1300 years into the future to become the standard flight control system for every spacecraft in the Elite universe. Saitek's controller is actually modeled into the game, making the real X52 the centerpiece of custom cockpits like this one.

So what's the big difference between a Saitek joystick and a console controller? On the inside, at least, not all that much.

"With the DualShock 4, for instance," Neville said, "everything is miniaturized to fit into that gamepad size. But honestly, there's really not much difference once you get down to the brass tacks of what's actually going on in there. … A PS4 controller is just a joystick in another shape with a few other bits and gibbons to make it work right on a PS4 of course."

It's the outside of a joystick that makes it special, and Saitek is always looking for new ways to make their products stand out. Take for instance the X55 system released in 2014. It features a removable joystick grip which allows users to swap out springs with different tensions to simulate different aircraft, or even remove the spring entirely for use in helicopter sims.

That's because joysticks, Neville said, are all about user customization.


"You're always going to have someone who says, well I don't like that stick. It's not comfortable enough for me. Or I don't like that design. And that's one of the reasons why the X55 has that removable stick. We designed it so that, if at some point in the future we start getting opportunities where we can do new stick designs, either by working with developers on a licensed product or if we just wanted to do a new stick design, then that's something that is relatively easy to do. … And it's something we could do in the future, and so we saw that as an upgrade path for the X55."

Next up for Saitek is a joint project with with Giants Software to build a custom set of controls for their wildly popular Farming Simulator series. But, with parent company MadCatz's expertise on the console, could Saitek be gearing up to launch a new joystick for Elite's upcoming Xbox One port?

"We never discuss new products whilst we're developing them," Neville said with a laugh. "We always save it until we've actually got the complete picture to show. But rest assured that there are things and elements that we're working on, and given the market and where it is at the moment … there's probably a number of conclusions that you can draw for yourself. But I'm not going to comment either way."

Polygon Video: Star Citizen overview, one of the games fueling interest in the X52