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The Duke’s return to Xbox redeems the original designer

‘I took a huge amount of crap for the size of the controller,’ recalls Seamus Blackley

Seamus Blackley
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

The Duke is coming back, that we know, and it’ll get here by April 30 (a placeholder date for preorders on GameStop, the only place it’s available). Seamus Blackley, one of the Xbox’s original designers and the guy who put together the design team for the first console, went on Xbox Wire’s inaugural “Inside Xbox” series to talk about the return of Xbox’s iconic phat-ass controller, which is being made by Hyperkin.

“It rose out of a joke, I was going through a bunch of old boxes, and a bunch of them were from my old office at Microsoft. In one of the boxes was an original Duke,” Blackley said, showing off a classic, translucent green model of The Duke.

When he found an old land-yacht of a controller, Blackley got his son to pose with it in his small hands for a Twitter post, and made several cracks about its massive footprint — which wasn’t always a funny thing. “I took a huge amount of crap for the size of the controller” back in the day, Blackley recalled. “People really didn’t like it. I had things thrown at me on stage.”

What Blackley didn’t anticipate was, after the joke post on Twitter, the outpouring of nostalgia for the Duke. “I got hundreds and hundreds of thousands of responses saying, ‘I love The Duke. It was a formative controller for me.’” Blackley casually challenged fans to show their love for The Duke if they wanted it back; they did, and then Phil Spencer was on the line to make plans for the return.

One subtle difference is what they had to do with the bumper button design. Of course, the original Xbox controller (and Controller S) had the Black and White buttons, instead of shoulder buttons. One of the conditions of this design was to preserve both the original shape of The Duke while also making it compatible with the Xbox One’s modern layout. The result is a couple of small black nubs, up at the fingertips, above the triggers. Blackley sounded like he expects some criticism or complaints for that, but in the end, this was the best way to satisfy both demands.

Is a Duke reboot necessary? No, of course not. Was the original way oversized and ergonomically unwieldy? Yeah, and Microsoft learned from that and made a better controller and everyone moved on.

“We changed the controller, we released the controller S, which is sort of the starting point of the evolution of Xbox controllers today,” Blackley said.

But The Duke is still one of those goofy smile stories of fandom, like the time the Chicago White Sox wore short pants in the 1970s. “The trick about life, and getting cool things to happen, is not giving up on a cool idea,” Blackley said. “What a beautiful way to end the story of all the abuse I took in 2001, to have all of these people here now able to play this new controller.”

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