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WoW Insider's SwitchBlade impressions and Q&A


A while back, we posted this video of SwitchBlade, an application designed to let you use your Xbox 360 wired controller (or wireless controller with an extra adapter for PC) with World of Warcraft. I said that I'd give the software a test run, and even though all the holidays (and our other little enterprise) has delayed things quite a bit, here are my impressions on installation and after using the program to play WoW for a few hours.

We also got a chance to chat with the VP of Business Development for Blue Orb (the company that makes SwitchBlade), Aaron Levin, about how their software works, how they're making money from this free download, and what their plans are for the future. My impressions and the Q&A start right after the jump.
Installation

Installing SwitchBlade isn't the worst installation I've ever been through, but it wasn't the easiest either. When you install SwitchBlade, you can't just install SwitchBlade-- you have to install Xfire first of all (they've "partnered" with Blue Orb-- more on that later), and then you've also got to install Microsoft's Xbox 360 controller drivers. To their credit, the installation process overall was fairly smooth-- while SwitchBlade needs you to install a lot of things to get it working, the program does a pretty good job of getting you where you need to go.

I only had two other problems with installation-- first of all, though I downloaded the program through Xfire, I couldn't actually run it while Xfire was working. Windows XP gave me an error when I tried to run SwitchBlade for the first time, saying that the app was already in use. I had to close Xfire, and then run it. Later, I was able to run SwitchBlade both while Xfire was running and while it wasn't, so there is just a small bug in there, but a bug nevertheless.

Finally, the installation also had a registration screen that I had to fill out to use it. I was able to get past that by inputting fake information, but considering that SwitchBlade is adware (see the Q&A below), I wasn't entirely comfortable with sharing my information with them.

Usage in PvE

After installation, the first thing I did with the controller was log onto my Rogue-- he's been stuck at 67 for a while and I wanted to get him up and rolling at 70. But I quickly found that stealthing around is a little too complicated for SwitchBlade's scheme-- they've basically used the triggers as toggles, so that each of the colored buttons on the controller-- A, B, X, and Y-- control four buttons on the bottom left toolbar in WoW. No triggers let you hit the first four buttons, holding the left trigger lets you hit icons 5-8, and the right trigger lets you activate 9-12. On my Rogue's setup, I don't have my stealth action set to one of those icons-- I usually leave it on the small toolbar and hit Control-1 to stealth on the keyboard. But on Switchblade, the only way to hit an icon not on the keyboard is to move the right joystick on the controller (which controls the cursor) to that icon, and then hit the right bumper to "click" the icon.



As you can imagine, I used the cursor a lot. When using the keyboard, the majority of my toolbar usage is actually done with hotkeys. But with the controller, if something I wanted wasn't on my main toolbar, I'd have to go with the controller to click it, which made things considerably slower.

Now, I did go into my spellbook (using my keyboard and mouse), and drag the stealth action to the toolbar, and I was able to activate it that way once I got it set up. So if you have the time to re-lay out your toolbar, and you only need 12 standard actions, the controller might work for you. To make sure, I switched over to something I figured was a little simpler to control-- my Warrior.

I have a Gnome Warrior who's been sitting at 60 for a while in Hellfire Peninsula, and he's pretty simple to control-- run in, hit stuff for a while till it's dead, and then move on. I switched over to him, and since most of his abilities are on the toolbar (I didn't switch stances at all when just grinding the boars), he worked pretty well. I put on a movie, and at the end of a few hours, was able to use the controller pretty easily, hitting Charge, Rend, and Execute when they were supposed to be hit.

I still had to use the mouse occasionally (my Shouts are all on a separate toolbar), but with a little tweaking, I felt that with my Warrior, the controller was something I could really use to grind with. For more complicated classes (I didn't even bother trying with my Shaman or my Priest), you'd have to do a lot of tweaking of both your setup and your gamestyle, and I don't see this controller ever working fast enough in a real raiding situation. But for regular, simple PvE grinding where I didn't need to use too many abilities, I found it worked pretty well.

Going into the Battlegrounds

Just for fun, I also took the controller into Arathi Basin, first with that same Warrior. While I was able to randomly charge in and do a little hacky slashy, it didn't work nearly as well as for grinding-- things were much more chaotic, and targeting was a real problem. I also had trouble setting off my shouts correctly, and using my mount either had to be done by hand on the keyboard (which is what I went to instinctively) or it took up yet another slot on my already crowded toolbar.

And though I knew it would be a disaster, I also tried my Shaman in there as well. That was even more of a nightmare-- I usually do clickhealing with Clique, and that just didn't happen at all with the controller's interface. I was able to drop totems pretty well (once I got to flags), but even applying Earth Shield to myself was too much to do with the controller. Chain Lightning, too, was a problem-- I couldn't choose targets fast enough to get a cast off.

While it's probably possible to do some damage in the BGs with the right class and controller layout, I just don't see any way for anyone to be a full power with just 12 keys to choose from.

Conclusion

I don't know that I would pay for SwitchBlade-- the games I play on the PC (including WoW) are complicated enough to justify using a mouse and keyboard 99% of the time, and I don't feel a real need to bring my console's controller back to my computer desk. But considering that it's free and relatively easy to set up (if you've got the wired Xbox controller sitting around anyway), it turns out to be a pretty good solution for just simple grinding along.

I wouldn't ever recommend it in any setting where your reflexes and attention are required to be at their best-- even if you did tweak it exactly right, twelve buttons just isn't enough to move as fast as you need to in a serious raiding or PvP situation. You can tweak the cursor sensitivity, and maybe with practice you can get the cursor moving as fast as possible, but for the average player, I just don't see the controller working as fast as all the hotkeys on a keyboard would. And you'd be disrespecting your group by operating your character under less-than-ideal conditions (then again, I have raided "under the influence" before, but that's another story).

In short, if you've got a wired controller and do a lot of mindless grinding already, SwitchBlade is worth a try, and actually pretty good for those times when you're just grinding away on mobs, no brain necessary. If you've got a wireless controller and really want to invest the time and the practice to make it work from across the room, you could probably pull it off (as long as you're willing to make sacrifices about what abilities you use and how you use them). But in any game situation that really matters (serious raiding, Arena PvP, or even battlegrounds), the mouse and keyboard setup will work best.

Finally, I should mention that I only used the controller on the "Ready-to-Play" mode, and that there is a surprising amount of customization available in the application itself-- you can map the controller's buttons to almost any buttons on your keyboard. As I said, if you have the time, you can probably come up with a scheme that fits you well. Even so, I would still characterize, as their rep does below, SwitchBlade as a complementary product, not a replacement. It's just not fast enough for the fastest gameplay in WoW.

WoW Insider also had the chance to speak with the folks behind this program, and got to ask questions of Blue Orb's VP of Business Development. How does he respond to what I thought of the program? Read on.

WoW Insider: First, give us a little history of Blue Orb -- what else (besides SwitchBlade) have you worked on, and what other projects are you involved in?


Blue Orb VP of Business Development Aaron Levin: Originally, Blue Orb developed input devices for individuals with repetitive stress injuries – like carpal tunnel. Our original flagship product was essentially a keyboard, except that it had no keys. Instead, the device consisted of two large domes, each with 8 directions of motion. Users move the orbs in coordination – the left dome towards a direction with a specific color, the right dome towards a direction with a specific letter – in order to type.

What led us into the gaming space was the realization that "Hey – console controllers all seem to have two analog sticks and no easy solution for typing in online games." We married the technology from our keyboard product with dual analog sticks found on console controllers, resulting in texting products for online console games like Phantasy Star Universe.

What was the impetus behind creating SwitchBlade? Was there a big call for players to use a controller with WoW? What's your own experience with playing World of Warcraft?

We had been producing products in the console gaming space, and it just so happened that our lead developer, Aharon Moyer, was a WoW player as were many of our testers. The development of SwitchBlade has been a deep passion for Aharon and the entire Blue Orb team. We knew we had something when we conducted our initial research and usability studies – we were hearing positive and enthusiastic feedback consistently. So with that, we set a goal which remains our focus: "we want to own the space where people play PC games with a controller." That sums it up!

WoW may have been the spark, but it's definitely just the first step. In the very near future we'll be releasing more game specific solutions, or "Blades" as we're calling them, for other popular games that lack built-in controller support. We will launch 4-6 new Blades in January 2008 with a goal of 25-30 total next year.

What obstacles did you bump up against in trying to fit WoW's complex interface on an Xbox controller? How did you overcome them?

The obvious obstacle when trying to translate a complex PC game like WoW onto the limited control capabilities of a 360 controller is the number of buttons. On first glance, there aren't enough! Or are there?

Our solution is to use the trigger buttons as toggles – holding down the left or right triggers changes the function of the face buttons (A, B, X, Y), opening up a whole slew of additional input options. On top of that, using the up and down functions of the controller's d-pad switches between the various available action bars. All in all, we think it's an elegant solution to a fairly complex problem. Again, hats off to our dev team for orchestrating a solution that only adds to the user experience, and takes nothing away.

And why did you choose to support an Xbox controller in the first place, rather than a program for any controller?

Well, our aim for the SwitchBlade project is to provide an experience crafted specifically for individual games, and in order to do that we need a standardized controller. Microsoft's Xbox 360 controller, I think many would agree, is one of the most refined gamepads out there – and many of the gamers we're making SwitchBlade for already own 360 controllers. Of course, another reason for supporting the Xbox 360 controller is that the Xbox 360 gamer is no stranger to online gaming, and we know there are plenty of 360 gamers who were frustrated that Blizzard didn't bring WoW to them – so we are bringing the console gamer to WoW. That said, and this is important, we will expand our support to other controllers in the very near future.

Is there a certain type of gameplay you designed the default program setting for? I found the controller worked pretty well with basic grinding, but was a little too slow for PvP. Was there a main type of gameplay you tested it on?

If you boil it down, most people who use SwitchBlade are going to use it for one of two reasons: they're either new to the game, and will be experiencing easy content consisting mostly of grinding and questing, or they're more hardcore players who will use it for farming, leveling alts, and other activities that require less concentration and quickness. Why should anyone be hunched over their keyboard for hours on end, when a great deal of the playing experience doesn't require that strain? Farm in comfort!

We designed our default Ready-to-Play mode with this in mind. The default controls give players access to the main action bar, the map, a character's inventory and bags, and all the other functions necessary to fulfill the average WoW player's needs.

It should be noted that many of our testers used it for raiding and PvP. Some classes translate quite well into the controller experience, even for more complex activities such as raiding, battlegrounds, and even arenas. It's all a matter of preference.

One of our most important goals during development was to make sure there is no downside to using SwitchBlade. If you like using a controller to farm and grind, but you suddenly find yourself being attacked by a player of the opposing faction, you can set down the controller and immediately start using the keyboard and mouse – there's no button to switch modes, no lag period, nothing. We think SwitchBlade is a complementary product, and not necessarily a replacement.

How is SwitchBlade making you money? Registration is required for installation-- what are you doing with the information you collect there?

SwitchBlade is completely ad-supported – our launch partner is Xfire.com, where our software is available as a free download. Xfire registration is indeed required (and free), and their privacy policy states that they do not release personally identifiable information to third parties.

The ads appear on the main menu when you launch Switchblade, but they don't interfere with gameplay in any way whatsoever.

Are you still working on updating SwitchBlade? What other features have people asked for, and what other features, if any, do you have planned?

Oh, we've just begun! Like I mentioned before, we're going to be bringing SwitchBlade to other games. Future Blades we have planned include Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars, Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning and many others – pretty much any major upcoming MMO/online PC title without controller support.

On top of that, we have plans to bring our original analog stick texting technology to SwitchBlade – so we plan on bringing exciting new enhancements to SwitchBlade for years to come. This is a brand with staying power, and we want to make certain that the user experience always takes priority.

Any additions to SwitchBlade's feature list will serve our original purpose – to bring the comfort of the "feet-up" console experience to PC games, without taking anything away.

Thanks for speaking with WoW Insider.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Tips, Odds and ends, PvP, Features, Guides, Interviews

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