How Sega solved the drift problem… in 1996

From a technical point of view, Sega To this day, it is seen as a company ahead of its time, which paid the price several times for wanting to innovate before the market and consumers were ready.

One such development involves a simple solution implemented nearly 30 years ago that solved a very common problem today: drift In analog controls, which is hell console owners from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

Nights in dreams It allowed Sega to implement simple arcade technology, immune to drift Credit: Playback/Sonic Team/Sega

A problem that occurs very early in modern controls cannot occur in the Saturn 3D control pad that was released Nights in dreams In 1996, or its “progeny”, the standard Dreamcast controller.

How did Sega achieve such success? It was pretty easy, actually, given the company’s origins as an arcade game developer.

Sega, SNK and Arcades

The Sega Saturn hit the Japanese market in November 1994, and among the first round of games and accessories that hit stores with the 32-bit console was the Virtua Stick. It was a controller based on the levers and buttons of arcade cabinets, designed specifically for gamers to enjoy. A virtuoso fighter In the comfort of home, with maximum fidelity.

Arcade controllers were not new to home consoles at the time, even the NES had one, but generally they were all accessories sold separately. The only manufacturer to offer a 100% Arcade experience at home with joysticks as standard controls was SNK when it released the Neo Geo AES which had the exact same hardware as the MVS (Arcade board) without even picking up.

What SNK did and Sega didn’t at the time was import the solution used to capture player movements, which was the same one adopted in Arcades forever. In AES control, commands were captured by microcontrollers that read electrical impulses based on the position in which the player moved the joystick.

This is not only a good approach, it is also necessary because it prevents wear and tear. If an arcade machine used a potentiometer on the lever, the applied stress would cause a drift to appear in two strokes.

Neo Geo AES control disassembly;  The 4 black pieces are the lever microcontroller (Credit: Play/Luke Morse/YouTube)

Neo Geo AES control disassembly; The 4 black pieces are the lever microcontroller (Credit: Play/Luke Morse/YouTube)

The Virtua Stick, on the other hand, used a simpler and cheaper solution: like console controllers like the Atari 2600, it used a membrane, like a regular keyboard, to transmit the pressure of the lever movement to the board, which it doesn’t. ideal method.

Remember, Sega was born as a company developing games for the Arcade, just like SNK, but their approach was vastly different when it came to controlling cases like the home user. However, the Japanese company will do it differently two years from now.

nights3D and a new approach

In July 1996, Sonic Team introduced a new game for the Saturn, Nights in dreams. Producer Yuji Naka (who tried The balance of the underworld A spiritual sequel that didn’t excite), it offered actual gameplay in three dimensions, but since the original console’s controller was digital, it was necessary to develop an accompanying analog joystick.

They were released together nightsThe 3D Control Pad took a different approach from the Virtua Stick, basically a miniature version of the Arcade’s cabinet controls. Instead of microcontrollers, there were sensors on the board.

The directional had a spring and a magnet, conditioned in a set that was attached to the secondary plate with clips, but other than that there were no other types of connection, for example, wires and studs. The sensors read the movements of the magnet and translated them into commands with high responsiveness.

In detail, the sensors on the secondary 3D Control Pad;  Right, a set with a directional pad that has no physical connections (Credit: Reproduction/The SegaHolic/YouTube)

In detail, the sensors on the secondary 3D Control Pad; Right, a set with a directional pad that has no physical connections (Credit: Reproduction/The SegaHolic/YouTube)

In fact, the lack of a direct connection between the analog control and the board, which reads commands without physical connections, makes the 3D Control Pad immune to drift, since there is nothing to wear.

In comparison, the potentiometer implemented in the current console controls, the Alps RKJXV Thumb Sticker, has a life cycle of only 2 million cycles (movements), which, according to the website. iFixit, achieved after 4 to 7 months of use, playing for just 2 hours a day. After that, this drift is inevitable, whether it’s Joy-Con, DualSense, or Xbox Elite Series 2.

Dreamcast, zero drift by default

Unfortunately, the 3D Control Pad, called 3D Joystick TecToy in Brazil, was not a success because it was an optional accessory and 3D games were rare at the time and the controls were not prepared to handle analog and digital commands simultaneously. Just remember that the dual analog controller and the first two DualShocks from Sony came with a toggle switch.

However, in November 1998 (September 1999 in the West), Sega decided to implement a solution that used the analog 3D Control Pad in the standard Dreamcast controller. The reason was simple, a 128-bit console, for the first time and without errors, would allow absolute perfection of its own arcade games, including the latest games developed for the NAOMI board, in addition to perfect ports. CPS-3 from Capcom (Street Fighter III), and SNK’s Neo Geo MVS/AES, among others (soul calibrefor example).

In addition to providing greater motion fidelity than analog, the wireless approach eliminates wear and tear that doesn’t exist. Any Dreamcast controller, even when used to the limit, cannot suffer from drift, although it has other problems; Triggers were a constant source of headaches.

The big question is: if Sega’s solution to drifting was definitive, why didn’t other manufacturers implement it?

I can think of two reasons. The first involved patents in which the house of Sonic would secure the rights to the technology, so anyone who wanted to use it would be obligated to pay royalties to Sega.

The second, which is also not so difficult to happen, is the cost of production. Third-party potentiometers that Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft can buy for pennies a unit, combined with today’s Chinese manufacturing, violently lowers the price for manufacturers.

It’s possible that the wireless sensors on the Dreamcast controller, now included by default on each console, as opposed to the Saturn’s 3D Control Pad, which was sold separately, further increased production costs and helped further complicate the financial situation. From Sega. forcing it to exit the console market in 2001.

We can only imagine if Sega hadn’t nearly gone bankrupt at the time and continued to release consoles in the years to come, the Drift solution would have remained exclusive to its products, or would have eventually caught up with the competition. ; Perhaps no one will be affected by control drift today.

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