The transforming Xbox 360 D-pad is proof that bad buttons can get better

In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month will look at what some of those buttons and switches are like on devices old and new to appreciate how we interact with them on a physical, tactile level.

The Xbox 360 controller is considered to be one of the best video game controllers ever made — except for one thing: the D-pad. It’s conversely one of the worst directional inputs ever put on a controller.

Microsoft knew it had to fix things, and in 2010 — a full five years after it launched the Xbox 360 — it tried to do so in a singularly impressive fashion with the Xbox 360 Limited Edition controller, which featured a transforming D-pad. With a quick twist, the new controller could switch between the (terrible) eight-way rocker that the original model shipped with and a variant mode that raised up the plus-shaped part of the D-pad for more distinct buttons to push.

It was a creative attempt to fix what was broken, even if it wasn’t entirely successful. An IGN review from the time notes that the base rocker mechanism for the buttons remained largely the same in terms of design and overall resistance, making it more of a surface change.

That said, as someone who played an irresponsible amount of Xbox 360 games over the years with both controllers, I do prefer the transforming D-pad. By making the four-way plus buttons more usable in any respect — even if just to make it easier to blindly switch between the distinct directions through the raised plus component — you’ve already made a big stride over the original rocker.

More importantly, it’s the creative compromise that the transforming D-pad represents that makes it fascinating. Instead of just switching the design entirely, Microsoft recognized that there were likely players and developers who had grown used to the eight-way rocker. And rather than leaving them with nothing, it tried to appease the groups that liked the rocker and the groups that hated it. It’s a recognition that not all players like to play the same way, an ethos that Microsoft would later establish even further with the completely customizable Xbox One Elite controller.

Like many things related to video game controllers, the heritage of the Xbox 360 controller (and its bad D-pad) is one of gradual growth. It starts with the original Xbox controller, affectionately called “the Duke” due to its uncomfortably large size. Microsoft fixed that with the Xbox Controller S, which offered a more reasonably sized model. That controller would serve as the basis for the Xbox 360 controller, albeit with more changes, like secondary trigger buttons and the Xbox guide button in the center (one of its best innovations).

It wouldn’t be until the Xbox One controller that Microsoft would have a good D-Pad, and it would take another two years for the Xbox One Elite Controller to offer a proper modular D-pad system that allowed players to switch between an eight-way pad and a four-pad plus without sacrificing quality on either option.

Of course, controllers constantly change: the Xbox Series X is around the corner, and Microsoft is already showing off a new controller that features yet another D-pad design. Even if it turns out to be worse than the current model, the Xbox 360’s transforming D-pad is emblematic of the fact that things eventually get better.

Comments

I agree that the Xbox260 controller is really good. Nowadays, for me personally, is it completely eclipsed by the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller.

I just received my elite v2 last Saturday and gotta say i love the 8 way rocker, the little indent and slight raise to the edges feels superb to use

Hope the build quality is better. We burned through three of the original.

It starts with the original Xbox controller, affectionately called "the Duke" due to its uncomfortably large size.

Fixed that for you

Ok Shaq? For most people of average sized hands or below it was a fucking horrible thing to hold.

I agree that the 360’s original D-pad was awful, and I also agree that the transforming D-pad was dramatically better. I disagree, though, that the transforming nature of that D-pad had anything to do with the improvements. It was a different change underneath that made it better.

The original 360’s D-pad was terrible because of a design flaw: the pad itself was ever-so-slightly too large for the hole in the controller shell that it sat in. When pressing down on any particular direction, there was a chance the pad would hit the side of the casing before it registered a press, causing the input to be missed or for it to be deflected to an unintentional diagonal input. The transforming D-pad simply has more room to maneuver and therefore fixes the problem before the transforming action even comes into play.

I have an old 360 controller that’s "fixed" by rubbing down the sides of the D-pad and the controller casing with sandpaper, creating a larger gap and allowing the pad to move freely without hitting the sides. It’s hideous, but it negates the design flaw and it’s equally as responsive as my transforming controller without replacing any components.

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