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"The Duke":
first generation controller for Microsoft's XBOX

Industrial Design Lead - Ideation to production

In 1999, Bill Gates decided that Microsoft would begin to develop a game console that he envisioned would not only challenge Sony Playstation, the industry's indisputable leader, but that would revolutionize the home gaming industry. The Duke, code name for the launch controller during development, was designed to ship as part of Microsoft's introduction to the gaming space, XBOX. 

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The Challenge

Working from design direction provided by the Creative Director, develop a game controller for Microsoft's first generation XBOX game system. The controller must look "really cool", fit comfortably in the hand and compete with the Sony Playstation controller. The controller should include asymmetrical analog sticks, a multi-directional
D-pad, double triggers and a 6-pack button array optimized for fighting games like Mortal Combat. 

 

My Role

As the lead industrial designer, I was responsible for developing the initial 2D creative direction into a physical first article. I worked closely with the XBOX electrical and mechanical engineering teams to ensure product viability. I hand-built and user tested a variety of physical models and iterated the design based on user feedback collected in both the U.S. and Japan. Additionally, I designed all peripherals, including the launch XBOX Live communicator headset, memory units and all plastic plug overmolds.

Watch more about my design contribution and involvement at XBOX 
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01 DEFINE

The initial design direction for The Duke was conceived and created by XBOX Creative Director Horace Luke. The creative brief required that the controller evoke the idea that the XBOX was "powered from within" because of the powerful chip Microsoft had planned to drive the system. The controller would need to look cool enough to appeal to the highly critical gaming community and would need to be small enough to be a legitimate competitor to the Playstation 2 (PS2) controller. 

The controller would also need to encase a pre-designed circuit board that was 200% the size of the Playstation board. This requirement would seal the fate of the controller and be the driving factor of its excessive size and untimely death.

Making the controller small, while still accommodating a large circuit board was the ultimate design challenge.

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Competitive Analysis 

 

A competitive analysis of several competitor controllers was performed, including: Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo 64 and Nintendo Geo but, ultimately, the competitor that mattered most was the ubiquitous Sony PS2 controller. 

The PS2 controller had symmetrical thumb sticks and directional buttons rather than a

D-pad. User interviews revealed that the ABXY button array layout was considered "difficult to use for fighting games", where players would often turn their hand to the top of the controller to access these buttons.

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Sony PS2 controller
XBOX controller The Duke
02 IDEATE

Sketches

Although an initial design direction had already been established, additional design iterations were explored through hand sketches. Sketch variations for the controller, as well as for the console, were generated and considered.  Sketch concepts and designs were also produced for the XBOX peripherals including the first generation Xbox Live controller headset and memory unit, as well as a variety of plug overmolds.

Sketch concepts and designs were also produced for the XBOX peripherals including the first generation Xbox Live controller headset and memory unit, as well as a variety of plug overmolds.

03 PROTOTYPE
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Physical models were built from a variety of materials and methods during the prototyping phase. Models included hand-sculpted RenShape 460, a medium-high density polyurethane modeling material, as well as SLA (stereo lithography, a precursor to 3D printing). The prototype cases were developed by working with mechanical engineers to generate digital mock-ups using ProE modeling software. Each model was carefully reviewed, analyzed and "tested" by internal teams. Multiple iterations were created before moving the prototype to external user testing.

The iteration process focused heavily on the requirement to continually find ways to reduce the overall size of the controller. Since the circuit board was driving the size of the case around it, the work required finding ways to reduce the board size millimeter by millimeter.

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04 TEST

User tests were initially performed domestically in collaboration with Microsoft usability teams. Gamers were interviewed about the controller size, button and stick placements, ergonomics and overall impressions. The Duke tested extremely favorably with American gamers who, on average, had larger hands then Japanese gamers. The larger controller was "easier to hold" and "more comfortable in the hand" than the much smaller PS2 controller. American gamers also reported preferring the ABXY button array for the extremely popular fighting games of the time.

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Testing the controller in Japan

User tests did not go well in Japan. When compared with the PS2 controller, Japanese gamers felt the controller was WAY too big and difficult to hold. As result, the future success of XBOX, which would be determined by how console sales performed in Japan, was in jeopardy.

In response to rising concerns about XBOX's success in Japan, a second generation controller, known as  "Controller S" (for small) and codenamed Akebono (an American-born Japanese sumo wrestler), was immediately initiated by the internal Microsoft industrial design team. Since the XBOX production schedule would not allow for redesign prior to launch, The Duke shipped with the first production run of the XBOX console.

The Controller S completely replaced The Duke by 2002.

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05 CONCLUSION

After the initial XBOX product launch, The Duke received a great deal of negative, and also positive, press. With the development of the Controller S already happening behind-the-scenes, The Duke was launched knowing it's life would be short-lived.  Gamers who loved the controller at launch mourned its quick death, and those who hated it applauded the replacement Controller S.

 

In 2018, Seamus Blackley and Hyperkin, a third party controller manufacturer, joined forces to resurrect the now "nostalgic" controller for XBOX One and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of XBOX. Using the original case molds, with permission from Microsoft, The Duke was re-released with many new "bells and whistles" including an OLED display where the lifeless logo jewel had previously tried to disguise the expansive circuit board below. With the re-release came my recognition as the industrial designer.

 

 

Read more about what it was like to design this iconic piece of gaming history in this article by Shack News.

 

ADDITIONAL PRESS LINKS: 

Jeuxvideo - L’incroyable histoire d’une manette maudite crucifiée par Xbox Japon

 CNBC Japanese gamers don't buy Microsoft's Xbox, but the console has still made billions

Forbes - The New Xbox One Duke Controller: Is It Any Good?

Engadget - The story of the Duke, the Xbox pad that existed because it had to

The Strong National Museum of Play - Designing the Duke

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