Legality and Controllers
In the following article I will be laying out a rational examination of the issue of legality concerning Melee controllers. I say rational (not objective) intentionally, for reasons that will be expanded on below.
While I’ll try to be brief and clear, I also want to be comprehensive. If you take issue with a line of reasoning or have an issue or solution that I didn’t think to add to a section, please email me. I always sincerely appreciate corrections/discussion.
Function and Fairness
Function and Fairness
Before talking about controllers, it’s important to frame the conversation with two concepts; Function and Fairness.
First, what is the function of a controller? As was laid out in Mental Game and Execution, the performative aspect of Melee as an esport concerns translating our ideas into the game itself via execution. Essentially there’s a clean progression from our conception of the game to our strategy to our mental performance to our physical execution to our controller/hardware to the software to the results. If any one area suffers then results suffer. As competitors, our want for hardware is simple; ideally, a controller should seamlessly translate our fingers’ commands to the game exactly as they were input. We want any blame to lie on us.
This demand is a reflection of our need for fairness. Fairness is a competitive hallmark.
If a game isn’t fair then it isn’t competitive.
Fairness requires that
i) the only meaningful variable between competitors is the skill being measured.
ii) other differences are either negligible or irrelevant.
iii) rules are maintained to preserve fairness.*
Basically, “Anything that you can do, I can do too.”
Competitive games measure skills objectively, but which skills they mean to measure is a subjective judgement shaped by rules. Frequently, difference in subjective judgements is at the heart of a rule disagreement. In these cases there is no right or wrong answer. Either position can be defensible, depending on your personal priorities. But subjectivity does not imply irrationality. The two are not identifiable.
Any discussion on the legality of controllers needs to primarily (if not
exclusively) address this framework in order to be relevant or
Throughout this post I will make frequent reference to the relevant competitive hallmarks as well as subjective judgements because I think it is the only to make clear, rational, and responsible arguments. I read recently that for humans, a contrasting idea is processed in the brain exactly like a physical threat. We experience an impulsive, emotional reaction/rejection. But it’s definitely possible and necessary to examine ideas (especially our own) rationally for coherence—that is, examining them outside of that emotional reaction even when they’re subjective/value driven. My opinion on several of these topics changed as I examined them against the context, and I hope that you can be as forthcoming while reading/reflecting.
* One blanket statement that follows from the third fairness principle, the rational NEED for rules. Rules that don’t exist can’t be followed. While I am in no way advocating for needless bureaucracy, it is an inherent responsibility for TOs to address issues of unfairness. TOs ABSTAINING FROM MAKING RULINGS IN THE FACE OF A FAIRNESS ISSUE IS A DISSERVICE TO COMPETITIVENESS/COMMUNITY. Those rulings need not and should not be impulsive or immediate. A rational, well-reasoned, well-documented, as-scientific-as-possible explanation is of course the top priority. But refusing to engage with a (meaningful) issue by definition damages fairness and competitiveness. That being said, the word “meaningful” can be a bit fuzzy can’t it? Hence the difficulty and the need for cogency.
Dashback is an in-game mechanic that interacts inconsistently with controllers because of how they are manufactured/break in. Having good dashbacks in game is low in skill and high in dependence on luck/controller. This hardware issue is competitively highly undesirable as it introduces variance as a small, additional layer between your understanding and results. If everyone had access to good dashback controllers or some method to consistently create them this would be a non-issue because it’d be an even playing ground. However that’s not the reality. The playing ground is decidedly uneven. Reportedly, only some 1-3% of controllers are top performing dashback controllers, and only after some amount of use. Finding one essentially becomes a controller lottery that hugely favors top players that are popular enough to utilize better resources. Thus, good dashbacks are not a reflection of skill at all, they’re a reflection of luck/resources. They are by definition unfair and hurt competitive validity.
So the relevant question is how relevant dashbacks are. Traditionally, the answer would be “somewhat.” Good dashbacks have historically been a small advantage enjoyed by a handful of players, but not an advantage that is overly influential OR (and this is important) one with a clear solution. However, opinion and circumstance has shifted recently. Dashback controllers have become a hot topic in part due to Armada dropping out of Dream Hack Austin “because his controller was not properly malfunctioning.” While a resource detailing a statistical advantage enjoyed by dashback controller users does not exist (and would be overly difficult to make), Armada for one considers this mechanic to be important enough that he refused to compete without said advantage. Mew2King, Hax, and other top players have expressed similar sentiment, and this is not unreasonable.
The biggest recent change (besides awareness) to the dashback issue is that it can be solved with software. However, individuals have taken issue with the idea that solutions create a new controller disparity, the means involved, and over the integrity of the game.
Disparity: When the smashbox was announced, some individuals claimed that the advantage offered by created a new controller disparity in which players will have to purchase a special controller or mod for good dashbacks. This particular argument against special controllers does not hold water simply because as described above the disparity already exists and is exactly the fairness issue in question. If anything a new market of dashback controllers lessens the disparity.
Means: This is a somewhat relevant concern. Dashback can be solved for by making certain that the stick doesn’t register on its way to smashturn from center, but how this is done could be potentially problematic. Creating software on a per-controller basis with Arduinos is a viable solution, but arduinos are problematic for other reasons (detailed below). Arduinos radically lessen but do not totally solve the disparity problem. The more complete solution would need to be implemented through the game itself via a Magus Code or similar variant. Currently, the resources exist to run a tournament in which each console has code running to universally equalize dashbacks. This cleanly eliminates the disparity for all participants. However, some individuals dislike this solution as it alters the game that we play.
Integrity: Part of the appeal to Melee is that it’s an older game that hasn’t had any patches. Every issue that’s come up has been solved for by the meta or lived with. Software fixes (namely 20XX:TE) exist, but haven’t found widespread use in tournament. Melee = Vanilla Melee and always has. For someone that subjectively values that integrity more than competitiveness, running a code (that would be considered a small software patch to compensate for hardware inconsistency) to equalize dashbacks is undesirable. For another individual that subjectively values competitiveness more than the integrity of the game, that trade is acceptable. Thus, which side of the fence you’re on depends on your priorities, including how big of a deal you think dashbacks are.
Personally, I value the game’s fairness regarding to dashbacks more than I value the game’s integrity. Were I still actively TOing I would implement the Magus code, as the integrity issue is the only argument against the code that I am aware of.
Similarly to dashbacks, manufacturing inconsistency renders some controllers better than others at shielddropping with consistency due to the angle of the gate relative to the stick box (this is not as well-known, but the upward 45s are similarly inconsistent at upB without double-jumping). While good shielddrop notches ARE a distinct in-game advantage, unlike dashbacks, getting them is not prohibitive. The problem is easily remedied by filing your controller gate to the desired value.
I’ve personally filed give or take a dozen controllers. It takes a file/exacto knife, one of the two most recent versions of 20XX or a Magus ISO, and 10 minutes (alternatively: a friend that has these). For this reason shielddrop notches are not meaningfully unfair because by way of notching their controller, everyone has reasonable access to them. The playing field is effectively even. There is some talk of implementing a software fix and while that change would also be viable it is not especially necessary.
The trickier problem comes from additional notches, such as those for perfect wavedash/firefox angles etc. These are also a distinct competitive advantage via consistency. Additionally, these mods are utterly intentional. Unlike dashbacks or shielddrop notches, no controller has them from the box. But while you can pay someone to do these mods for you, in this case disparity is actually irrelevant because reproducing them is relatively easy for anyone with a file and 20XX. I’ve done 4 myself. They take considerably longer than shielddrop notches because it’s more involved but the process is not really any more difficult. In this case, the question is whether the competitive advantage offered by the boon in consistency performing very valuable and otherwise difficult tactics (perfect wavedashes/firefox angles) is dramatic/relevant enough to merit a ban. The answer depends on the degree to which you value precision as a skill compared to consistency of execution. For some individuals, the left-thumb techskill involved in locating precise angles without the help of additional notches is a highly valued skill. For others it is not.
Personally, I do not have a problem with additional notches specifically because
a) the in-game advantage is not severe. It offers consistency, which I value, not anything that is otherwise impossible. It does not overcome decision-making. I personally come from the perspective that muscle-memory related techskill is more like an arbitrary barrier/time-investment than a valuable skill to test. I don’t devalue techskill, but I wouldn’t prioritize it over creativity or consistency.
b) it is easy to do yourself should you desire it.
Arduinos create software solutions on a per-controller basis. By virtue of being cheap and relatively simple to install, they are not a disparity issue. The interesting problem with Arduinos is that they force two issues: how much we value techskill as execution and cheating.
Arduinos can fix a controller’s dashback, 1.0 value dash, and shielddrop inconsistency in one fell swoop. They level every playing field and are in that way very good for fairness.
However, as mentioned in the section on dashbaks/PODE, dashbacks, 1.0 dashes, and shielddrops by a memory card or like game-bound software patch (as opposed to a controller-bound patch) is cleaner and inarguably better in terms of fairness. The only reasonable argument in support of Arduinos but against a Magus-like code is inherently sentimental in that it rejects the cleaner solution with more universal results in order to preserve the game’s integrity.
Beyond fairness, though, a few Hax Arduino functions (those for easier perfect firefox/WDs as well as for the downward) are described as effective input-map alterations. These are philosophically—though not pragmatically—problematic in comparison to any mods mentioned so far because they go beyond patching for hardware inconsistency and instead aim to address in-game consistency, to the degree that it is a pronounced competitive advantage somewhere beyond notches. It seems to me that Hax is using the input-map alterations to intentionally push boundaries, most likely to justify some of the B0XX’s functionalities.
Then there is the issue of cheating. The biggest problem with an Arduino is that it can do anything. It doesn’t have to only have dashback etc fixes, it could just as easily have perfect multishine/waveshine/angles/SHFFLnair/etc macros programmed to a specific button or combination of buttons. You could easily program instant ICs jump or tilt desync to X, for example. That kind of abuse is why macros have always been banned. While the use of Arduinos does not make macros legal, their use does bring macros as well as some gray areas to the surface by virtue of being difficult to detect/distinguish from more legitimate use.
In my opinion, Arduinos with the proposed changes are not necessarily ban-worthy. They mean to patch for consistency (level the playing field) and buff angle consistency (which, again, is fine unless you value left thumb techskill more than consistency). However, as a preventative measure, it would be better to ban Arduinos categorically and implement the hardware consistency solutions through an alternative means (i.e. Magus code).
Note: everything written here on this topic pertains only to the Smashbox. I cannot comment on the B0XX because it has different design principles and is rumored to have some drastic divergences. Without more detail it is not possible to review its competitive validity.
Box controllers have been a huge source of controversy almost solely because of Analog -> Digital inputs. Because the Smashbox replaced an analog stick with a group of digital buttons, the team had to design a method to achieve precise angles. That system is interesting, but like the Hax Arduino raises the issue of extreme software consistency because with digital inputs far beyond being less likely (like a notch) it is not actually possible to miss an angle. As a consequence of its design, the problem with a smashbox is identical to that of notches/angle consistency. How much do you value left-thumb techskill compared to consistency? If you think that left-thumb techskill is a very meaningful skill then the smashbox, which doesn’t require said skill in the same way, is undesirable. If you value consistency over left-thumb techskill, then the smashbox’s digital inputs are desirable. In fact, if the precise control offered by a smashbox is severe enough then like a dashback controller it creates a disparity that is unfair in proportion to its prohibitive cost (but to be fair relative to other games $200 is not especially prohibitive).
In my estimation, advantages offered by a smashbox are not severe enough to merit banning. Once more, the design is to offer consistency, not anything that is otherwise impossible. The other advantages (dashback consistency/1.0 dashes/shielddrops/etc) are obviously not unique to the smashbox, so it would be disingenuous to ban it for those reasons. The only defensible reasons to ban the smashbox are 1) if the community values left-thumb techskill over consistency (as well as in this case accessibility) or 2) if the smashbox offers some other competitive advantage that breaks the game.
Because smashboxes are not yet readily available, tests for game-breaking smashbox tech are not possible, but the most frequently referred to is broken burst MSDI. On that note: I cannot cite it because as far as I know it was not published, but I read of a comparative test between keyboard MSDI and practiced Wank DI that got effectively identical results. Wank DI is actually preferable, as all of its inputs are approximately in the same direction. It will be interesting to see what tests surface after release.
To prevent abuse from smashbox-based variants, I was briefly consulted by Smashbox Dustin re: a ruleset. Using one discussed by a group of content creators/frame data nerds as a basis, I gave him the following:
• No Macros.
• 1 to 1 mapping only (This means that you can only have 1 A button, 1 B button, 2 jump buttons, etc).
• Analog may be converted to Digital BUT it must include only ONE North, South, East, West set attached to ONE stick OR wasd. NO additional 45 degree buttons. Modifiers are acceptable.
• No Digital to Analog Conversion.
In my opinion the Smashbox is a very interesting and potentially hugely beneficial development. I personally value its offer of consistency and accessibility to currently alienated players (including FGC members as well as those with hand issues etc) more than I value left-thumb techskill. Should any tech appear that is game-breaking then a ban can be discussed but a preemptive ban would be lazy and sensationalist rather than well-reasoned.