Feb 28 2017 - 5:34 pm

Rutgers engineers and a Melee legend are building the controller of the future

Reporter

One of the most technical Fox players in Super Smash Bros. Melee is teaming up with two Rutgers University engineering students to change the way the game is played.

Aziz “Hax” Al-Yami, Arhum Siddiqi, and James Taylor have been working close to eight hours a day perfecting a custom arcade pad they call “The B0XX.” The B0XX’s main purpose is to allow Hax to play characters like Fox without the pain and discomfort of a standard GameCube controller.

“The controller will be exactly how he wants it,” Siddiqi told Dot Esports. “A controller designed for him to play without any pain should really work for anyone to play without any pain.”

Although all recent major Melee tournaments have been dominated by five top players — known as the five “Gods” — Hax was widely considered the closest player to reaching similar status as a sixth God (along with William “Leffen” Hjelte). Hax also proved his talent isn’t limited to Smash, finishing 2015 and 2016 with challenger rank in League of Legends, a feat limited to only 200 accounts each year out of the game’s massive 100 million person player population.

Since the start of 2015, however, Hax has been less active in Smash, after battles with various hand injuries and insomnia forced him into multiple breaks.

The last time he returned from a major tournament hiatus was Pound 2016, where he beat several top 10 players, including Joseph “Mango” Marquez, one of the greatest Melee players of all-time. Hax placed third at Pound 2016, but a new bout with major hand problems forced him into another hiatus soon after.

As a search for treatment led him from doctor-to-doctor, he grappled with the notion that his career might have been over. That’s when he began looking for an alternative controller.

“My number one goal in life is to return to Melee and be the best,” Hax said in a January 2017 update video recapping his recent struggles and announcing the controller project. “That’s just all I want to do. I think about it every single day.”

He consulted over 150 doctors in an attempt to repair what he described as a huge scar tissue buildup in his FCU tendon. The FCU is one of the major tendons involved in wrist flexing, and the kind of procedure needed to repair this build-up was considered far too risky by almost all the doctors he consulted — if they’d even heard of such procedure to begin with.

When he finally found the one doctor that understood his need for this procedure, they discovered arthritis in his basal thumb joint — a symptom of the awkward grip needed to move quickly and precisely with the GameCube controller.

After Hax mimicked his usual gameplay motions, the doctor explained that ergonomically, the GameCube controller was “the worst thing” for the joint. Even worse, this arthritis began before Hax switched from Captain Falcon to the fastest character in the game, Fox.

“It just goes to show SSBM period—not even necessarily playing Fox or Falco—is actually ergonomically really terrible,” Hax said. “It worried me that that could be an issue in the industry, going forward.”

Although Hax’s procedure was a success, he still needed to find a more ergonomic way to play Melee because of his arthritis. He gave another ergonomic controller, Hit Box’s Smash Box prototype, a try. That yielded painless gameplay, but Hax ultimately decided he needed more creative control if he was going make the perfect controller. That’s where Siddiqi and Taylor came in.

They were inspired by the Smash Box to create their own custom controller for top New Jersey Ice Climbers player, Alec “Frycook” Brión. This controller, known as The Icebox, would allow Frycook to more consistently perform advanced Ice Climber techniques. One technique, known as “desynching,” would allow Frycook to separately control both Ice Climbers, which used to rely on inputs near-impossible to hit on an angled joystick. 

“There were a lot of (accidental deaths) obviously, but some of the new desynchs were crazy,” Frycook said.

Frycook saw some potential in the controller, but he ultimately felt it would take more time to relearn basic controls than he actually had. Still, happy with the product, Frycook shared it with the the Melee community on Reddit where it caught the eye of veteran player Charles “Cactuar” Meighen. Meighen, who was familiar with Hax’s desire to work on his own arcade pad instead of as just a tester for Hit Box’s team, referred him to Siddiqi and Taylor, whose motivation and skills made them a perfect match.

“I saw them as a second set of engineers, like a second team, that could potentially be the guys that I needed,” Hax said in his update. “I had to get in touch with them to take a chance and see how they thought. Did they want to work with me? Did they want to help me in reaching this dream?”

After discussing it, Hax felt satisfied with the team’s care and vision for the project. From there, they drafted a plan to produce The B0XX for a larger audience.

The team has been working together for well over a month. Every day they theorycraft and push their designs to the limits of speed, comfort, and precision needed to play Fox in professional Melee. The process evolves through trial and error. The engineers will send prototypes for testing, while Hax returns with critiques and new designs.

“Every time we make significant leaps forward, we find out out some kind of constraint that we hit” Siddiqi said. “With that in mind, we have to start re-designing it a bit. With every jump forward, the jump backwards isn't nearly as big, so we're moving forward quite steadily.”

The team declined to speculate on a possible release until Hax deems it perfected. Once The B0XX is complete, it’s sure to reopen the debate as to whether tournament organizers should allow such a controller. Last time, organizers split with the community, as many online commenters argued these kinds of inputs should not be allowed. Leffen, for example, threatened he would add advanced modifications to his controller if the Smash Box was legalized. 

Still, tournament organizers, like Alex Jebailey of CEO Gaming, opted to wait and see how the Smash Box performed at future tournaments before adjusting any rulesets to restrict similar controllers.

Siddiqi said he’s brought older versions of his controller to local tournaments. He feels if his interactions there are any measure, The B0XX should be a welcomed addition to the community.

“I don't think I've seen anyone that's looked to say it should be banned,” Siddiqi said. “There are just people that are a little unsure about it that say maybe it is a little bit unfair. But as soon as they get their hands on it and try it out, they're like 'woah, this is like unusable' and they don't see any advantage you could have from playing on one of these.”

Both Siddiqi and Frycook likened their initial impressions to playing the game for the first time. Using an arcade pad can be disorienting for someone that’s used to the feel of a GameCube controller, but fighting game community veterans may find the controller as a bridge to the Smash community. Siddiqi added that once a player grinds long hours toward learning the controls, it does start to make sense.

“I just kept playing some friendlies with James, my partner who's not so great at Smash. Maybe three-to-four hours of playing him, I was getting close to as consistent as I was on a GameCube controller. I went to a tournament after only playing 3-4 days and I got fourth in a 36-man tournament.”

While some organizers may balk at a possible ruling, a representative from CEO Gaming confirmed that CEO Dreamland, an upcoming premier Smash Tournament, will allow the controller, assuming it doesn't have macros where you can put more than one input onto a single button (Siddiqi said there are no such macros).

The team refused to speculate on a possible release until The B0XX is complete, but Hax is set to appear as a commentator from March 2 to 5 at the Smash Summit Spring 2017, which could be an ideal setting to debut the product. In the video, Hax did discuss a possible campaign on Kickstarter where users could pay more for customizable designs and potentioal perks.

Hax, a self-described perfectionist, is prepared to grind this process for as long as it will take to make this controller complete. It’s tough to speculate on how much longer that will take, especially since Hax has been quiet on the wrist rehabilitation process.

With a perfect arcade pad, it will likely take some time for Hax to return to top 10 form. Even then, the limitations of not having a joystick are entirely untested. But if Hax is to make this comeback, he could bring on a shift in the entire Smash community, as more and more players could move away from a potentially dangerous controller. As mentioned before, FGC veterans like Justin Wong could also give Melee a shot, since a major barrier of entry like the GameCube controller would be removed.

A custom Smash Box may seem like a daunting task to the average user. But in the hands of a seasoned professional with the hunger to claw his way back to the top, it's hard to bet against Hax.

Frycook isn’t sure if a new player could rise to the top with a custom controller, but he didn’t rule it out.

“A new tech skill monkey could always come out of the woodwork and surprise me,” he said. Still, it’ll be up to Hax to be the poster child of this new controller, according to Frycook.

“If Hax can't do it, no one can.”


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