The Ergonomics Behind Pro Gaming Gear
There’s science and research behind comfortable keyboards and mice.
Actions per minute, or APM, refers to a game player's ability to execute multiple keystrokes and mouse clicks within 60 seconds. The average Starcraft II professional player can average 300 APM. And when a competitor's fingers move that quickly, for hours on end, one risks stress and injury.
Enter specially designed gaming mice and gaming keyboards, which enhance players' skills and reduce inevitable wear and tear. Hardware manufacturer SteelSeries, which specializes in gaming products, is a pioneer of its field.
"We are designing something for the very extreme," said SteelSeries industrial lead designer Rasmus Madsen in an interview with Motherboard. "We're not designing products for browsing the Internet. This is not something you'll do for 45 minutes."
"The buyer is looking for comfort over everything else," said product category manager Jason Christian, also speaking with Motherboard. "After playing a game for six to eight hours, they want [a product] that won't make their hand cramp up."
To fully accommodate its diverse customers, SteelSeries cannot build a "catch-all" mouse.
"More and more, we define [the mouse] for the specific game," Christian said.
For an FPS (first-person shooter), players wants to be as precise and quick as possible. And as a natural consequence of that, according to Madsen, players will hold their fingers closer together and also hold the mouse itself a bit tighter. SteelSeries must accommodate that tendency.
SteelSeries must consider the three main mouse grips. There's the palm grip, the most common grip amongst average computer users, where the entire palm lays over the mouse. Although it is the most comfortable, it primarily engages the wrist and back of the hand, meaning that the fingers are less quick and precise.
There's the claw grip, which creates six points of contact with the mouse—the back of the palm and the five fingers—creating an arch.
There's the fingertips grip, which only engages the mouse with the five fingers. Both the claw and the fingertips grip emphasize increased finger dexterity, although they both are more fatiguing.
One of the most important components of development is the esports community, whose involvement is crucial to the success of any serious gaming hardware company. In a statement to Motherboard, Min-Liang Tan, Razer's co-founder and CEO, said that esports is where Razer "proves its mettle."
"Esports has been and remains a testing ground for our products," said Tan. "Visibility is a two-edged sword. If we deliver on power and performance, then that message is delivered to the people we serve. If we fail, the same delivery happens, but with a downside result. That's why we have to aim for perfection and why we involve esports athletes in our engineering and design process. They are the front line for product validation and marketing."
SteelSeries also partners with professional gamers, such as esports team Evil Geniuses, in order to ensure that they are reaching their intended consumers.
"We've worked closely with SteelSeries, giving feedback on early versions of products to make sure they are as good as they can be," said Evil Genius team member Saahil "Universe" Arora in a statement to Motherboard. "Specifically, this last year we were provided and able to give feedback on prototypes of the Rival line, which ended up addressing improvements we wished to see in the final products."
This hands-on testing could last anywhere from a single session to several weeks, and SteelSeries gathers data both through observation and direct feedback.
After combining A) The genre of the game, with B) The players' preferred grip, and C) The direct feedback of professional players, SteelSeries creates an ideally comfortable, effective mouse. Take, for example, the Rival 500 Mouse, which is specifically designed for MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) and MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games.
"As an MMO player of 13 years who's used countless 'MMO Mice,' I was a little skeptical of the Rival 500's capability to deliver," admitted TwitchTV streamer Steven 'DocGotGame' Orama, one of SteelSeries's brand partners who did early unit testing for the mouse, in a statement to Motherboard. "However, once I placed my hands on it, I knew that it would revolutionize the way MMOs are played."
The Rival 500 has 15 strategically based buttons, including two ergonomic "flick down" buttons beneath the thumb, to accommodate the thumb's side-to-side motion. It has a wide base that is suitable for a palm grip.
"The way the mouse follows the natural movement of my thumb makes response times quicker and makes playing MMO's a much more enjoyable experience overall," said Orama.
On the other hand, the seven-button Rival 700 Mouse has a sleeker, slimmer design, and it accommodates the hand tendencies of a player who might prefer a claw grip or fingertips grip. An FPS player, who does not need a 15-button mouse, would opt for something more streamlined and efficient.
A mouse's sensitivity is measured in DPI (dots per inch); the higher a mouse's DPI, the further the cursor will move in correspondence to the mouse's movement. Madsen explains that professional players turn their DPI all the way down, from a maximum DPI of 16000 to 800 or even 400. This gives players more control, but it also means that their hand movements might drag the mouse way off center—even off the pad. It's why SteelSeries installed side grips—rubber molded plastic— on their mice, so players can lift and recenter their mice more comfortably.
Lastly, a SteelSeries keyboard like the Apex M500 has Cherry switches that require 45 grams of force to actuate a keystroke. Other switches might require 60 to 80 grams of force. And over the course of years, tendon damage can accumulate from using a cheap keyboard or mouse.
The difference of having to use 10 more grams of force can be felt," said Christian. "Over a couple of hours, you can feel the difference."
Which raises the question: Are these gaming products exclusively, or would they be preferable to non-gamers as well? For instance, the precision on a gaming mouse is the same precision that graphic designers seek out in their products. And the programmable buttons, which are traditionally mapped to game functions, can be mapped to traditional office functions instead.
"A lot of IT people are gamers, and they may have to buy products for their company," said Madsen. "And they're going to [our gaming products], because they're going to last a lot longer, and their performance is going to be a lot higher [than non-gaming products]."
"When you buy a gaming product," said Madsen, "you know that you're getting something that is extremely thought out. It's more consistent. It has better tracking. It's not going to fade, and it's going to be ultra durable."
"These are tools," affirmed Christian. "Not toys."