The View Never Changes – Hitbox and Eternal Stasis

There are roughly three topics that will always come up in any discourse related to fighting games, and they are all very dull:

  1. Open brackets vs. invitationals and which would be better for the various communities as a whole
  2. Online vs. offline play and which is more legitimate in the age of rollback
  3. Whether or not leverless, buttons-based controllers, a model popularized by the Hitbox brand, should be banned because they allow players to cheat

The first two are boring in the sense that it always seems to devolve into arguing about a weird, Highlander-like future in which there can be only one, which leaves zero room for nuance. The third, which I want to talk about there, is excruciating because it is buried in an avalanche of half-truths and misinformation that has helped crystallize the topic in amber for over a decade now, never budging from its stasis.

So how did we get here?

Since the decline of the US arcade market in the late 90’s, dedicated fighting game players all across the country had to adapt. With some exceptions, many tournaments began to use consoles as their main hardware source, and with that came a culture of BYOC – bring your own controller. This satisfied two different types of player that may have otherwise come into conflict:

  • Players who, through no fault of their own, never had the arcade experience or played on a joystick controller got to use the gamepads that came with their home console and were most familiar to them
  • Enthusiasts who grew up with arcades were able to put together collective community knowledge and experience in order to recreate, to the best of their ability, the arcade setups they were used to through homebrewed creations of increasing complexity and creativity, such as the leverless controller, which has existed for over a decade

One of the great joys of going to an offline tournament is seeing what people will bring as controllers. I’ve seen keyboards, I’ve seen Guitar Hero controllers, I’ve seen waifu body pillow controllers, and the list goes on and on. As the scene at large moved away from arcades, BYOC became the dominant culture and emerged as its own unique commodity. No tournament nowadays is without at least two vendors selling either pre-packaged joystick controllers or gamepads, or selling the accessories necessary to create one on your own. 

That certainly is the controller ever

Among those many innovations has been the leverless controller, most notably made by the company Hitbox. It’s a controller in which both directional and action inputs are all done via buttons, not dissimilar to a keyboard, as opposed to 8 action buttons and joystick lever for directions. Because you’re only using buttons, inputs are faster, and reactions can be acted upon more reliably because of that faster input method and the tight layout of the buttons on the controller. In addition, the reduced strain on wrists and fingers makes a leverless controller a very sound ergonomic product in a genre that demands a high degree of hand dexterity with somewhat unforgiving equipment. 

So…what’s the issue? 

Well, there’s two main issues, although they are directly related. The first is the four letter elephant in the room: SOCD, or Simultaneous Opposing Cardinal Directions. Basically, it’s the technical name for when a controller sends two separate, opposing directional inputs IE holding both left and right, to the game. Naturally, situations where a player could, say, block in both directions at the same time or ‘charge’ back and hold forward at the same time and only have to tap a button to get a special move to execute, are possible with easy access to SOCD inputs. This necessarily requires some sort of resolution, either on the hardware (controller) side or the software (game) side.

Believe it or not, this was a problem noticed first and foremost as a convenience issue, as far back as 2011. Folks who had leverless controllers used for PC emulators or MAME would notice that both software and hardware rarely had a consistent method of dealing with this issue. Sometimes forward would always win over back, even if it wasn’t the last button pressed. Sometimes holding down would always win over inputting up, and vice versa. This could get pretty messy, especially for folks who were playing on keyboards and might run into those kinds of inputs fairly often.

As the FGC is wont to do, tech wizards came up with firmware solutions, mods, and printed circuit boards (PCB’s) that provided a more consistent resolution, such as left + right always being input into the game as nothing. These were known as ‘SOCD Cleaners’, and they were seen as a necessary accessory for any leverless controller user, as without them the player was left to the mercy of the software, which may not have always provided a fair or comfortable solution. Eventually, software developers began to put SOCD internal logic into the games as well, though it is still far from standardized, so the SOCD cleaning is typically considered a hardware issue.

The SOCD conundrum ties directly into the second issue often raised with leverless controllers: that they are a method of ‘cheating’ at the games. By their nature, leverless controllers are much easier to be precise with – you aren’t trying to maneuver a lever in a strict plastic restrictor gate or thumb your way around a single-mold plastic directional pad. Because it’s simply a matter of pressing buttons in the four cardinal directions, common errors like missing a diagonal input or going too fast and getting additional inputs that fudge the original intent are far, far less common on a leverless controller. 

When you add in the executional tricks that SOCD cleaning logic can provide, there are some special moves that can not only be performed much faster, but also with nearly perfect consistency. For example, here’s a video from Hitbox demonstrating that:

In a Hitbox, the built-in SOCD resolution is for ‘down’ + ‘up’ to always prioritize the ‘up’ input, so if a move requires someone to hold (‘charge’) ‘down’ then release it to hit ‘up’, this can be done without ever letting go of ‘down’. The SOCD resolution means you will get ‘up’ no matter what other directional input you press, so you can even begin to charge for another special move while executing the first move. It’s undoubtedly an advantage over an arcade joystick controller, which simply cannot do this. 

Both of these issues are frequently brought up by detractors as a means of indicting the Hitbox and all leverless controllers as a kind of cheat, a device that makes the impossible possible for less skilled players. Worse still, they might say, it is alienating to the ‘spirit’ of the games, which were made with arcade joysticks in mind and tend to adhere to that style. Not only are leverless controllers not accounted for in the designing process, leading to these SOCD tricks, but the execution and ‘messiness’ of having to hit strict inputs is part of the thrill of offline competition, and that not having to struggle with that while many others will is just an aberration of those ideals.

Is that actually true? Are these thoughts validated by reality? Is the leverless controller going to fundamentally alter the integrity of competitive fighting games?

 I’m not so sure.

Before I give my full opinion, I think it’s important to also provide some clarity to common misconceptions. The history I described in the previous paragraphs happened prior to the Hitbox, the first mass-produced and marketed leverless controller, becoming a full-fledged product. PCB’s that had SOCD cleaners existed, although again they weren’t standardized.. This means there are a few narratives that can easily be busted.

Hitbox allowed SOCD and was forced to change it

This is partially false, even if accidentally. Thanks to former Hitbox associate JohnXuandou on Twitter, we know that the original wooden prototype Hitbox, because the actual device used a hacked PS1 gamepad, actually had to use a Pelican PS2 to PS3 converter that, naturally, cleaned SOCD by nullifying both ways. The prototype was sold with this converter, although it was possible to not have SOCD cleaners by using a different converter on a different system. A second model used a PS360 PCB from Akishop, and that version did SOCD cleaning by having ‘left’ + ‘right’ always be corrected to ‘right’, and ‘down’ + ‘up’ always ended in ‘up-left’. It was seen as logistically problematic, making certain inputs, like the half circle, more difficult. 

The next update to the Hitbox PCB was from Toodles, and after lots of testing Hitbox requested that the finalized SOCD cleaning be ‘left’ + ‘right’ as null, and ‘up’ + ‘down’ to always favor ‘up’. This was done because it didn’t have the more difficult inputs from the PS360 PCB method, and ‘up’ having priority felt the best in testing. As of now, this is the product standard on most leverless controllers.

So at no point did the Hitbox product ever allow SOCD with no cleaning resolution. The origin of the rumor appears to be a video made by a Texas fighting game player named Amp who, correctly, revealed that Marvel vs. Capcom 3 had no SOCD resolution natively, meaning players could input both directions and still get special moves and block on both sides. In the video he says it is due to a Hitbox controller, but in truth, Amp had modded a MadCatz brand controller into a leverless controller, and the MadCatz stick did not, in fact, have SOCD cleaning tech in it natively.

What other misinfo is out there?

Hitbox/Leverless has always been controversial and been banned several times

Again, just blatantly untrue. Most likely this isn’t malicious, but mostly misremembering – there have been controller controversies, but only one major event was due to an actual leverless controller.

Some will say that the Hitbox product was banned from Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournaments until its SOCD issue was fixed. As outlined in the previous section, however, the Hitbox never didn’t have SOCD cleaning tech. The software had the issue, as stated by former Evo organizers Tony “Ponder” Cannon and Joey “MrWizard” Cuellar

We’ll get back to that statement later, but as you can see, no ban on Hitbox/leverless controllers at Evo for Marvel 3. Just didn’t happen.

There was a controller controversy involving the updated Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and it did have to do with extra buttons, but it wasn’t a leverless controller. A player called Full Schedule entered the 2014 Final Round event using a modded controller he used that was a traditional arcade stick lever controller with certain input macros (one button input that sends multiple inputs) on the action buttons, as well as a curious oddity. Above the 8 action buttons were 2 additional buttons that input ‘up-left’ and ‘up-right’ respectively. This was done in order to help him with a particular quirk of the character he played in the game.

While he had played with the stick without controversy in tournaments prior, and even had it approved via direct message by Cuellar and the CEO tournament organizer Alex Jebailey (they later claimed they didn’t understand the extent of what he was asking), it wasn’t until he defeated well-known players GoldenBoy Neo and FillipinoChamp that controversy arose. One of the players took the matter to Twitter and accused FullSchedule of using ‘macros’, although that was false. The TO, Larry “ShinBlanka” Dixon, settled the matter by having FullSchedule remove the two buttons prior to his play on finals day. 

This controversy involved some extra buttons that related to directional inputs, but not to do with leverless controllers broadly. 

There was one instance where a leverless controller was banned from use at a major tournament. For Combo Breaker 2019, Capcom specifically announced that “the controller,” here referring to the leverless controller used by Japanese pro Daigo Uemahara, was “against the spirit of Capcom Pro Tour,” and would not be allowed in competition. Evidently they were contacted with ‘concerns’ from other players:

The controller Uemahara used was a leverless controller known as the “Gafrobox,” named after Yusuke “Gafro” Hoshino, who designed the controller based on the original Hitbox design. Uemahara used this because the SOCD cleaning logic the controller used was something called “last-input-priority”. In this instance, the hardware reacts to SOCD by preferring the last input pressed IE ‘left’ + ‘right’ meant the ‘right’ input would be preferred since it was input last. For Uemahara, this meant his character, Guile, could take advantage of this since his main attack was done by charging ‘left’, then pressing ‘right’. It also allowed for some other tricks, such as walking forward and being able to simply let go of the forward input and get a back input in case you needed to block. Here’s a video showing some common tricks, although disregard ‘Hitbox’ used in the video title, as it is not referring to the Hitbox product proper but as a common colloquial term for leverless controllers:

Because the SOCD logic in the Gafrobox was this alternative method instead of the more traditional method described earlier, Capcom banned the controller from its Capcom Pro Tour, and TO’s were willing to oblige. The irony of this ruling is that had Uemahara used, say, a PS4 gamepad that had no SOCD cleaning tech inside of it, then his input readings would have defaulted to what the game has…which is the exact same as the Gafrobox: forward, which could be ‘right’ or ‘left’, is always prioritized natively in SFV SOCD logic. Is it against ‘the spirit’ of a game to do what the game does for anyone playing with its default gamepad?

But I digress. The Gafrobox leverless controller was banned due to players asking Capcom to do something about it and Capcom reacting to that more than anything. It is a unique leverless controller that did not follow the default SOCD cleaning logic that is available in most, as the Hitbox product was not banned at the same tournament.

As you can see, a good deal of the ‘controversy’ around Hitbox/leverless controllers is not really true in any official capacity. From the jump, most official leverless controllers have followed a standardized SOCD cleaning logic, and because of that it was never banned, even when certain games didn’t have internal SOCD logic that could have been exploited by a controller without SOCD cleaning.

Which all leads to my true opinion:

I don’t think it should be banned, I don’t believe it’s against any ‘spirit’, and I believe the arguments against it are deeply emotional in nature, not grounded in logic or a feasible reality.

I first played on a leverless controller in 2011, when one of the players in my local Mortal Kombat 9 group purchased one to see how cheap it would be. And indeed, it was pretty cheap! A character could do an air-based move extremely low to the ground, and doing the inputs on a hitbox was mostly a matter of rhythm and timing. It was doable on a gamepad or joystick lever, to be clear, but the room for error was way lower on a leverless controller.

It wasn’t until many years later that I actually bought a Hitbox proper and used it both for practice and in live play settings. In my experience, the leverless controller for Street Fighter V and Tekken 7 (important distinction) is absolutely a competitive advantage in many aspects. You can move faster, you can execute moves faster, and in a competitive setting that makes all the difference in the world. 

But there were some tradeoffs. Not having diagonals means that you no longer have the luxury of doing a single gesture in a direction – you have to hold two buttons to get certain directional inputs, and I find that greatly unintuitive. I still will accidentally neutral jump or let go of block while I’m crouching because I forget to press the second button, after a year or so of casual practice. There are also certain motions, like half circles, which, depending on the game, absolutely require a clean diagonal input, and that can be difficult when you have to sort of play the inputs like a piano with a clean motion. 

On top of all of this is the natural stress of playing against a live opponent, where my brain needs to sync up with my hands on this unintuitive if “better” controller. I miss inputs all the time, and a lot of the neat SOCD tricks you see in official videos from the Hitbox Twitter account aren’t something I imagine most players will be able to just roll off the second they put their hands on the controller. It makes all the difference in the world to see someone with a decade + of experience with the controller do a motion in practice mode and expect that to translate 1:1 to any Johnny Donut who buys a leverless controller.

In addition to the learning curve of the controller, there is also the cruel reality that these exploits are not strictly the domain of the leverless controller. Any default Playstation gamepad, with just a few simple changes in the controller settings, can perform these SOCD tricks:

The reality is that because these games are no longer made ‘strictly for arcade,’ developers have to account for someone playing on a default gamepad or, heaven forbid, a keyboard for PC. SOCD cleaning logic is therefore addressed, but it’s not always consistent game to game. Tekken 7, for example, changes its logic based on what controller the game detects – if it’s a gamepad, the logic is last-input-priority, but a keyboard gives null/neutral logic. And on and on it goes for each major title, with consistency here or there but nothing very concrete:

Logistically speaking, gamepads are going nowhere. Take a game like SFV, which didn’t come to arcades until 2-3 years after the game’s initial release as a PC and PS4 exclusive. I don’t know what tournament in the modern age could survive if it demanded only arcade controllers, which generously run minimum $90+ for a solid one, be used for competitive play. This is all without acknowledging that the biggest fighting game tournament in the world is in fact co-owned by Sony, who would probably want people to use their products. And unless they’re modded gamepads will have no SOCD cleaners, so it’s up to the game, which actually uses something more exploitable than most leverless controllers would allow!

As for the topic of ‘cheating’, I think that’s almost entirely an emotional argument. There is no ‘rule book’ for games, and as a point of fact, most fighting games are played with the idea that players will use exploits that were perhaps unintended by the developers. Something like an infinite combo is almost always taking advantage of a systemic flaw, and there are rare exceptions where any fighting game player would say it’s ‘cheating’ to exploit it. ‘Let it rock’ is a phrase almost ubiquitous across the various scenes because that’s just culturally accepted. If the game, for whatever reason, has execution exploits because the game has sloppy input detection, it seems like it’s well within the culturally-accepted right of players to take advantage of that. Is negative edge, where players hold down attack buttons and release them in a certain manner to get the quickest possible input, ‘cheating’? Are using shortcuts that the game engine allows in, say, King of Fighters in order to get super moves out easier ‘cheating’? 

It feels like the leverless controller, in its decade of existence, isn’t actually that controversial. A lot of the times when people off-handedly say its been banned before or it has a history of causing issues, that’s just not true. It seems to me that the leverless controller has widely been accepted as uncontroversial and legal, and only rare instances occur where it’s a problem, such as the Gafrobox debacle, and that was mostly Capcom being inconsistent and incompetent, as is par for the course. 

Generally speaking, if we look at the rules for most major tournaments or tournament series, the rules will say that there’s nothing wrong with the Hitbox, or leverless controllers with SOCD cleaning. As long as 1 button input = 1 output , and no button binds that don’t exist in the game itself are allowed, its deemed legal. Even the controversial hardware of the past, like FullSchedule’s stick and the Gafrobox, were deemed tournament legal by Evo on consultation from a wide swath of organizers and various community members.

If any exception has to be made, it’s for gamepads because they are truly the rulebreakers in most instances. This would explain why Capcom, in their CPT rules, has an odd exemption for ‘down’ + ‘up’ SOCD to always prioritize ‘up’, because this is the default SOCD logic of SFV, and it would probably be really bad form if the default gamepad for the console SFV was released on to exempt something that is already in the game.

Moreover, how could this reasonably be enforced, much like what Joey Cuellar alluded to earlier? Would players equipment have to be inspected by an on-site inspector? Would players be forced to show SOCD logic before they start a match? How can you know someone isn’t cheating? The answer is…we don’t. Players have been doing things like using the right thumbstick of a gamepad in coordination with the D-pad or modding their select button to now be a part of their action buttons, and while these could reasonably be defined as ‘cheating’, the fact is that barring them will harm the logistics of tournaments more than they would benefit the competition itself. Unless it’s something wild like a turbo function or a macro that allows for sequences, the socially-accepted community method is to let it lie, and it seems like that has worked fairly well for the last 20 years.

It goes without saying too that this drama mostly applies for SFV, which I think does a great disservice to anybody’s argument. If the leverless controller needs to be banned from tournament use, it would stand to reason that would cover every game available at the tournament. Yet you never really hear Guilty Gear or Mortal Kombat or King of Fighters players grinching about the controller, do you? I imagine that’s because in those games, the SOCD tricks that one sees in a viral SFV clip don’t actually apply, because unlike those games, SFV natively allows for diagonal-less inputs sometimes. As you can see here, Ryu’s fireball motion requires a quarter-circle forward motion with three inputs: ‘down’, ‘down-forward,’ ‘forward’, but his super move, which is the same motion repeated twice, only needs four inputs: ‘down,’ ‘forward,’ ‘down,’ ‘forward’:

At best, SOCD cleaning methods remind me of the directional gate that can be installed on a joystick lever: it allows for cleaner inputs, but there are tradeoffs. A square gate with well-defined corners can make moving from ‘down’ to ‘left’ easier. But an octogate, which has increased throw for the diagonals in addition to cardinal directions, makes the input clean as a whistle, but it takes more effort to actually hit those corners cleanly. Then there’s the rounded rubber grommet instead of the traditional directional gate, which introduces its own tricks and tradeoffs. It’s all a matter of preference, and certain gates work better for different games. I don’t think anyone would consider getting a new gate to make it easier to do inputs in a game ‘cheating’ either, as mods to controllers have been allowed for decades now.

That gets to the crux of the argument, doesn’t it? Somehow, the detractors would say that the ‘spirit’ of fighting games is using a joystick lever and 6-8 attack buttons, and everything else is heresy. That may have been true 30 years ago, and it’s not like US arcade culture dying out meant it was extinguished across the world, but game developers have certainly been optimizing for consoles for a really long time, longer than arcade-only tournaments being the standard was ever a thing in the US. I would make the case that BYOC has been an active part of the fighting game community culture longer than having to play on the cabinet exclusively has been. Shouldn’t that count for something? 

Times change, and with it so does technology and optimization. The closest analogy I can think of is tennis, where legend Bjorn Borg dominated the courts in the late 70’s and 80’s with his classic wooden, 68 square-inch racquet. But then came the aluminum racquets, and after that the ‘Prince’ oversized racquet, with its goliath 110 square inch head, that allowed for a larger sweet spot and more control over a shot. This was literally invented by an engineer named Howard Head so he could play tennis easier at his local club, a ‘cheat’ to help him win. Pros like John McEnroe to this day will decry that this allowed for more power to be used in tennis than was ever possible and it fundamentally changed the game. But it wasn’t guaranteed to make an amateur a champion, and so the International Tennis Federation established clear rules for racquet size in 1981, allowing players the choice of what to use. While average tennis racquets used today are far larger than Borg’s in the 70’s, the massive ‘Prince’ size has been widely swapped out for a more midsize, 80 square-inch style racquet because that seemed to be the best equipment.

It is very possible that the joystick lever controller is, simply, the least optimal choice for these games considering what is possible with a gamepad or leverless controller. I don’t think that’s some bastardization of any ill-defined ‘spirit’ of games so much as the tides of time naturally taking their course. No competitive sport stays etched in stone forever, and equipment updates all the time to give players’ competitive edges to make up for shortcomings. And as we’ve seen, it’s mostly on the software side that allows for alternative controller types to have distinct and undeniable competitive advantages, so banning the hardware doesn’t seem to make much sense as does lobbying for developers to begin standardizing SOCD resolutions so the hardware doesn’t have to.

Given the decade + existence of the leverless controller and its fairly uncontroversial position within the FGC for close to that length of time, I’m always curious as to how these dust-ups go viral. Typically it seems to come from some clip of a training mode demonstration that might be a little blown out of proportion, or it’s when someone wins something and the win is deemed controversial due to ‘cheating’ with a different controller. And then every time, the same misinformation gets batted around, the discussions never go further than that, and it ends up being a waste because the topic can’t advance beyond those rudimentary takes.

I don’t think any rule should be permanent, but for now, it seems like people have taken this alternative controller method seriously for the decade + it has existed and have yet to find any qualm with it that can’t already be taken advantage of by gamepad and/or isn’t exploiting anything that’s not already programmed into the game. After that come the bromides about the ‘spirit’ of games or how the necessity of struggling to execute is in some way inherent to the genre, which are purely emotional and not based on very good reasoning. You could argue the inputs for certain moves are done as a method of game balance, but the execution speed of them doesn’t seem like it goes against that concept in any way. 

Ultimately, it seems as if a few really long-term, half-measure approaches would need to take place in order to bring about this alleged fair utopia:

  1. Every fighting game developer consciously agrees to use the same SOCD logic no matter what type of controller in detected
  2. The most prevalent PCB makers (Brooks, etc.) all agree to remove the SOCD cleaning part from future products, ensuring that game software SOCD logic is always respected
  3. Gamepads and leverless controllers are slowly phased out, as they can take advantage of that SOCD logic far easier than they could on a arcade lever controller

Suffice to say…it ain’t happening. Ultimately I think the best possible thing you could lobby for is 1, which seems like the most reasonable thing at the moment. I’ve seen some suggestions such as adding a sort of lag between inputs of opposite cardinal directions that simulates having to force a joystick lever to go through a neutral input, but if you want to make the case that input lag should be put in to account for people using outdated tech, you can do it on your own!

I’m a pretty reasonable person – in doing research for this, I expected to find an exploit or argument that would sway me into thinking that a leverless controller is a bridge too far. But I haven’t, if only because it seems like this was settled a long time ago, and none of the arguments have changed much beyond what they were back then: ‘It goes against the spirit of games’, which conveniently rules out all alternative controller methods. I’m not one to throw out history or preference, I totally understand that there are a large number of games still played today that in no way account for SOCD or a leverless controller, and I would never advocate people throw away their arcade stick levers.

But in truth, what the leverless detractors want not only seems unenforceable and terribly myopic in terms of games, but is impossible to remain consistent without banning all alternative forms of controller. And that would really suck for the very large swath of people who use alternative controllers or button maps as a matter of ergonomics and comfort. The needs of the many should never outweigh the needs of a few, especially if the arguments are pretty logically empty. Until that time comes where that’s no longer the case, let it rock.

Just my .02 cents


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