When Microsoft introduced its Xbox video gaming platform last year, more than a few critics lambasted its controller - a big, clunky hunk of plastic that hurt the hands and made playing games an ordeal.
Gamers who wanted to play the Xbox without pain and suffering had to turn to a handful of third-party accessory makers who created smaller, sleeker versions of the Xbox controller.
Now, with an increasing number of sophisticated games for the Xbox and its competitors - Sony's Playstation 2 and Nintendo's GameCube - players will soon find themselves in controller heaven, with dozens of new gamepads, joysticks, racing wheels and even simulated guns headed for store shelves over the next few months.
Last month, companies such as Saitek, Xgaming, Mad Catz and Interact Accessories demonstrated their latest offerings for the three main gaming platforms at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, commonly called E3, in Los Angeles.
What's coming is an eclectic mix of controllers - which, if they work in the field, will offer more comfort, more options for trick moves and more gaming hours without sore hands.
"Controllers are the biggest after-market purchase for a video game console," said David Huffard, Xbox product manager, who noted that all consoles ship with only one of the devices. "If you're going to play with someone else, you'll have to buy a second one."
But perfecting an after-market game controller isn't easy, said Shane Satterfield, an associate editor at Gamespot.com, an Internet site dedicated to gaming. It can be a complex gadget, with as many as 16 buttons, triggers and other input devices, many of which can programmed with multiple functions.
"Third-party controller companies will always come up with crazy gags to get people to buy their controllers. But if the core controller is no good, they won't sell," Satterfield said.
Case in point - the wireless controllers that some companies introduced last year. Some of their buttons didn't work. Some buttons sent signals to the opponent's controller. A person walking between the controller and console interrupted the signal, sometimes freezing the game.
Several companies are working on improved models, but the first of the next generation comes from Nintendo for its GameCube - the only console maker to produce its own wireless controller. The WaveBird ($34.95), which reportedly will run for 100 hours off two AA batteries, performs well with no problems, Satterfield said.
Companies developing gaming devices spend months trying to determine what features gamers want. Then they turn over the work to mechanical engineers for design - but that's no guarantee of success.
Take the original Xbox controller. Huffard said nearly 100 controller designs were on the table when discussions with gamers persuaded the company to choose the one that shipped with the console last fall. And despite complaints from many sore-handed customers, the original controller remains a favorite among players of Halo, a first-person shooter game from Microsoft and one of the console's most popular titles.
For the rest of the Xbox world, the new Controller S ($39) from Microsoft works more comfortably in a wide variety of games. Huffard said Controller S fits in halfway between the small controller designed for the Japanese Xbox and the larger, North American version. The S version differs slightly from the Japanese design with a 9 1/2 -foot cord (compared to 7 feet in Japan) and stronger springs behind the buttons. Smaller hands can wrap around it easily.
Mad Catz, based in San Diego, will also be introducing smaller controllers called MicroCons for all three platforms that reportedly will be 80 percent the size of the originals.
Microsoft wasn't the only company with first-generation controller problems. Rodney Hillman, vice president of product development for Hunt Valley-based Interact, said he was disappointed with his own company's original Super Pad for the Nintendo GameCube.
"One of the guys here described it as a piece of plywood with a couple of twigs attached," he recalled.
That led Interact to redesign the new Super Pad Pro ($19.99), available next month, with more rounded handles mounted at a slight downward angle for a better feel.
With the maturation of the market, gamers who play joystick- or wheel-based flight and driving simulations on the PC can have the same experience with new console controllers.
Saitek, which makes the highly-regarded X-45 flight controller for the PC, plans to offer an Adrenalin Stick this summer for the Xbox. Based on its Cyborg joystick design, with Microsoft's approved button layout, it will make games like Lucas Arts' Jedi Starfighter and Microsoft's Crimson Skies, scheduled for release later this year, more comfortable by enabling players to use their left or right hand to control vehicle flight.