Two Things

Gaming and Programming.. maybe programming for some games, who knows. Either way, I'm a geek, right?

Strafing in Games - WASD sucks

Background

For years and years I played games that could easily be controlled by a keyboard alone - using the mouse to only interact with the UI.  I blame EverQuest for this back in 1998 - as it started me down the path of movement using my right hand on the Numpad, abilities using my left hand on the keyboard.  And so my brain grew used to "movement on the right, abilities on the left".  I never really got into strafing because PVP was never a huge interest and, while it can be argued that strafing is good in PVE as well in some cases, I still never saw a need.

The few FPS games I played forced me to move my hand from the numpad over to the traditional WASD key arrangement for movement, using the mouse to move the camera around.  While awkward, this worked out alright because I could bind the few abilities I needed to activate onto my mouse, or in the immediate vicinity of WASD and didn't give it another thought.  I strafed a little.  It was alright.

Enter Wildstar.  A MMORPG where moving AND activating abilities at the same time is for the most part required.  No problem.  My old Numpad habit works out fine - mobs don't dance around quite as much as players do and I can dodge and dash around their telegraphs.  Problem is, even on a Wildstar PVE server there are some PVP elements - some of which look fun.  PVP generally requires strafing - more specific, circle-strafing.  Wildstar also has a lot of things to bind.  While it is certainly not like EverQuest 2 or World of Warcraft where you can literally use dozens of spells during the course of combat, there are 8 abilities plus a few slots (gadget, medishot) plus some special movement (sprint, jump, directional dash) PLUS any extra stuff you jam on your action bars and put a hotkey on that can come into play while in combat.

Strafing + Abilities = Finger Gymnastics

There are some hardware choices you could make to allow you to strafe and activate abilities at the same time.  There are gaming mice that have multiple buttons.  There are special gamepads or keyboards that have a good arrangement of programmable keys.  But I want to stick to a regular keyboard and a regular mouse for this.

Strafing locks down one of the fingers on your left hand.  Your left hand is what also activates your abilities.  This presents an ergonomic and logistic problem in games like Wildstar where you have a minimum of 10 things that you could need to press while simultaneously strafing.

Since I've been a keyboard jockey in MMOs forever, and only dabbled in using WASD + mouse in FPS games, I have to retrain my brain from "movement = right hand, abilities = left hand" to being more ambidextrous.  I then started looking at keybinding arrangements - both defaults provided by the game developers, and customizations that people use.  A question came to my brain:  "How do you hit [that key] while strafing?"

Ergonomics and Home Key Arrangement

I decided to put my nerd hat on and map out some popular home-key arrangements to see what options they provided for placement of other abilities.  Home Keys are where you rest your fingers normally on the keyboard.  When typing, you're taught to rest your left hand's fingers on ASDF.  When controlling a game, however, you usually shift your hand somewhere else.

I say "Home Key" merely as a convenient phrase, but I hope everyone knows that under normal circumstances you only "Home" three of your fingers: on the Left, Forward, and Right key.  Your little finger usually rests somewhere else or hangs out in mid-air waiting to be useful.

I started with the defacto WASD that is engrained in the market.  It is the default arrangement in most every game.  Gaming keyboard developers give special attention to WASD in the form of different coloured keys, bumpers, backlighting, etc.  I then looked at ESDF as an option that I had seen in many players' posts - the reasoning is that F usually has a nub so it is easier to "find" when blindly throwing your hands down.  I then looked at WERD, which I found interesting after reviewing This Article and finally I started from scratch - ASDF and modified it into a movement pattern by shifting a finger up to EADF.

Testing Assumptions

I made a few assumptions for this.

1. Strafe Left + Strafe Right would be mapped to the regular Left and Right movement keys.  Turning is "usually" done with the mouse in this style of gameplay, so having separate strafing keys (Q and E on a WASD configuration by default) take up valuable key space.  This frees up two of the keys. 

2. The left thumb will hit Space and Left Alt without any gymnastics, so those two keys are not included in my results.

3. This is only for strafing.  While forward + backward are keybound and take up space, Forward movement is assumed to be done also with the mouse, and backward movement (backpedaling) is less common.  While moving forward via the mouse, all keys reachable by your left hand are viable.  Not needed in this study.

4. Lastly, I did not go any further than 6, T, G, and B on the key rows.  My reason is simple - I use an ergonomic keyboard that splits there.  If you use a flat keyboard you might be able to extend your reach to 7, Y, H, and N in some configurations.  If so, congratulations - maybe RDFG or RSFG is worth looking at for you as a possible home-key arrangement.

Testing

To create my results, I simply took each home-key arrangement and looked at what keys were easy to reach and comfortable while strafing in a specific direction.  If I could easily reach the key with no strain or unusual effort, it is marked "OK" on the diagrams. For keys marked as "MEH" on the diagrams, they are usable, but with mild strain or hand contortion to get to them.  Any keys that led to bumping fingers into each other, stretching too far, or otherwise playing Twister with my hand are marked as "NO."

For each home-key arrangement, I created a diagram for Left Strafe, Right Strafe, and a Combined diagram.  The Combined Diagram takes the key availability from both Left and Right strafe and merges them together.  A key viable for both (OK) is viable on the Combined.  If a key is questionable (MEH) on either Left or Right, it is MEH on the Combined.  And finally if a key is not viable (NO) on either Left or Right, it is not viable on the Combined.

Finally, I tallied up the keys at the bottom of the diagram.  NOTE:  The extreme left-hand keys from tilde (~) down to Control were not counted in the summary.  They are bindable but are usually for things like push-to-talk, targeting, modifiers, etc.  As an aside, you may consider making Caps Lock into another Shift key if you find your little finger keeps hitting it like some other people writing this article.

Strafing Flexibility vs NASCAR

If you look at the Combined diagrams you see all of the viable (OK) keys that you would want to place your mission-critical abilities.  Secondary-but-needed abilities you could place into the less-viable (MEH) keys.  Finally you'd need to put things on the NO keys that you are comfortable not using in combat, or knowing that you will have to stop strafing or maybe change direction of your strafe to use them.

NASCAR?  Yeh okay.  If you only want to strafe in one direction at all times, your options for viable keys increase.  I know some players that "only strafe right" or "only strafe left" which has its merits for this reason, but I would think in PVP if someone figures out you only circle them clockwise, they're going to adjust their tactics when they face you.

Just Get to It

For the results, you can examine the diagrams individually or in one huge side-by-side graphic.  I am sure someone will disagree with some part of this.  Their hand is bigger/smaller than mine.  They use a different keyboard.  Their mouse has 100 buttons controlled by a neural interface.  Their metacarpal bones are double-jointed.  Gravity works differently in their area.  They aren't over 40 years old.  Whatever.

Your Mileage May Vary.  This is all Subjective.  This is Presented Without Warranty.  The Opinions Expressed Herein are Just That: Opinions.

WASD Diagram

ESDF Diagram

WERD Diagram

EADF Diagram 1 (Left Strafe = Little Finger)

EADF Diagram 2 (Left Strafe = Ring Finger)

Side-By-Side Diagrams (Kinda Big)

Conclusion 1: WASD Sucks.. Mostly.

In most all cases, WASD simply sucks.  The only case when it sucks less is a Left-Strafe Only situation, but even then it still sort of sucks because five of your keys are uncomfortable.  The main reason it sucks is that it is parked too close to the edge of the keyboard and cuts off your little finger from being more useful.  Only your thumb gets to be lazy here.  Little finger can reach 1, Q, A, and Z just as easily as it can shift/tab/ctrl, but WASD removes this ability from the table.

And if you're trying to be flexible and use both strafes, WASD offers the least number of overall viable keys, and several uncomfortable ones at that.  Really, other than "it's always been done this way and that's how DOOM taught me to play in 1994", I see no real reason to use WASD at all.

Conclusion 2: To the Left

In all cases, strafing Left provides more keys than strafing Right. 

Conclusion 3: Stretch it Out

For my derived home-key arrangement, EADF, I let my fingers relax some by spreading out the left/right movement slightly, providing a gap and a convenient spot for another viable combat key.  I looked at keeping the ring finger on Left, as well as using the little finger on Left.  That's why there's two diagrams for EADF above.  While I prefer the number of keys provided by the little finger on Left, it locks up those side keys (Tab, etc) that might be useful.  But overall this feels more comfortable to my hand than squishing fingers all up.

Those with bigger hands might also appreciate a spread-out arrangement.  One player said he has to use EADG.  That's a bit too spread out for me to test, but mostly because my ergo keyboard splits at the G so H is not viable for me to be testing.

Conclusion 4: Dance Lessons

If you can strafe-hop from left to right comfortably enough and remember that ability #1 is only usable when strafing left, and ability #2 is only available when strafing right, you'll have no worries and you can use whatever arrangement you like, since you will have the whole slate of keys open for your use.

Final Conclusion

I don't have one.  It takes time to adjust to any new key arrangement, and since this is new for me it will take a week or so for my muscle memory to kick in.  Personally, after reviewing which keys are viable and which keys are not viable, I like EADF 2 or ESDF.  ESDF looks attractive if you're going to do Left-Strafe Only (one additional comfy key over EADF) but the non-viable W might a downer for me.  On EADF, the non-viable Z isn't a big deal during combat because for my hand, it seems more comfortable to move a finger up to W than down to Z.  We'll see though.

It's up to you to decide if you want to change your WASD habit and try something new.  It's also up to you to decide WHAT to put in these key spots.  I'm certainly not going to start making recommendations there.

But overall, I hope someone stumbling across this finds it useful.

Post Mortem

It's been a month or so since I wrote this.  I settled on ESDF because I didn't have to move my hand to type.  I also added a Logitech 700s to my desk, allowing me a bunch of buttons on my right hand.  There's still a couple of abilities that I have bound around ESDF but for the most part, my separation of concerns is still in place - movement with one hand, ability with the other.

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