I’m going to make a statement, and then I’ll explain why I made that statement and how my thinking goes.
The user experience of using cursors in console games is usually1 an underwhelming and frustrating experience.
At this point you may ask yourself why more and more games use cursors if the players don’t actually like it. Because it is a lot easier to design for. You don’t have to think about button restrictions, navigation templates, or, indeed, any of the limitations that you run into with console controllers. You can, with some exceptions, make a UI that works for both PC and console without having to restrict yourself the way you do in consoles.
Except you trade one set of issues for another. Many players experience cursors as sluggish and slow, even if the reduction in speed is only fractions. Because a stick is never as responsive or accurate as a mouse, the resulting movement has to be slower, or the player overshoots the target. Even pointing controllers such as the Wii nunchuks are more accurate than a stick input. Although not as accurate as button input or mouse movement. Unless sticks get a lot more responsive than they currently are, this will continue to be an issue. You may argue that PlayStation controllers and Nintendo Switch have touch pads, but XBox is still using only sticks and we as developers must more often than not make sure that our games work on a variety of platforms.
In addition, you’ll have to make hit boxes larger for the same reasons. Due to lack of precision, the object the cursor points at must have a larger surface to accommodate the lack of precision.
Placement of UI interaction objects must also be thought through more carefully. What interactions are the most important and how are those objects placed on screen? Remember that movement with a console cursor often feels sluggish and slow. You would want to carefully consider where an interactive object is placed based on that.
Cursors often also create an illusion of complexity, that the UIs all of a sudden can carry more intricate interactions and still be understandable to the player. My experience says that this is not the case. Usability is still a balancing act, the more complex a system is, the harder it will be to make it usable.
Sometimes, as designers, we get blinded by trends. Confirmation bias is a thing, and yes, before you say it, I suffer from it as well.
But data should guide us in those instances, instead of emotional attachments to what we ourselves prefer. We’ll never, ever be entirely objective, no one is. But a large enough pool of players will tell you what they prefer, and you should listen.
If a large enough pool of players say that they don’t like cursors, don’t force cursors on them, no matter how tempting. And remember – most of the time you’re only exchanging one set of complexities and problems for another. In the long run – and if it leads to less enjoyment for the majority of players – is it worth it?