I have, for a long time now, been an advocate for MMO controllers. It is a shame that the specific market for them came and went relatively quickly, as it got into production with more than one product around the Wrath of the Lich King era of WoW and then once WoW began to fade, so too did the category of MMO controller.
Except it didn’t, in a way – it just became more esoteric and less focused on MMO gameplay.
While there are still such controllers from Hori (including a Final Fantasy XIV-branded one!) and Razer’s Orbweaver and Tartarus lineups, alongside final-production and high-markup Logitech G13 controllers (my old standby), the forerunner in that space today is, in my mind, the Azeron lineup.
Azeron is a small startup in Latvia that makes gaming controllers, emerging from a student project to their current status, selling two main lineups of 3D-printed, highly-customizable controllers for gaming and whatever other task you can throw 20 configurable keys or more and a joystick at. The main approach with Azeron’s lineup is more centered on accessibility – the controller’s main pitch is not MMO dominance or godlike performance (although they do factor in the marketing somewhat) but instead ergonomics and proper sizing support. I started using MMO controllers with the G13 because I wanted two hotbars in easy reach, but I stayed with them and then moved to the Azeron lineup when I knew I had symptoms of carpal tunnel in my left wrist that made clawing a keyboard a massively uncomfortable notion (I had even been playing shooters on PC with an Xbox controller, the shame).
I started with an Azeron Classic, which I discussed in this older post of mine. To close out my longer-term thoughts on it, I had a good run with it. The controller held up very well for the most part, although I had a couple of problems I found were somewhat common befall mine – one of my switches died, forcing me to use an unused command (pressing in the hat switch) to replace a button, and I had issues of ghosty double-taps on buttons (which I was able to nearly completely curb with adjustments via the software). The joystick was losing coating and starting to break the rubber on it, and it was time for an upgrade. So I went with the Cyborg, their new generation controller that began shipping in the last year.
What are the differences? Well, there are a few. Firstly, the number of buttons on the Cyborg is increased, by adding a pinky sidewall button, pushing the first row back to make a larger trench area, and adding the last two keys needed to round out the top row of the main controller. This takes it from 25 total buttons on my Classic to 28, with a joystick click adding an extra button to both counts. The Cyborg adds a lot of additional customizable fit, with each tower of buttons per finger now having an independent tilt mechanism to allow you to nudge them to a side angle, the top of the towers now being adjustable along a hinge, the joystick chassis similarly being adjustable along a hinge, and lastly, a new base plate allows you to take the wrist rest and set the height of it to one of two levels. The USB cable is removable, with a tight-fitting groove that holds the cable snug in the body of the unit.
These differences add a lot of layers of customization to the device, as you can now tailor the fit to each individual finger much more tightly as desired but also can customize for travel distance and angle to make things fit to your precise needs much more closely. The Classic was a “good-enough” customization solution to get a comfortable, ergo-friendly controller, but the Cyborg is much more capable of getting to a zero-effort usage scenario, where millimeters of finger travel can produce up to 6 different and unique button presses. Over long gameplay or work sessions, that is a huge deal.
In packaging terms, they’ve made a lot of improvements as well. My Classic came in a nicely-printed box with barely any packing material inside except a basic plastic clamshell, such that it felt almost miraculous it made it to my doorstep unharmed. The Cyborg, on the other hand, comes in a similar quality base box, but with a ton of foam inside grasping the unit tight, and a cool unboxing experience that involves unfolding the foam in layers and pulling out the finished controller from a tight foamy grasp, with a much better setup guide to detail the adjustments and get you going quickly. My experience with the Classic made setting up the Cyborg a simple affair, but I did still need the documentation in order to deal with the new options like top-row tilt, joystick angle, and the height plate. The biggest improvement, and the one that convinced me that someone at Azeron HQ read my prior post (hi guys! love your stuff!) is that the screwdriver included for adjustments is no longer a negative. They took that feedback to heart, swapping out the dinky, barely bit-sized screwdriver of old for a beefy custom model with multiple bits, a branded handle, and a solid zero-effort rotation design that made adjusting the new controller so much easier – no more need for an iFixit toolkit, so thanks!
In terms of learning curve, there is one coming from the Classic, but it is minor. A lot of how hard it can be to learn depends on how hard you make it on yourself in terms of key assignment and layout, more than any hurdle the device itself puts up. For me, I used a similar layout (full number row mapping for MMO hotbars, but in reverse, with 1 being at my index finger and 4 at my pinky, with each row of 4 corresponding to the next sequence and then a shift-modified row closing out, with sidewall buttons mapped to Shift+9 and Shift+0 and the hat switch using Shift+- and Shift+= to finish things out for buttons, with the joystick used for WQES moving/strafing and the side button near the joystick set to Tab for targeting), so it didn’t take long, but the added buttons changed my layout enough to require some relearning (the index finger sidewall button on my Classic was Shift+7 but is now Shift+9, so it takes some purposeful thought to avoid hitting the wrong thing!). A couple of weeks of raiding reclears in FFXIV later, and I feel pretty at home on it, although I have old muscle-memory to break whenever I pick up a job I last played on the Classic (today I clicked the Energy Drain button on Summoner, the horror!). The thing that has messed with me most, however, is not the new buttons that change the layout, but the way the rows are reconfigured. I have a muscle memory of hitting the trench at the bottom for 5-8, but those are now the second front-wall row of buttons with the trench floor as 9-=, so it has led to me hitting some stuff incorrectly!
For build quality, I think I can say that the Cyborg feels more like a finished retail product than the Classic. I liked the Classic a lot, but the quality of the 3D print wasn’t quite as good there as it is on the Cyborg, which has had clear effort made to smooth edges more aggressively, to seal flat parts to produce a smoother uninterrupted finish, and to more tightly integrate full non-printed pieces like the joystick, whose home casing on the Cyborg is tighter with less of a gap between the stick surface and the outer, printed casing. The hinge and tilt mechanisms are both genius-level 3D printing maneuvers, as they use a clamping mechanism around a center ball joint that is connected to the actual components, so you simply loosen the clamping screw to free the ball joint to rotate and then tighten it back down once you’re in place, so the whole mechanism is still 3D-printed but it works super-well. Having said all of that, the objections I noted for the Classic still apply – there is still obvious markings of a 3D printed project and if that feels lower-quality to you, the Cyborg, upgraded fit and finish aside, will not change that for you, even if I would disagree.
Lastly, I think I have to carve out that there are issues with parts from the Classic that I cannot confirm are gone for the Cyborg until far more time has passed. I’ve had my Cyborg just over two weeks now, with several days of that timeframe including me away from home and the rest having me COVID-stricken, so I can’t say I’ve made a pile of notes or really pushed it hard enough to see those issues manifest. The quality of the switches used in the Classic left a lot to be desired in terms of duty cycle and steady response and my hope is that they’ve moved to a better supplier or model of switch for the Cyborg, because issues like the ones I faced were not uncommon with the Classic.
All that said, I made a decision to stick with Azeron on this one, because for the flaws I did come to find with the Classic, it still made a noticeable improvement on my time in MMOs, and the Cyborg so far has done that just as well. The comfort level, after adaptation and learning, has been higher for me so far, and the noted improvements to build quality and adjustments for fit are quite useful to increasing the comfort level even further, letting you make a myriad of new adjustments through a couple of simple additions so you can fit the controller to your hand even better. The software remains dead simple and does not need to run past the initial setup unless you take advantage of software profiles, as you can store two device profiles (although a note here, seriously, only two? You gotta up that number, those are rookie numbers) and can run additional ones via the software as needed. I’d love to see application detection features and additional hardware level storage of profiles as features for future hardware and even software or firmware updates.
For this one, instead of buying from Amazon (which you cannot currently do for the Cyborg as-is), I custom-ordered from Azeron directly. The Cyborg currently requires production lead time, however I placed my order on May 7th 2022, with the gamepad shipping on 5/24 and arriving to me on 5/27, so at this point, the lead time on Cyborg gamepads is not that high (some people on the Azeron subreddit waited months in early production windows). The total cost was around 242 euros including shipping, primarily because I did a multi-color design this time.
Overall, it’s a niche product in some ways (need a lot of buttons, in one hand) but the ergonomic benefit alone has been such a boon to me personally that I can’t see getting another gamepad anytime soon unless a mass-market competitor tries to invade this space. I would say this to close on – there were issues with the Classic and no reassurances yet that these same issues will not reappear on the Cyborg, and yet in spite of that, I would say that if you want a highly-configurable, ergonomic gamepad, they would be my first look.