by Mat Janson Blanchet

Of touch screens and game controllers

Posted on January 23, 2013

Line art of hands on a game controller and on a mobile phone
Hands on controllers

In the recent years, video games production and distribution have considerably been democratized. Gone is the time when it was mandatory to purchase expensive SDKs and get a license deal to have your games distributed. Web games and mobile games allow for innovations and reinventions of known models.

However, as innovative as this new game market can be, some creators still create games based on classic schemes, and there is nothing wrong with that. For example, even though new styles and sounds were born, rock ‘n roll has been around for a while and is here to stay. It may be adapted and reinvented, just like games can be.

Some developers aim to provide their players with a classic feel, but there is a trend that should be put to rest: the on-screen gamepad.

On screen gamepad

Screenshots of video games with on-screen controls: directional arrows on the bottom left, buttons on the right
On-screen controls

For those who grew up playing the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Master System and all the following consoles, a gamepad is pretty much with what they learned to play games. Joysticks, trackballs and calculators for which you could swap design were on their way out for home consoles. Over time, gamepads also became more ergonomic and more comfortable, although they were growing more buttons every generation.

Handheld (and thus mobile) game-dedicated devices also made use of these control schemes, from the Game & Watch, the GameBoy, the Game Gear to the following devices.

Games were built around these human-computer interfaces, just like PC games were built for keyboard and mouse interaction.

And then came touch screens.

The Nintendo DS may have been the first device to bring a touch screen to mainstream gamers. Although at first, games were not using the full potential of that screen.

A couple of years later, the iPhone came out and brought games and touch screens to the mainstream populace. Other phones had a touch screen before, but none caught the heart of the customers as much as the iPhone.

No other company claimed they wanted developers to create content for their device, with as much fervor. An affordable SDK and somewhat reasonable profit margin allowed bedroom developers to create games with mainstream reach like never before. And they did.

Screenshots of video games with on-screen controls: directional arrows on the bottom left, buttons on the right
On-screen controls

Growing up with gamepads and side scroller/platformer games, many developers recreated controls they knew and liked. Games like League of Evil, Super Crate Box, Pizza Boy and Pix’n Love Rush are well executed and fun games.

But they do not belong on a mobile phone or tactile screen.

Such games require dexterity and a tactile feedback that only a gamepad can provide. A screen feels like glass and is the same all over, it does not provide any feedback, making it very easy for fingers to slip.

In the case of a phone, your fingers end up covering a huge part of the playable area. Sometimes, like it is the case for Pizza Boy, the playable area is just designed smaller to make way for the controls.

Gravis gamepad controller
Gravis gamepad controller

It is a waste of good space, but also a bad practice that tries to reproduce an interaction scheme from an altogether different human-computer interface. Just like the Gravis Gamepad had it wrong when they tried to force a joystick into a gamepad.

Mobile devices add-ons

Multiple different add-ons attached to movile devices
Mobile devices add-ons

Realizing that the on screen gamepad caused all sorts of issues, some companies thought of creating hardware that players could add to their mobile devices. These add-ons could be split into two types: those that are affixed to the screen and those that are separate and require an integration into the codebase of the software.

Attaching an add-on to the screen, like the Fling Mini (bottom left in the image above) and the Joystick it (bottom center), solves the issue of the expected physical feedback when playing. Parts of the screen still are hidden though, if not more so in some cases. And what if the game designs the gamepad not in line with the add-on placement?

The other types of add-ons are actually smart. The problem in this case is that the hardware developer expects games devs to use their API so that their add-on can be used. It’s not that much of an inconvenient, however there is a multitude of add-ons. The image above samples only a few ones: the iControlPad (top left), the Caliber Advantage (top center), the 8 Bitty (center) and the PhoneJoy (right). And there are more. Game devs would then have to incorporate the API of each of those add-ons to provide support for any eventual add-on their clients might use. On the other hand, if the developers don’t, the onus falls on the player to purchase many add-ons to be able to play with a controller, depending on which one the game devs chose.

This is ridiculous.

Let’s also remember that the success of gaming on mobile phones relies a lot on the fact that the device is already in your pocket, no need to carry anything else.

The advantage of the gamepad on a console is that the gamepad is standardized and works for all games. Each game does not chose what gamepad it supports.

Add-on for the Nintendo DS that provides an arcade-like rotating button
Taito paddle for the Nintendo DS

There are some exceptions, obviously. A couple years back, a hyperactive reinvention of Space Invaders was released. For the DS release, an add-on paddle was created. The paddle was a homage to the controls that the arcade Space Invaders sported a while back. It was fun  and novel to play for someone like me who grew up with a gamepad in hand.

But ultimately, the gimmick was superfluous. I would carry my DS in my pocket in the subway, but never the add-on. Customers want was is convenient, and carrying more things in their pocket is not. This argument has been laughed at by many, but over time the rise of gaming on mobile phones has been shown to hurt gaming-dedicated handheld devices sales.

On screen interaction

Screenshots of The Legend of Zelda - Phantom Hourglass in which we can see the stylus being used to interact with an in-game element
“The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” screenshots

Nintendo has always really been good at making games that explains how to use their innovations, not that all studios or developers were always dedicated enough to apply or explore all those innovative ways.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass was an awesome game that managed to keep its feet rooted in its history while pushing how you use the handheld device in the game. The first thing you notice when playing is that, contrary to previous Zelda games, you move Link by taping holding the stylus where you want him to go. You would also tap directly on the objects and the enemies on screen to interact with them. Sure you can still use the D-pad and the buttons, but that made no sense, the game wasn’t built for that.

No on screen gimmick. You want your character to go somewhere? Tap there. Developers should really think of that more often. The A* algorithm deals exactly with that logic.

Another remarkable thing was that the player could write and take personal notes on the map. Let that sink for a moment. It may seem like nothing, but for so long, inventories and maps might have been editable, but always within the confine of the user interface. This game offered the player the option to draw and write whatever they wanted on the maps, to not have to deal with the interface!

At a point during the game, the player has to fold a map to obtain some information about where to go further. So as a player, you tap, you click, you read and still cannot figure what to do. Eventually, you realize that you actually have to close the DS clamshell and reopen it and ta-da! The ink on you map is transposed from the bottom to the top (or the reverse, I forget).

That’s smart! This is making use of the device and its specificity, and not trying to recreate old ways.

Screenshots of the game Lost Winds in which we see in the foreground a character running in a cave, and in the background, houses on mountain hills
“Lost Wind” screenshots

Fast forward a couple of years later. Lost Winds is a side scroller adventure game that was originally released for the Wii. This game already made use of novel ways to move the character by combining the thumbstick of the Wii’s Nunchuck and pointing at the screen with the Wiimote.

When this game was ported to iOS, I was really curious. I was really charmed with the Wii game, but somehow the iOS port is even better. Pointing at the screen with the Wiimote has been easily adapted into swiping the screen with your finger.

How do you move Toku around without the thumbstick? For one thing, there is no on screen game pad. A bit akin to how you would move Link around in the Phantom Hourglass, simply tap in the direction where you want Toku to go. Don’t want to tap, tap, tap and tap again? Simply hold the direction for a while, and Toku will move automatically in that direction. See the screenshots above, there is even a visual indication. While he walks, you can swipe and attack monsters. Tap anywhere and he stops walking.

This is a smart adaptation of the on-rails feeling that that you get from endless runners, such as Canabalt. While at moments you may want the character to move automatically, at other times you want more control. This is obviously no way to play a reflex-demanding Mega Man game, but tactile screens are not the proper target for those games.

Create controls for the device you target

With the advent of new microconsoles like the OUYA and the GameStick, and with the Playstation Vita’s affordable SDK, it will be possible for game creators to create games for devices that benefit from an actual game controller, rather than try to recreate those controls. It’s too bad that Nintendo is not open to that kind of indie creation, so many game devs would be thrilled to have their games released on Nintendo devices.

There is obviously a demand for side scrollers and adventure games on mobile phones and touch screen devices, but it’s about time that developers start exploring ways of controlling their games according to the device onto which the game is published.

Last updated on February 13, 2024

3 responses to “Of touch screens and game controllers”

  1. It’s an interesting project indeed, but it does not fix the game design issue of people putting on screen controls, neither does it solve the fact that people would rather carry less things in their pockets.

  2. Senff says:

    for me it does, because I will replace my current keychain with this one — hence not more items in my pocket, yet more functionality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.