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Cracking the Touchscreen Code
by Ben Serviss on 06/06/13 09:15:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on

Photo: Mashable
Photo: Mashable

Nothing says “videogame” quite like a controller. For those of us raised on the early consoles, holding a game controller evokes memories of getting lost in some elaborate fantasy world, made even more wondrous by our young imaginations. With controller in hand, we would spend countless childhood hours exploring, conquering and discovering strange realities, tethered to the adventure through a lump of plastic that quietly melted away in our hands.

The controller is the gateway to these experiences, and it remains the preferred input method for many of the big, mainstream releases today.

 But in the age of the mobile touchscreen device, the dedicated controller risks becoming an anachronism.But in the age of the mobile touchscreen device, the dedicated controller risks becoming an anachronism.

Even worse, the humble controller may be holding the future of games behind.

Changing of the Guard

As more large developers and publishers shed staff in increasingly common layoffs and those jobless developers form their own small teams, an overwhelming majority of them have set their sights on the most viable market for brand-new studios: mobile and tablet.

At the same time, touch-enabled mobile devices have spread like a contagion across the developed world. By the end of 2013, there will be over 1.4 billion smartphones in use – more than every videogame system ever sold combined. And what’s the most popular activity on these phones? Playing games.

But it wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t long ago that gaming was still swathed in the stench of nerd stigma. Cumbersome controllersgoofy-looking hardware, esoteric instructions and juvenile content acted as significant barriers to entry for the uninitiated – not to mention the cost barrier.

In other words, if movies, TV and books were soccer, football and basketball, then videogames would be hockey, bobsled racing and horse jumping – activities that require expensive equipment and special expertise to undertake.

In the age of the touchscreen surface, those barriers are gone. Just as anybody can buy a movie ticket, watch TV, or get a book from the library, now anybody can download and play a game on their device – no custom hardware or techie knowhow required.

We’ve Won – But May Yet Lose

So in a way, we’ve already won this cultural battle. Yet with this victory comes potentially grave consequences.

With the benefit of mass accessibility comes a tradeoff of depth. As the proliferation of simplistic, one-touch games continues, will videogames eventually be reduced to the cultural gutter of disposable playthings? Or can game developers, sensing this shift, adapt quickly enough to utilize the unique capabilities of touch input to create engaging, deep and memorable experiences without sacrificing accessibility?

Bitmonster's Lili introduced an impressive mobile control scheme.

For example, Infinity Blade’s slick yet unsubstantial gameplay may be a portent of what may come if we fail to act, while the surprisingly agile controls of Bitmonster’s Lili suggest a brighter alternative.

In the near future, lofty promises for Industrial Toys’ Morningstar may or may not be realized in creating a new first-person shooter control scheme for mobile that works in a meaningful way. Ryan Payton’s Kickstarter-ed République also claims to have created a compelling, intense experience using just single touch input. Both games will be put to the test when they release later this year.

These titles may fail to live up to the hype; it’s certainly happened before. But if they do deliver on their promises, and provide never-before-seen kinds of experiences on mobile platforms, this could be big. It could be the difference between the most popular mobile game being a yet another high-scoring timewaster – or the kind of intense, engrossing experience that sticks with you long after the battery runs out.

In either case, it’s up to us. Traditional controller-in-hand gaming experiences are wonderful, but only by cracking the touchscreen code can we shift the industry forward and show the rest of the world what games can become.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Sean Howell
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Maybe the touchscreen dilemma is just a phase before newer mobile technologies are in the works which don't require touch. But it is a huge problem now that limits most touchscreen gaming experiences to the toilet seat.

Chris Clogg
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I agree.

For instance, I love action RPG games, and wish more were on iOS, but every one of those is either virtual joysticks (puke) or tap-to-move AKA block your vision with your arm. I don't think there is a solution though, sadly.

On the other hand, strategy games work really well on mobile. Dragging buildings, selecting, etc... all very fluid.

Ben Serviss
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Good point, touch interfaces as the sole input method may very well end up as a transition step before we get true Minority Report-style motion input and wearable computers.

Though, touchscreens could certainly carry over into whatever's next, much like we still have traditional dpads on controllers that emphasize use of the analog sticks.

Peter Eisenmann
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Even if I am an advocate for new input schemes for touch, for my current game (a quite traditional space sim on mobile) I am going with a virtual stick. Maybe as developer my vision is clouded, but I quite like it. It actually has a few advances over a real gamepad, like no dead zone and pixel-perfect precision if needed. See it as a mouse/joystick hybrid if you want.
I guess the problem is that most are not willing to try it long enough to get used to the disadvantages and actually appreciate the advantages.

If you do virtual sticks, do them right though: Make the position flexible (wherever I touch is the new neutral position), logarithmic instead of linear gain (more precision on the inside, more speed on the outside), and let the user configure it to a point (swapping y-axis, changing size, fixed position as an option).

Quentin Preik
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Yeah I always think "man I really want to play a good FPS on my android". But that's not really what I want when I get it. I even bought the gameklip thing to try it out, and used it once. I think most controller based games are not the right games for phones anyways. Usually with a phone you're bringing it out for an undetermined amount of time, usually short. You can't get completely sucked into the game either. So "casual" titles end up working best, and they're usually touch based anyways. When I game on my phone I always gravitate to these titles, even though I love more hardcore games elsewhere.

Llaura Mcgee
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Give us haptic touch screens and games will never be the same again.

Luis Guimaraes
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It's all on developers to make interesting control systems for touch devices.

Billy Kun
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I have been thinking about all these industry "mutation" issues for a while and I really like how you've put into words.

I guess there is also the hardware factor in addition to the interface "enigma". How can you develop compelling, deep, emotive and memorable experiences on a mobile with the huge amount technical limitations? There is a huge arsenal you can use in console/PC to conquer minds and hearts, that it is simply unavailable when developing for mobile? how do you deal with that hurdle specially when the expectation of the average gamer is already quiet high? Are "Eidos" developers nuts to release their next "DeusEx" AAA FPS on tablet? What is AAA in the mobile world anyway? We have come so far as humans before being able to make games today such as "Heavy Rain" or "BattleField4", should we let all this down today in the name of mass accessibility?

What do you do with all of those "new" gamers that missed the evolution from ATARI to SNES to PS3? Should we reproduce legacy extinct game genres again since these guys missed it all and knowing that they form the majority of the world 1.2 billion gamers? Isn't this already happening with most mobile platformer/scroller/endless run looking like "Sonic" on the "Sega Genesis" or strategy games having the same attributes as "Jungle Strike"? Who said we will ever see Larry again on a tablet? What do you do with the fact that all of those new gamers missed a big part of history? Do you think that a new gamer playing "Angry Birds" to kill time, will make time to play a deep,emotive and memorable on his phone? Will they give you credit as a developer for that?

Kujel s
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Touchscreen only is too limiting but touchscreen in conjunction with buttons and sticks is another matter. Only a few genres worl well with just a touchscreen but almost no genre's work poorly with thumbsticks and buttons (so few in fact I can't even think of one genre that can't be played well without a touchscreen).

Gabriel Freeman
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Yes, I agree. If these developers would come up in touchscreen with buttons and stick. It will be much better both for people who preferred touchscreen and people who prefer thumbsticks and button.

Daniel Jeppsson
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Good article. I tried out a new way of controlling touchscreen shmups with my first iOS title, a little bit on the hardcore side and works best on larger screens.
Many seem to get it and really like it, some think it is clunky and obscuring the screen too much. The game is called Alpha Zero if you want to try it out, there is a youtube video to show how it is played (
I personally really dislike virtual buttons and joysticks, but hey, we added those as well (as an option) to alleviate the concerns of some players and maybe that is the way to go.
And yes, some game genres just don't fit the touchscreen market, they only sell because of big brand names imho.