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A reprint from the January 2013 issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, this feature explores touchscreen control methods. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.
If I am not mistaken, you are not six years old, so it's fine if you object to the following claim:
Buttons are doomed; touchscreens are the new game controllers.
I've been working on making mobile games as the founder of an independent studio called Action Button Entertainment. In order to make the best mobile games, I've been dissecting and researching every interesting game-control mechanic I can find, from Pong to Angry Birds. Here is what I've found.
I've always been a proponent of the mechanical particulars of a game's feel over any sort of gimmick related to its product construction. The triumph of Super Mario Bros. was one of Game Design by the Milliseconds -- of the developers pre-understanding the game as more than a series of short-, medium-, and long-term goals. Super Mario Bros. is about the immediate-term goals, and the way that the player's microscopic actions feel in increments of five or six milliseconds.
Super Mario Bros. felt like magic. The fine degree to which the minute variations of button-press length could affect Mario's jump heights and lengths checked every box in my child-brain's "best thing ever" wish list. More than 20 years after the Nintendo Entertainment System, we had the Nintendo Wii: Shake a little television-remote-like thing any which way to make a cartoon person hit a tennis ball. Nintendo was shifting the emphasis, aiming for the part of the brain that makes a six-year-old find a television remote control more magical than Asteroids.
Games With Buttons are not superior by default; they are superior because a parade of geniuses like Shigeru Miyamoto laid the groundwork. Players needn't wage a culture war of casual versus hardcore, social versus everything else, mouse and keyboard versus controller; in a perfect world, action gamers would only speak scientifically of the milliseconds of a game. If a game's milliseconds unite its action and its player, then the game is real and true.
In order to understand the touchscreen-versus-button dichotomy, let's revisit the old mouse-and-keyboard-versus-controller debate: You can't click on a recent blog post about or review of Halo 4 without accidentally scrolling down to the comments and seeing someone groaning about how they'll never play a first person shooter on a console because "mouse and keyboard is the only way to play an FPS." This opinion has raged since the moment Halo was announced as an Xbox exclusive.
I am convinced that we could get a room full of theoretical physicists to prove that Halo does a pretty darn good job with a controller, and that Call of Duty's by-the-millisecond design concessions for controller players (such as the smart snap-to auto-aiming) add up to a game that would be just as competitive with a controller as it would be with a mouse and keyboard -- that is, if all the best first-person-shooter players weren't born and raised with a mouse and keyboard in their hands. As the mouse disseth the controller, so does the controller disseth the touchscreen. (And we all diss motion controls, but that's a topic for another day.)
And maybe most touchscreen games deserve the disses.
I see a lot of games with virtual buttons on the screen. This is always a mistake. That's a sign of a subliminal conspiracy between game developers -- everyone on the team silently agreeing to commit to an inferiority complex: "[Sigh.] It sure would be cool if we were making a game with buttons."
Know this: A friend was telling me just the other day that his four-year-old son just doesn't want to touch a game controller. This friend has a glorious collection of old and new game consoles in his many-televisioned house, and all his son wants to do is play Where's My Perry? on the iPad. "Controllers just aren't real games to him," he told me.
I know "hardcore gamers" that will spend an hour of their lives trying to make a Skyrim avatar that looks exactly like themselves, and then they'll say mobile games aren't "real" games because their fingers get in the way of seeing the screen. This is interesting. Personally, I prefer IMAX to 3D movies, because I like feeling like I'm inside the movie, rather than feeling like the movie is popping out at me.
Now, imagine the way a four-year-old child feels playing with a touchscreen: The child touches her fingers to the screen, and the simulated world reacts. The child can literally touch her favorite cartoon character, and watch that character move. How is that not superior to pressing a button over here and watching the character move inside that screen over there?
Modern touchscreen technology has closed the distance from which children will consider electronics magical. For a four-year-old -- one who, in 10 years, will be a 14-year-old buying the games you're hopefully still making -- your remote control simply won't cut it.
Designing essential game mechanics for touchscreens requires an understanding that hardcore action has never, ever been "about" the control method. It's about the way the action interacts with the player's brain. The control method is only ever an instrument for fabricating that brain-screen coordination.
Let's consider Pong. It's a hyper-competitive, finely nuanced contest between two players. The control implements are nothing like modern video game controllers. Players twist a tiny, mosquito-bite-sensitive knob. Twist a tiny bit clockwise, and your paddle zips to the bottom of the screen. Twist a tiny bit counter-clockwise, and the paddle zips to the top of the screen.
Furthermore, the paddle is made up of eight segments that appear to be seamless: The part of the angle of the return depends on where the ball contacts the paddle. Throughout a Pong contest, the player must balance the urge to trick their opponent against the urge to fire a return which is not so tricky as to result in any tactical backfires if returned. I like to think that the essence of all hardcore action games is purely available in Pong.
What I most take away from Pong is the relationship between the paddle and the control knob: The delicate sensitivity creates a brain impression that the game is more than just something happening on the screen. It's an object with a physical presence on planet Earth.
That brings us back to the image of a child, holding a screen, touching her favorite cartoon character, and watching that character react, like magic.