Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Touchy Feely

It cannot be denied; Mobile Gaming has become a top tier time killer. Everywhere you look, you will see Joe commuter snipping binding, flinging poultry or halving produce. A brief two minute respite allows for a dip into a snippet of gaming which has been conveniently designed for that small window of time.

There is often debate over how influential Mobile Gaming will be in shaping the future of games as a whole. There is also debate over if Mobile Phones or Tablet Computers can be considered a gaming platform at all. Some dedicated Hand-Held (DS, 3DS, PSP, Tiger Electronics etc...) gamers will argue the differences for as long as there is an ear to listen...who am I kidding, it doesn't matter if anyone is listening...

Regardless of what is said about Mobile Games, the one constant is the two sides; some love them and some hate them. Maybe not always in those extremes, but for as many people who play them, there will always be a section of potential users that just seem to despise them.

Now, I'm not going to go into the games themselves. That's something else entirely from what I want to cover here. What I want to discuss is the method of input that is common with Mobile Games; Touch.

Unfortunately, a dislike for the games has also meant a dislike for the way that people play on Mobile Phones. As they both came into the mainstream at the same time (Touch and Mobile Games), it's difficult to separate a Mobile Game, from Touch controls. Because of this, Touch controls now carry a very negative stigma. They are the current Motion Controls if you will.

Some of the complaints are kinda justified, but misguided somewhat. Most are due to generalization. And believing that Touch controls mean Mobile Games, and that dislike for Mobile Games means that complaints are hurled towards the controls. Again, this is like Motion Controls.

There are some common complaints that I want to try and address. I won't say that I am speaking facts, but I am pretty confident that most of the issues that players have with Touch controls are simple misunderstandings.

I have decided to challenge three of the most common complaints that I here directed towards Touch, and address why I believe that it is a case of misdirected dislike for the often misunderstood form of input. 

1 - Imprecision

This is an issue that, well, isn't really and issue. Okay, so there can be some problems with it. So, let's take a comparison, to begin with, we'll use a PC. The basic interface, like Windows. When you point the cursor and click, the interaction is at the cursor point...as you would expect. It is only misplaced if you misplace it. Now, this rings true with touch screens too. Nintendo knew of this with the DS, so they gave the user a stylus. But now, with most Mobile Phone screens, you will just use your finger or thumb, hopefully. This can lead to problems because your finger can be larger than the interactive elements of the interface. But, is this really the problem, the fact that you Touch?

If we look at the User Interface for MMO's, we see that they have been designed for use with a mouse to the most part. Some screen elements are very small, but that's okay due to the precision of the cursor. When playing a game using a controller, the interface is usually in listed elements for scrolling with directional buttons or D-Pad, and also case sensitive button wise. Buttons are active only when they have functionality. It works when you are limited to only around 8-10 buttons, or less.

A lot of touch based games, are still using UI that would be better suited to one of the above methods. It became the idea that to an extent, UI can be standardized for the most part. But PC to Console (and vice-versa) ports, would certainly suggest otherwise. Yeah, there are some games that are adapting, but we rarely see the same stretch of change that we see with other gaming platforms. The UI isn't being developed for Touch, if it was, then imprecision would be much less of a factor.

If we take a look at the upcoming PlayStation Vita, Sony chose a new interface to suit Touch commands much better. This is the step that needs to be taken. And this is not just applicable for the User Interface, this applies to all areas of interaction. If it is designed to cater for a finger or a thumb, rather than a cursor or controller, then it will be precise for a finger or thumb.

2 - Interaction

Now, this isn't a case of direct interaction being a problem, it's a case of indirect interaction being the problem. This is really about virtual control pads and buttons, they kinda suck. Or the simulation of a control set-up or layout on a Touch Screen. A virtual control pad is not the best way to implement Touch controls, and because of that, it shouldn't be a means of which Touch controls could be judged. That would be like asking you to browse a web page using a controller, or playing a racing game or fighting game with a keyboard. Sure, all of them can be done...the same with how you can play games with a virtual controller...

Similar to how the UI has been developed, the control methods for some games often just try and simulate a more traditional input method. But this is just a quick-fit, and it should not be used for how well the controls work. They should be judged on the experiences where the Touch based controls seem tailored for the game. Where the design is envisioned with the Touch Screen in mind.

The fact that a mouse and keyboard combination works poorly (or not so well...) with some games like some sports titles, and then also racing games or fighting games, does not take away from how well it works for FPS titles and RTS games. Now, I'm sure some will say "I can play those games fine with a Keyboard and Mouse", well, you could probably find a larger group of people say that can say they can play a Mobile Game with a virtual controller.

3 - Flexibility

A lot of the time, this complaint is due to what has been released already, rather than the potential. But it should be remembered, that these related issues that raise the complaints, are really the games and their design, not the limitation of the controls.

Touch controls offer instant interaction with the playing environment, as well as having some of the advantages of the other, more traditional control methods. Whatever you can do with a mouse and the cursor, you can do with your finger. Playing an RTS, you may want to drag a window over a group, this can be done with a Touch based interface. Accuracy when playing an FPS type game? A Touch interface can do this very well too if the elements have been designed with the finger in mind, like mentioned in my first point.

How about a controller? What can be taken from that comparison? Well, the controller is a tool that does nothing perfectly (bar maybe platform games) but everything good enough. But the fact that companies still release stuff like Joysticks, Steering Wheels and a plethora over Custom Controllers (Guitars, Dance Mats, Steel Battalion...) shows that yes, even the humble controller cannot do it all.

Will Touch controls ever be as flexible as the components on a controller? The stick, the D-Pad, the buttons, the triggers? Likely not, but that could depend on the games designed for it in the future, perhaps it will open up new genres. But even then, that doesn't remove flexibility completely. Plus, if you really, really want, you can still use that virtual controller...

So, how would I sum all of this up? Well, I think that at the moment, too many enthusiast gamers are looking at the games and associating the sometimes debatable quality, with the control method being used. This has actually been the complaint with Motion Gaming for most of it's life also. But it's not directly related to the controls, it's just how they are being applied. With this kinda of logic, and just flipping it over, you could say that all games that use a Keyboard and Mouse, or all games that use a Controller are all great games. And I think we can all see how untrue that would be.

With more and more developers becoming familiar with the devices that employ this method of input, the more games we see with it being utilized in the best way possible. But the Touch Screen as a gaming tool is still in the early days. Even though the DS had it, it was used as a secondary input on most games, rather than the primary, so even with that time taken into account, it still wasn't being used in the way that it is now.

The most disappointing part of it all, is that most of the complaints come from those who would call themselves gaming enthusiasts. Why would an enthusiast of any hobby, want to stop the branching of it's potential? They're just a new way to play.

No comments:

Post a Comment