Peter discusses different control schemes!

First, I’d like to apologize for a few errors that somehow snuck into my previous discussion on balance and elaborate a bit on that. The discussion about slippery slopes and perpetual comebacks got a bit confused by the fact that I mistakenly started both descriptions with “slippery slope” (proof reading, what’s that?). The first part should of course be about the perpetual comeback. Also, the first part of the post is about single player game balancing, something I omitted to mention. Multiplayer balancing is a quite different discussion, something that I might take up at a later time. That said, on to todays discussion!

During the history of gaming a number of control devices have been invented, evolved and eventually discarded along the way. The lucky few that survived the test of time has become the mainstay, gamepads, joysticks, mouse and keyboard and beyond. Most controllers are somewhat tied to a specific platform, gamepads are most common for consoles (in no small part due to the accessibility of a gamepad in a couch based gaming position I suspect), mouse and keyboard is the controller of choice for PC gaming etc. This has quite an impact on the types of games that are convenient to play on a specific platform. Real Time Strategy has a reasonably large share of the PC market but almost non-existent on consoles. Gamepads simply lack the accuracy and speed, not to mention the number of buttons, needed to play these games efficiently. So what does this have to do with smartphones?

Smartphones differ greatly from most common platforms due to their controls. They normally lack buttons, sticks and other common input devices and instead come with two quite uncommon functions; the gyro and the touch screen. Of course, neither of these are new in themselves, but they have to my knowledge (inform me if I’m wrong, please!) never previously been used together. So, what does this mean for game developers that are used to thinking in old school ways of gamepads and keyboards? One common approach is to just create a virtual controller on the phone screen, imitating a real life gamepad by drawing buttons for the player to press. This works reasonably well but often ends up with the player covering half the screen with thumbs and button graphics, thus hampering the gameplay. Other games use a tap mechanic to imitate mouse control which is also adequate, but again, there are drawbacks. This scheme works best for slow paced games that doesn’t require direct and quick input but shares the problem of covering the screen at times. The gyroscopic function is quite interesting as it uses no screen space and requires no extra graphics. It can also feel quite intuitive, leaning the phone to make things move (or whatever it is you’re doing in the game) “makes sense”, a lifetime of gravity has taught us the effect of tilting. It can however be quite hard to master, some gyroscopes are less than accurate and responsive and can cause you to feel like you’re not in control at all.

What we did when developing Wisp: Eira’s Tale was to analyze the target device, the common smartphone. We didn’t want to use virtual buttons, in our opinion a quite inelegant and inefficient solution, so we looked for alternatives. Since the game was about a wisp, a flying forest spirit of sorts we wanted controls to be smooth, slow and give the impression of relaxed levitation. Hence, we went for the gyroscope, the shortcomings were less of a concern, we didn’t need quick, super responsive controls. We deliberately made the gameplay slow and smooth to emphasize the feel of the game, so the gyroscope was fitting. We also didn’t want to clutter the screen, we felt that a clean screen helped facilitate immersion in the game world. However, we wanted movement in three directions, left, right and up. Moving up with the gyroscope would require leaning the device in an awkward direction so we decided that using a screen press would be needed. However, since we didn’t clutter the screen with buttons we could simply check for any fingers pressing the screen (besides the menu control buttons, that is) for the upwards movement. After some tweaking we eventually found a sensitivity that felt right for Eira’s controls.

So, although smartphone games have a huge potential they are somewhat limited due to lack of built in controls. However, they also have some unique (again, prove me wrong, I’m really interested in previous solutions) functions that enable developers to produce some interesting stuff. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with virtual buttons but I can’t help feeling it’s simply shoehorning a common solution into smartphones. Perhaps the future holds peripheral controls for smartphones and pads, perhaps built in controls become commonplace, perhaps someone truly realizes the potential of the device and invents something profoundly innovative.

- Peter