Controls for touchscreen gaming

09 Jan 2015

While the design of our game is still in the very early stages, one thing we’re sure of is that the game must feature a high level of task switching. To maximise the effect of the training the game offers, we’ll try to have several levels of task switching. For example, in addition to having some event in the gameplay that involves a task switch, we might also have a change in the control system of the game.

Because the game will most likely run on touchscreen devices, this has led me to think about different control systems for touchscreen gaming.

I’ve never really liked it when touchscreen games try to emulate a traditional game controller by drawing it on the screen. I’ve never played a game with a virtual directional pad that I felt worked well. One of the games I selected to have children with PWS evaluate has a virtual D-pad: Gravity Duck. I found it straightforward enough to use (although still not ideal). But I’ve observed some young children play the game before, and they all had problems controlling the character. (This might be partly due to the disorientating change in gravity that happens in the game - another level of task switching, incidentally).

As this article by game developer Tim Rogers puts it, drawing a virtual controller on the screen often comes across as an admission that touchscreen gaming is somehow inferior: “[Sigh.] It sure would be cool if we were making a game with buttons.”

One of the great things about mobile devices is the multitude of ways you can interact with them: tapping, pressing, swiping, pinching, shaking / moving the device. And if you’ve ever watched a very young child play with a tablet, you’ll know just how intuitive these gestures can be.

Our human-centred design process will confirm or deny my suspicions about virtual D-pads. In the meantime, I’ll try to come up with as many different ways to interact with a touchscreen device as I can.

Posted by Nigel Robb