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mandag den 3. januar 2011

Abuse & Play on the Touchscreen


I don’t want for games to be a science. So it doesn’t seem like I should call for correct or specific terms. We get enough of that with the insane hunt for correct naming of genres and other inane nerdy banter like that.

But commonly defined and understood terms can be a great help to describe and understand the new and misused.

The title says it all.

We are all, no matter which touch-screen device we use, quite blessed by the extreme functionality on display while using the iPhone.

It doesn’t dictate, but exemplifies what is the most tactile, pleasant and beneficial way of playing on a touchscreen.

We press the home or sleep button, and then we slide to unlock. On the homescreen and all the proceeding menus we swipe around to navigate and when we find something interesting we point it out and enjoy. Slide. Swipe. Point.

The other ways of inputting all comes from these three.

Slide is finite (in both space and time). Precise and restless (I’ll get to that). Unlock, volume and playtime. Swipe is fast, inertial and tactile. Point is decisive and responsive.
Of course Apple’s marketing chose to call it all fun but we can’t all think alike.

So as a general touchscreen-only interface (compared to the Nintendo DS and its’ phystical buttons), Apple is the vanguard, concerning how this should be used.


Behind these three moves is a less obvious but absolutely equally important point:
Only one hand is used for input. Being less obvious, more explanation is needed.

The small screens of the iPhone and Nintendo DS are a good but lacking explanation as to why only one input device should be used. For each input device, screen real estate is lost. But counter-examples such as the most excellent game Reckless Racing serves to show that this isn’t dogma. Adhere to it nonetheless. It will serve you well.

The single input device concept is bound to the three touch screen input methods and their optimal implementations.

While not a genre by themselves, the Legend of Zelda games are quite distinguishable. The two games of the series released for the Nintendo DS too, but in their own way. They are the perfect examples of how to re-imaging classic game concepts to a new platform. The success of this is not just lossless, but even an improvement. On a scale determining whether a touch screen game has an intelligent input design, Zelda is the good end.

Since I don’t like to point out ineptitude, I should resign to simply make the other end of the scale dual stick emulating controls. Plenty of games land in this category. I don’t need to rub it in on a single game.


I’m saying that there are four core features to take heed of in touch screen design. Not just game touch screen design.

Without a template game from Apple, iOS developers have instead resorted to often recreating the thumb stick featuring controllers of modern video game systems.

When simulating a thumb stick on a touch device, a three hundred and sixty degree slide-able point is presented. Hold and drag this point in a direction, and then hold this direction for continuous movement, camera navigation or weapon fire.

This goes completely against what has been so carefully exemplified as functional on a touchscreen. While not infinite, non-finite is a fine term to describe the amount of time the slided area is to be held with this setup. This makes input feedback impossible. How far has the user’s finger slid? For how long? Worse still, there’s no physical barrier to stop the sliding.

In other words, using slide in this way, is non-finite and patience demanding.

Using two of these thumb stick simulators is even worse, because then two thumbs are eating away at screen real estate, while performing unresponsive and intangible inputs.

Before I get to the Zelda games, I would like to point out that Epic Games created a tech demo for their Infinity Blade game, called Epic Citadel. While not a game, it is play. And it absolutely is the best example of functional first person controls on a touch-only device yet.

Controls consist of the user pointing to a point they wish to go to and swiping to navigate the camera. This is done with a single finger. A first person shooter could benefit from gun control consisting solely of pointing to the desired area to shoot. Strafing could be enabled by widening the field of vision with around 20-30 degrees.

As for Zelda, this Japanese commercial should be sufficient exposition:

A single input device has successfully replaced a digital pad or thumb stick, and combined non-intrusive interactive HUD elements, function buttons are replaced. The input methods don’t go against the descriptions I outlined in the introduction and very little screen space is obscured in the process.


Only subpar games are time wasters. Games should give us experiences, fun, inspiration, understanding and relaxation. As developer you will be glad that you changed you game to benefit from a touch screen instead working against it, trying to turn it into what it definitely is not. As a player, accepting poorly designed games just to satiate your thirst for something that exists on another platform, will only make you thirstier.

And just to make sure that you don’t think I only believe the two Zelda games are imbued with thoughtful and effective touch screen controls, here are some other examples of games that fall into place with my ideas:

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