This article originally appeared on dashjump.com.
Nothing says “videogame” quite like a controller. For those of us raised on the early consoles, holding a game controller evokes memories of getting lost in some elaborate fantasy world, made even more wondrous by our young imaginations. With controller in hand, we would spend countless childhood hours exploring, conquering and discovering strange realities, tethered to the adventure through a lump of plastic that quietly melted away in our hands.
The controller is the gateway to these experiences, and it remains the preferred input method for many of the big, mainstream releases today.
But in the age of the mobile touchscreen device, the dedicated controller risks becoming an anachronism.
Even worse, the humble controller may be holding the future of games behind.
Changing of the Guard
As more large developers and publishers shed staff in increasingly common layoffs and those jobless developers form their own small teams, an overwhelming majority of them have set their sights on the most viable market for brand-new studios: mobile and tablet.
At the same time, touch-enabled mobile devices have spread like a contagion across the developed world. By the end of 2013, there will be over 1.4 billion smartphones in use – more than every videogame system ever sold combined. And what’s the most popular activity on these phones? Playing games.
But it wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t long ago that gaming was still swathed in the stench of nerd stigma. Cumbersome controllers, goofy-looking hardware, esoteric instructions and juvenile content acted as significant barriers to entry for the uninitiated – not to mention the cost barrier.
In other words, if movies, TV and books were soccer, football and basketball, then videogames would be hockey, bobsled racing and horse jumping – activities that require expensive equipment and special expertise to undertake.
In the age of the touchscreen surface, those barriers are gone. Just as anybody can buy a movie ticket, watch TV, or get a book from the library, now anybody can download and play a game on their device – no custom hardware or techie knowhow required.
We’ve Won – But May Yet Lose
So in a way, we’ve already won this cultural battle. Yet with this victory comes potentially grave consequences.
With the benefit of mass accessibility comes a tradeoff of depth. As the proliferation of simplistic, one-touch games continues, will videogames eventually be reduced to the cultural gutter of disposable playthings? Or can game developers, sensing this shift, adapt quickly enough to utilize the unique capabilities of touch input to create engaging, deep and memorable experiences without sacrificing accessibility?
For example, Infinity Blade’s slick yet unsubstantial gameplay may be a portent of what may come if we fail to act, while the surprisingly agile controls of Bitmonster’s Lili suggest a brighter alternative.
In the near future, lofty promises for Industrial Toys’ Morningstar may or may not be realized in creating a new first-person shooter control scheme for mobile that works in a meaningful way. Ryan Payton’s Kickstarter-ed République also claims to have created a compelling, intense experience using just single touch input. Both games will be put to the test when they release later this year.
These titles may fail to live up to the hype; it’s certainly happened before. But if they do deliver on their promises, and provide never-before-seen kinds of experiences on mobile platforms, this could be big. It could be the difference between the most popular mobile game being a yet another high-scoring timewaster – or the kind of intense, engrossing experience that sticks with you long after the battery runs out.
In either case, it’s up to us. Traditional controller-in-hand gaming experiences are wonderful, but only by cracking the touchscreen code can we shift the industry forward and show the rest of the world what games can become.
Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.