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Virtual Buttons Are Holding Mobile Games Back
by Muir Freeland on 09/24/12 01:38:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Game controllers are not intuitive or natural.

Experienced gamers that many of us are, we tend to take this for granted. After all, many of us were there from the start, when there were only a few inputs to keep track of – one button and a joystick, in the earliest cases. By learning a new button or two every few years for a couple decades, we took the easy road in, and growing with the technology has given us a lot of tolerance towards how artificial it really is.

It’s not that way for most people. Have you ever watched a new gamer hold a controller? Most new players can hardly manage to make Mario run and jump at the same time, much less combo an enemy in a modern game while wrangling a squirrely camera with the right stick.

At its core, the controller only separates us from the games we play. We can’t be there in the flesh to influence the game world, so we need an intermediary – something to step between us and let us guide our onscreen avatars. It’s an abstraction, and as such, it’s one step removed from the reality of the game.

Touch screens are an abstraction too. They’re arguably more intuitive than controllers, because touching an onscreen object to interact with it is at least closer to how things work in the real world than touching a button. That object is still intangible, though – it’s cold and flat and glassy, and most games are trying to make us believe the opposite by immersing us in worlds full of life and warmth and flesh-and-blood characters. A touch screen may be less of a barrier than a button, but it’s still a barrier.

Both options, however, are leagues ahead of virtual buttons. If a controller with buttons acts as a layer separating us from the game, and a touch screen acts as a layer separating us from game, virtual buttons act as two layers at once. With virtual buttons, not even the controller can feel lifelike – we’re touching something that isn’t there to manipulate an input that manipulates the game world. It’s doubly removed from the action on the screen, and it distances us that much more because of it.

The worst part is that there’s no reason for it. Since controllers are already so unwieldy, why try to mimic them with a touch screen? Virtual buttons aren’t solving any problems; they’re just blindly following tradition for tradition’s sake. Nintendo has proven time and time again, with games like Kirby’s Canvas Curse or The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass that serious, full-fledged games, full of action and enemies and abilities, can function properly with only a touch screen.

Mobile game developers are never going to push the medium forward if they think that making serious, genuine games means ripping off console conventions wholesale. By accepting the medium on its own terms and embracing what it has to offer – the strengths as well as the weaknesses – developers can push it forward and create experiences that are worth having, whether they’re bite-sized minigames or full-fledged adventures spanning dozens of hours. They just need to let go of some outdated conventions and be willing to forge some new ones in their place.


The original article is up on the Sky Tyrannosaur blog. Join us on Facebook and Twitter as we attempt to craft a mobile game that controls like a total dream.

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Martin Edmaier
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I can a bit agree on that. But most players wants a gamepad. I think it depends on a game and the players...

Ozzie Smith
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Virtual joysticks are even worse than virtual buttons. No tactile feel, no precision, no fun.

Rob B
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'Game controllers are not intuitive'
The controller is obviously meant to be held by its sides and in a specific orientation. Your thumbs clearly hover over the stick and buttons you will utilise the most. This is all the information I have as a gamer over someone who isnt a gamer. The problem isnt with how intuitive the controller is, its in how daunting the controller appears to be. (and of course the design of the games.)

Virtual buttons can actually hide this by simply leaving the unnecessary buttons off or adding them in as you learn.

'Itís an abstraction'
I dont think the abstraction has much to do with it. At this level of control there is negligible difference in how realistic actions are with regard to what occurs in the game. You could say a keyboard and mouse is about the most abstract form of game control ever made but its certainly no less immersive.

'Nintendo has proven'
Mobile phones are incomparable to the DS for one reason, the DS has a guaranteed stylus. This isnt something many mobile phone users and manufacturers are willing to put up with for obvious reasons, and developers certainly cant rely on it. The stylus can make your control well in excess of ten times more accurate on the screen and does so predictably so you dont have to worry about different sized fingers. Thats not to say interfaces are doomed to be inferior to the DS but they need to compensate for the relatively huge inaccuracy.

All that said, I do think virtual buttons are a problem but I believe its down to an old and very difficult to deal with fact of touch technology, there isnt any haptic feedback. It renders them clumsy to use. Infact it renders any set of buttons on these platforms clumsy to use, which is why we have numerous bits of technology to correct or minimise errors, none of which are good enough for finely controlled game-play in my opinion.

So while I wouldnt write them off and can see some powerful applications for them in and out of gaming I think a lot of care has to be taken, and most of the time the overall point of this article is likely true and they should be avoided.

Muir Freeland
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I agree that controllers are intuitive to hold -- but not to apply.

Rob Lockhart
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I agree with this article and yet I see it's flaws.

Michael Ruud
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I couldnít agree with you more. Iím tired of seeing mobile games shoehorn control schemes that are incongruous with the inherent strengths of the platform. Furthermore, the game design ought to work within these limitations, rather than against. Seeing basterdized ports of Street Fighter IV and Mega Man X make me think back to the Tiger handheld era, which is baffling considering that most mobile devices have more horsepower than their handheld console brethren. Given the overabundance of virtual buttons, and the recent release of Final Fantasy Dimensions touting it as a desirable feature, Iím convinced the majority of people working on mobile donít know how to approach the platform. I feel like so many developers lack the vision and foresight to take a step back from all of the assumptions and abstractions of our medium and think about what they actually represent.

The problem is not that these devices lack buttons. The problem lies within lazy designers. Vestigial peripherals need not apply.

Ara Shirinian
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Well, there do exist reasons for why we use those suboptimal schemes for mobile/touchscreen games. One of them is that the space of possible game dynamics with button input is to a degree mutually exclusive with games that utilize "touch screens" (as distinct from virtual buttons).

What I think is really holding games back in this space is the reality that developers inexorably must make dissatisfying compromises with each input scheme alternative. With the touch screen method, your body parts necessarily cover up parts of the device, so you can't ask the player to react to things that could be covered up by their finger. With the virtual button method, you don't have that problem, but you have a new problem where it's impossible to feel where the buttons are before you press them, an absolutely critical haptic component in any interface.

The two essential compromises are this- you either have to simplify action at the "game world" level, more than you would have to when a physical controller is involved, or you have to simplify complexity at the mechanical interface level, which means you have a one or two button game. If you do the latter, you exclude some gamut of possible game dynamics, if you do the former, you exclude some other gamut.

Andy Lundell
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I hate on-screen analog pads. ... But I think their existence highlights a serious weakness of touch-screen interfaces.

Since the dawn of time a huge portion of video games have involved direct, continuous control of an on-screen avatar. And because games were designed like this, controls were designed to match. arcade-sticks, arkanoid paddles, flight-sticks, d-pads, and finally the modern controller.

Now, games are moving into a new arena that is not custom-built for gaming. We're given hardware that does not have a built-in way of providing the direct,continuous character control that we've come to expect.

So what do we do? We could give up on either direct avatar control, or continuous avatar control. Many games have had success with this. For example, games like Canabalt don't need continuous control to be fun.

...but that way of approaching the problem eliminates entire genres of games that have become entrenched in the public consciousness. A platform that can't smoothly deliver a FPS or a Zelda work-alike will always be fighting a disadvantage.

So what are the other options?
--Tilt controls? Great for a driving game, or possibly a flying game, but awkward for most other types of character control.
--Gestures? Pinch/Zoom? In most cases these are as gimmicky as waggle, and about as intuitive.
--Bluetooth controllers? Neat, but really just a non-standard gimmick.
--Follow-my-finger controls? Now we're getting somewhere, but it still has serious limitations. It's tough to respond quickly and your hand is now covering the exact part of the action that you most desperately want to see!

I think that on-screen analog pads have become something of a standard, not because anybody LIKES them, but because nobody can think of another solution to the problem they solve.

Muir Freeland
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I think we need to start rethinking more than just control schemes to make touch controls work well. Some old ideas may never translate perfectly, but that doesn't mean there aren't new ones that will.