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Let's Talk About Touching: Making Great Touchscreen Controls

February 22, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

A reprint from the January 2013 issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, this feature explores touchscreen control methods. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

I have a lot of fond memories of pressing buttons. As a six-year-old, it felt like magic to turn a television on with a wireless remote control for the first time.

If I am not mistaken, you are not six years old, so it's fine if you object to the following claim:

Buttons are doomed; touchscreens are the new game controllers.

I've been working on making mobile games as the founder of an independent studio called Action Button Entertainment. In order to make the best mobile games, I've been dissecting and researching every interesting game-control mechanic I can find, from Pong to Angry Birds. Here is what I've found.

Pushing Buttons

I've always been a proponent of the mechanical particulars of a game's feel over any sort of gimmick related to its product construction. The triumph of Super Mario Bros. was one of Game Design by the Milliseconds -- of the developers pre-understanding the game as more than a series of short-, medium-, and long-term goals. Super Mario Bros. is about the immediate-term goals, and the way that the player's microscopic actions feel in increments of five or six milliseconds.

Super Mario Bros. felt like magic. The fine degree to which the minute variations of button-press length could affect Mario's jump heights and lengths checked every box in my child-brain's "best thing ever" wish list. More than 20 years after the Nintendo Entertainment System, we had the Nintendo Wii: Shake a little television-remote-like thing any which way to make a cartoon person hit a tennis ball. Nintendo was shifting the emphasis, aiming for the part of the brain that makes a six-year-old find a television remote control more magical than Asteroids.

Games With Buttons are not superior by default; they are superior because a parade of geniuses like Shigeru Miyamoto laid the groundwork. Players needn't wage a culture war of casual versus hardcore, social versus everything else, mouse and keyboard versus controller; in a perfect world, action gamers would only speak scientifically of the milliseconds of a game. If a game's milliseconds unite its action and its player, then the game is real and true.

In order to understand the touchscreen-versus-button dichotomy, let's revisit the old mouse-and-keyboard-versus-controller debate: You can't click on a recent blog post about or review of Halo 4 without accidentally scrolling down to the comments and seeing someone groaning about how they'll never play a first person shooter on a console because "mouse and keyboard is the only way to play an FPS." This opinion has raged since the moment Halo was announced as an Xbox exclusive.

I am convinced that we could get a room full of theoretical physicists to prove that Halo does a pretty darn good job with a controller, and that Call of Duty's by-the-millisecond design concessions for controller players (such as the smart snap-to auto-aiming) add up to a game that would be just as competitive with a controller as it would be with a mouse and keyboard -- that is, if all the best first-person-shooter players weren't born and raised with a mouse and keyboard in their hands. As the mouse disseth the controller, so does the controller disseth the touchscreen. (And we all diss motion controls, but that's a topic for another day.)

And maybe most touchscreen games deserve the disses.

I see a lot of games with virtual buttons on the screen. This is always a mistake. That's a sign of a subliminal conspiracy between game developers -- everyone on the team silently agreeing to commit to an inferiority complex: "[Sigh.] It sure would be cool if we were making a game with buttons."

Know this: A friend was telling me just the other day that his four-year-old son just doesn't want to touch a game controller. This friend has a glorious collection of old and new game consoles in his many-televisioned house, and all his son wants to do is play Where's My Perry? on the iPad. "Controllers just aren't real games to him," he told me.

I know "hardcore gamers" that will spend an hour of their lives trying to make a Skyrim avatar that looks exactly like themselves, and then they'll say mobile games aren't "real" games because their fingers get in the way of seeing the screen. This is interesting. Personally, I prefer IMAX to 3D movies, because I like feeling like I'm inside the movie, rather than feeling like the movie is popping out at me.

Now, imagine the way a four-year-old child feels playing with a touchscreen: The child touches her fingers to the screen, and the simulated world reacts. The child can literally touch her favorite cartoon character, and watch that character move. How is that not superior to pressing a button over here and watching the character move inside that screen over there?

Modern touchscreen technology has closed the distance from which children will consider electronics magical. For a four-year-old -- one who, in 10 years, will be a 14-year-old buying the games you're hopefully still making -- your remote control simply won't cut it.

Patient Zero: Pong

Designing essential game mechanics for touchscreens requires an understanding that hardcore action has never, ever been "about" the control method. It's about the way the action interacts with the player's brain. The control method is only ever an instrument for fabricating that brain-screen coordination.

Let's consider Pong. It's a hyper-competitive, finely nuanced contest between two players. The control implements are nothing like modern video game controllers. Players twist a tiny, mosquito-bite-sensitive knob. Twist a tiny bit clockwise, and your paddle zips to the bottom of the screen. Twist a tiny bit counter-clockwise, and the paddle zips to the top of the screen.

Furthermore, the paddle is made up of eight segments that appear to be seamless: The part of the angle of the return depends on where the ball contacts the paddle. Throughout a Pong contest, the player must balance the urge to trick their opponent against the urge to fire a return which is not so tricky as to result in any tactical backfires if returned. I like to think that the essence of all hardcore action games is purely available in Pong.

What I most take away from Pong is the relationship between the paddle and the control knob: The delicate sensitivity creates a brain impression that the game is more than just something happening on the screen. It's an object with a physical presence on planet Earth.

That brings us back to the image of a child, holding a screen, touching her favorite cartoon character, and watching that character react, like magic.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Hernan Zhou
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"Touch your left thumb to the left side of the screen to make your character accelerate; release to decelerate. Touch your right thumb to the right side of the screen to jump. (I can't think of any mobile games that use this scheme, though if you've made one, please tell me -- I'd love to play it.)"

Ah! I've been developing a game like this for several months now, called Super Bunny Land (relevant link: With a little difference that the left side is for deaccelerating, not accelerating. I think it works better that way.

Jim McGinley
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I can't wait for an article about making great touchscreen controls.

Titi Naburu
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Perhaps you might like to advance to page 2 of the article.

TC Weidner
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problem with touch screens is in the name, you have to touch the screen, therefore obscuring part of the screen. If your control requires the screen to be shaken, again, as you perform the act you limit, obscure screen view-ability, its a big obstacle to overcome in design. Also button controls allow the ability for slight touch and rest of a finger on a button in anticipation of a momentary reaction and push, touch screen do not allow for this. Button visceral feedback is also another feature of the button, we often dont need to look or even think much our fingers naturally feel for the button we are selecting.
Touch screen controls arent without there good point however, selection menus, games requiring touch selection such as trivia games are greatly enhanced by touch screens, but overall button and touch are no where near equivalent IMHO.

Nicholas Heathfield
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I have never thought of playing with a Macbook trackpad to test touch control ideas before. Thanks!

Jason Lee
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Zen Bound is a game that comes to mind when reading this article. It's a game that's not just touch controlled but about touching; the object of the game is to wrap a taught rope around wooden shapes. Paint appears around any point the rope touches the structure, and some puzzles involve popping small "paint bombs" by pressing the rope against them to splatter large areas in vibrant color. This game, from it's very core, designed with the touch screen in mind, from it's fiction (a game about wrapping) to the moment to moment of its controls. It feels unnatural & draggy with the mouse, while pulling with your fingers feels as though you're pulling against the perpetual tautness of the wrapping rope. The overall effect is extremely meditative, yet responsive.

Andy Lundell
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I disagree with the basic premise of the intro.

Controllers don't work well with games because Shigaru Myamoto figured out how to use them for games.
They work well with games because they were designed, from the ground up, for that purpose.

The current stage of mobile games is like early PC gaming. The touchscreen, like the keyboard, is not ideal for gaming, because it was not DESIGNED for gaming. People are using it for gaming because it happens to already be there, and because standardizing on anything else is "impossible".

It's a compromise, because we're using a multipurpose piece of hardware instead of gaming hardware.

If history is any indication, something better will soon come along. I'm not sure what, but something far more ideal for a wider variety of gaming.

Jordan Carroll
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The Leap controller is a possibly revolutionary input mechanism that could replace or augment touch on tablets if shrunk down enough.

I agree that the controller is much better designed, but I concede the point that these kids are growing up with touch controls, so they're going to be used to these in 10 years when they're buying games for themselves.

James Yee
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This is my pull quote:
"Now, imagine the way a four-year-old child feels playing with a touchscreen: The child touches her fingers to the screen, and the simulated world reacts. The child can literally touch her favorite cartoon character, and watch that character move. How is that not superior to pressing a button over here and watching the character move inside that screen over there?"

That's my daughter (in my Avatar) exactly. She is 4 and she plays "Where's my Perry" and all sorts of games on the iPad and for HER touch is everything. She sees it, she pushes it, it reacts. It's all that simple and that RIGHT for her. Folks need to realize that controllers aren't going away but neither is touch. As much as I hate touch screens they're here and our kids are going to be expecting them in the future.

Honestly I'm curious as to where it'll all be in 10 years when she's 14 and my son is 10. :)

Paul Marzagalli
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It is safe to say that the industry is collectively wondering the same thing...with the bigger names trying to manipulate the bell out of the variables to shape it in an advantageous way! :-)

I am definitely curious myself. I wonder, though, if we won't have to wait a bit longer, though. Much as the scene changed when the Atari/Nintendo generation became the ones with buying power, we will see what happens once your daughter and son are the ones buying things.

Morten Skrubbeltrang
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Hi Tim, interesting article. I think there will be a lot of new touch controls coming up during the next couple of years. However the evolution of touch controls is slow due to three things:
* The API of smartphones is in general not an invitation to creativity. Besides some pretty basic gesture recognition, as a developer you're left to code your own stuff bottom up.
* There exists an unspoken consensus on touch controls among players which takes time to expand. App consumers will not take in new touch controls overnight.
* As new touch controls will face initial resistance from users you can expect new stuff to come from indie developers and the boldest game studios only.

By the way... Our ios game PENTAPUZZLE has a unique navigation style inspired by the movie "Minority Report". Check it out to have a peek at the future ;)

JoseArias NikanoruS
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"I can't think of any mobile games that use this scheme, though if you've made one, please tell me -- I'd love to play it."
Sadly, I ONLY got the idea... but I do not have neither a programmer nor a Mac-something (or a touch device to be perfectly honest).
And now I'm wondering if I got this idea since I like to read your articles a lot...

Linh Ngo
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Our upcoming platformer-like ninja game uses single touch controls, but lets you do much more than binary action. It actually took some time to test and figure out, and I went through at least 4 different control schemes. But I'm happy with the end result being single touch.

Ozzie Smith
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I think that over the years certain genres have emerged and evolved to fit the strengths of the platforms that they are on. For example: RTS games emerged to take advantage of mouse and keyboard controls. Platformers emerged to take advantage of the D-pad (and later evolved to take advantage of analog sticks), etc. And as this article points out, most typical genres are just really bad on touch-screens.

There are certain genres that really benefit from touch-screens and those are generally the best games available for touch-devices. However I am starting to wonder what the limits are for touch-screen only games (or at least action-focused games). By having such a limited input, players rarely have as many options available to them at any time during gameplay. As a result, most good touch-screen games become sort of stale and played-out within an hour or 2 of gameplay (for me at least).

But hey maybe that's just because most of these games are small $.99 games made for phones and that's all you should really be asking for from them. But I yearn for a day when a game as complex, thrilling, and long-lasting as say Spelunky or Hotline: Miami can come out on a touch-only device and be just as fun and interesting. Run-forever games like Jetpack James control well but they offer almost no real choice for the player, and instead focus mostly on twitch-based reflexes and finesse (in fact most feel like a rhythm game to me). And to me personally, that is only part of the equation for a great action game (the other parts would be more decision-based like strategy and improvisation).

Basically what I'm saying is that I am starting to doubt that touch-screen devices will ever allow for as complex games as consoles and PCs can allow and still control really well. Maybe as tablets become more popular developers in the future will want to focus more on creating bigger more complex games for the devices and we will see what sort of genres can shine on touch-screens and be more complex and long-lasting that the sort of games we're seeing on touch-screens right now. I can't really think of how that can happen on touch-screens (as they are now), but hopefully I'm wrong.

Yarui Kang
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I disagree with the point that so many FPS players prefer mouse and keyboard because that is what we grew up with. I played console shooters for years before I ever started to play PC shooters, and I definitely prefer mouse and keyboard to a gamepad.

I know this wasn't really the point of the article, just saying.

Remy Trolong
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Great article. I agree with TC Weidner about the "obscuring the screen", but we just ported the game pad to the touchscreen for now.
So like Andy Lundell sayd, it's because they were not meant for that in the beginning. As game designer/developper, we've to find a good balance between ergonomy, screen visibility, and responsivity.
Anyway, you should try "League of Evil" for the 2d controls, i really liked it as a 2d plateformer/pixel art.
Thanks for sharing!

Mark Stope
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There's no question that a large part of the hurdle when integrating new touch-control concepts to gamers is due to fact that we've been playing games with joy / thumb-sticks and buttons since the invention of console gaming. Players are just simply too uncomfortable with the idea playing an action game without the standard shoot / jump / or attack-style buttons.

I recently worked on a game called Finger Ninjas Zombie Stirke-force which uses a very intelligent and intuitive attack pathing system (rather than a thumb-stick) but to this day the game's largest complaint is that the controls are 'terrible' or 'frustrating' -and people want a more traditional control mechanism (perhaps just the more vocal ones). In fact it seems to be one of the biggest polarizing factors when people comment on the game.

I think that when a game introduces any kind of 'new' or different control scheme devs will always be faced with overcoming the traditionalist barrier -regardless of how appropriate or innovative the controls may be.

Ben Hopkins
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"I can't think of any mobile games that use this scheme, though if you've made one, please tell me -- I'd love to play it."

Check out 1-bit Ninja, I released it on iOS back in 2011, it's a platformer that uses exactly the control scheme you described. I went with this control scheme after brainstorming ways of creating a precision platformer without traditional onscreen controls (which I'm generally not a fan of).

Here's some thoughts I wrote about it at the time:

Mike Griffin
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My six year old nephew likes playing iPad and is nimble with touch, but he absolutely adores playing Skylanders on PS3 -- and he's remarkably talented when it comes to manipulating the buttons and movement controls. He's not just like "cute" good -- he totally owns, fully competent. Probably helps that I put him on a Dual Shock when he was 4.

You give a child a toy/game, and if they like the goals and what's on screen, they will learn and adapt to whatever control interface you give 'em -- just like we did as kids. Then later, the child begins to understand what controls work best for specific game types.

By 8 or 9 years old I already had a clear impression of why arcade sticks worked well for certain games, versus using d-pad controllers for other games.

I'm sure plenty of kids are growing up today with 1-2 consoles in the house -and- a tablet to game on. They likely recognize when one type of control interface works best with a specific game type -- whether it's motion-based, controller-based, or touch.

I don't think one interface inherently trivializes the other. We've always had a ton of input device options to play video games with, typically designed to exploit a specific design form.
I.e., arcade sticks for fighters, wheels for racers, mouse & keyboard for FPS, etc.
Devices absolutely optimized and fine-tunable for an experience.

That's the beauty of gaming: Input options.

Curtiss Murphy
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The article seems to have run out of ink, after the 4th page. Or at least, that's how I felt. It was a great article - well written, with good stories. But, it just ... ends. I felt left out to dry. With no ink.

I <3 tablets, but to be honest, the constant touch on the glass causes my fingers to hurt! I suppose it's the next stage of carpel tunnel... Carpel Finger Pad? Glass Tunnel?

Or maybe I'm just pushing too hard!

Curtiss Murphy
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Sergey Pershin
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Stopped reading before I reached the end of the first page.
So many talks this days about [placeholder] is dying, [another_placeholder] is the future.
Not even remotely funny.
Do you people have nothing to do besides pushing out your preeeeecious home-grown ideas?
Write something useful next time please.

Edit: had to edit doue to text in <> disappeared (treated like keywords probably).

Bob Johnson
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I don't think you're a 4 yr old for life. You actually learn new things as you age beyond 4 yrs old. I know. I know. Mind-blowing.

And touchscreens have their limitations. I don't think they are going to be able to do some games as well as a game controller or m/k. On the other hand it does some things better. And certain games will be more fun on a touchscreen.

I haven't seen any touch screen game implement a great way to navigate through 3d space and shoot things etc.

Hyungil Kim
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This is really interesting topic and I've been considering on this topic for so long, too.

In my opinion, to evolve touch control interface, you should study behavior-expectation coordination that means, if a person takes some actions (for touch devices, it must be gestures), you should know what he or she must expect from games. I was thinking about emulating thumb pad on touch devices with this theory.

Virtual thumb pads these days never know what exactly players expect from their inputs. So I'm thinking what it will be like if it can read from my inputs. For example, try to imagine when you move your character with your physical controllers. Except when you try to move slowly, you will find yourself moving thumb sticks very fast all the way to the edge of the thumb stick rims. Then try to imagine that you move your thumb stick fast from proper position, usually that must mean you're trying to follow the edge of the thumb stick rim around and from there, you can get your imaginary pad rim size, and then again, you may get possible position of thumb pad.

I'm not that good at English, so example above might not be that clear to understand. Anyway if you want to make better controls for touch devices, you may want to implement controllers smart enough to figure out what exactly players want from gesture inputs and it will be better if they can learn from players' inputs.

paul lacey
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If you are interested in creating touch controls for games you may find this new tool useful.

It is great for prototyping new control schemes and test input modalities

Cristian Vargas
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Awesome content...changed the way i looked at things by making pretty logical observations. Thanks :)