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Let's Talk About Touching: Making Great Touchscreen Controls

February 22, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Case Study #1: Jetpack Joyride

You might have played Jetpack Joyride. It's a casual, free-to-play, monetized, mobile game -- all those buzzwords -- though it's also an action game, and its central action is tuned to a level of nuance on par with any individual gun in Halo.

In Jetpack Joyride, the player touches the screen -- anywhere -- to fire the character's jetpack. The longer the finger contacts the screen, the longer the jetpack fires. A short burst and then release will move the player-character less than halfway up the screen. A longer hold will bump the character's head into the ceiling. To obtain skill at the game, the player must master tapping and releasing as obstacle-context requires, juggling the character eternally between positions that are neither precisely the top nor precisely the bottom of the screen.

Jetpack Joyride is tenaciously feel-balanced. The speeds of by-jetpack ascent and by-gravity descent are locked in a tastily lopsided yin-yang. Jetpack Joyride is what happens when a game gets even one thing truly, actually, perfectly right: millions of downloads.

I first played Jetpack Joyride as someone who had tremendously enjoyed Canabalt, the pioneer of the "endless runner" genre. Canabalt is another game that gets one thing truly -- actually, perfectly -- right. Canabalt is about tap-hold-duration-sensitive jump heights with inevitable gravity. It's about the beauty of parabolas. (Action games are almost universally about parabolas.)

As your character accelerates, his maximum and minimum jump distances grow; the shape of his minimum jump parabola becomes an oddly stretched caricature of its original self. The game becomes "unpredictable" until you master the feel of it.

Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride are games that most players have experienced exclusively with a touchscreen, though they are also highly playable with a mouse -- as their Flash and Facebook versions, respectively, indicate. Therefore, it's probably better to call them "one-button" games; they work well on a touchscreen, since a touchscreen is a big button, but touchscreens do not have to be one-button games.

In all sincerity, I say that Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride, two games whose creators I presume love Super Mario Bros., have actually demonstrated a masterful understanding of that game's playful friction. But is it possible to make a one-button Super Mario Bros.? By god, no.

Super Mario Bros. is not just about the fine manipulation of jump parabolas through button-press durations; it's also about direct manipulation of running speed. When I was a kid, you knew another kid knew what was up in Super Mario Bros. if he was holding the controller perpendicular to his torso, buttons out, thumb keeping the B button depressed.

Narrating the experience of parkouring through World 8-3 is no easy task: It'd be a Morse code of taps and releases of the A and B buttons, with B held down most of the time and only let go for 15 to 20 milliseconds at a time as obstacles or enemies demanded it. Super Mario Bros.'s mechanics are deceptively rife with moving parts, and there's probably at least two whole textbooks to be written about the friction when Mario slides to a stop before changing direction.

If we remove the ability to change direction from Super Mario Bros., and make it a two-button level-based runner, where one button is "continuous horizontal thrust/acceleration" and the other button is "jump," well, now we're getting somewhere. 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.)

Now we just need to super-fine-tune the acceleration rate, the top speed, the deceleration rate, the jump-height acceleration, the jump-height cutoff, the speed of gravity, and craft interesting multiple-level paths and enemy behaviors. Do all that, and you've made something pretty Super-Mario-ish without using more than two buttons or a touchscreen.

Of course, this two-button Super Mario Bros. would also be about 27 Rubik's Cubes-worths more complicated than Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride duct taped together. It'd be like Canabalt: Stick-Shift Edition. Developing it into a successful product would be a nightmare (if not multiple nightmares).


During the prototype phase for my studio Action Button Entertainment's upcoming hyperkinetic touchscreen mindsport FASTERBLASTER, I hit a brick wall in my attempts to explain the way the player's avatar should rotate.

The avatar is, at the end of a movement, always pointing upward; the device is always in portrait mode; the camera is rotating along with the avatar.

Our second prototype made us seasick, because the camera rotated at the exact speed as the avatar, and the avatar's direction related one-to-one with the position of the player's finger on the bottom edge of the screen. To return to the Pong example, it would be kind of like tweaking a Pong knob one millimeter counterclockwise, and then finding yourself suddenly standing in the arcade parking lot.

Only enemy formations could lend context to FASTERBLASTER's grotesque spiral. I had this quirky idea that the player's finger-touchdown point should correspond directly to a clock-face position. Assuming the avatar begins pointing to 12 o'clock despite no touch input, touching the left edge of the screen would point the avatar to 6 o'clock. The right edge, also, would point the avatar to 6 o'clock. Now, the very center would point to 12 o'clock; left-center would point to 9 o'clock, and right-center would point to 3 o'clock.

In FASTERBLASTER, the player charges up grenades and then lobs them at enemies who are constantly advancing from all directions. The grenades' destination point is constantly fluctuating between the tip of the triangular avatar and the upper edge of the screen. Each up-down pump increases the charge level of the grenade, which increases the radius of its explosion if it contacts an enemy.

So it's important to be able to hold onto your bullet while it's charging and shift your aiming position easily. The bullets charge quickly, and the target cursor moves quickly. The enemies move quickly, and the travel time of the player's grenades is balanced to enforce maximum friction.

It's just -- that sliding. Lord, it just about gave me an aneurysm.

Part of the problem was the size of the iPhone screen. The ratio of my thumb-tip-width to total width of the screen in portrait mode to circumference of the playing field (in iPhone screen heights) was hardly golden. An iPad Mini (the target platform) is just fine, because the travel speed of the average person's finger across that real estate yields a sensible enough rotation speed. On an iPhone, though, forget it.

My pride cried. I'd believed in the FASTERBLASTER pre-prototype controls, because they'd worked so well in ZiGGURAT.

Or had they?

Article Start Previous Page 2 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 :)