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Let's Talk About Touching: Making Great Touchscreen Controls

February 22, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Case Study #5: Angry Birds and Gasketball

You could play Angry Birds with a keyboard, just the same way we used to play Scorched Earth on a PC. The up and down arrow keys pitch the angle of the bird, left and right pull back the slingshot, and the space bar fires. But by being a touchscreen game, Angry Birds offers children of all ages the joy of reaching out and literally touching their game character with their finger. That slingshot-stretching sound enhances the perception that our flesh is making something happen. It's barely tactile, but it's still tactile. The world inside the touchscreen is a little cartoon still life of a pinball machine; we wind it up and watch it go.

I'm not here to talk about Angry Birds' innovations or branding or level design (which all sort of suck, to be perfectly honest): Let's just say it feels like something. It's not something that we necessarily have to be touching, though it is popular as something that we touch.

It's safe to say that Angry Birds would not be popular without either its branding or its mechanical particulars. Angry Birds is as much a house of cards as any hundred-million-dollar property. My opinion, though, is that the controls and mechanics are as sound as the characters are ugly, and that without the surrounding game design the birds would be dead on a street corner somewhere. (I mean, they don't even have wings.)

I wouldn't be surprised if one Angry Birds-esque stuff-throwing "clone" is released on the app stores of the world every six hours, but only one stuff-throwing game stands out -- and this is a perfect way to end what I'm trying to talk about in this article.

Gasketball for iPad is a game about throwing basketballs into basketball hoops. On the way to the hoop, your ball must bounce off of various objects or walls. You must sink each stage's basket challenge in one throw.

The speed of the balls' flight through the air is faster than four of the angriest birds taped together. The physics are deliciously swift. Yet the controls are not a keyboard-surrogate touch-slingshot. They put Angry Birds on Xbox 360, you know. You can play with just an analog stick. It's actually intuitive and highly playable.

Gasketball would be neither intuitive nor playable at all with an analog stick: In order to shoot the ball, you trace a swooshing pattern, putting spin or speed or power or all three behind it simply with a flicking flourish of your finger. The range of expression contained in a single 0.15-second input is astounding.

Once you've beaten one "world" of stages -- the game gives you limited balls; lose them all, and you start the set over -- you unlock the ability to play a time-attack mode, and here's where my brain lights on fire. It's like Angry Birds, only you are angrybirding for your mortal life, at reckless speeds, applying full labyrinths of brainwork to every twitch of the finger.

This is what a touchscreen game is: a single simple joyful motion pregnant with consequence, birthed into a stage where things are happening. You must time your action to fit between, around, or through obstacles.

In short, touchscreen action games require incredible feel in simple actions on the tens-of-milliseconds scale, and superlative level design. Hey -- that sounds like all other action games.

Call of Angry Birds

Gasketball is as "real" a game as Call of Duty (at the very least).

I first learned about Gasketball from Bennett "QWOP" Foddy, after showing him our tennis-like ball-and-paddle game TNNS (iOS/Android). In TNNS, aftertouch is everything; you tap the baseline to move your paddle, then slide or tap your finger along the baseline during the 0.xx-second freeze-frame impact after the ball hits the paddle to bend the ball's flight path. The bend is relative to the distance from the paddle (and ball) at which you released your finger, and the time it took to travel there. You can change the direction twice -- tap twice on opposite sides of the baseline to do freaky right-angle bends. It's fun for multiple players (and it has a single-player mode, too!).

After showing him TNNS and getting his approval ("TNNS is great." - Bennett Foddy, Oxford University), I told him we had something more fun in mind for a golf-like game. I explained it, and then Foddy said I should try Gasketball. I saw one YouTube trailer, and almost chewed a row of teeth-holes in my bottom lip. Well, great minds think alike, et cetera. It just might be that some of the Great Touchscreen Games of the Future are here already, and more are arriving as we speak.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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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 :)