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Feeling Your Game

by Bob Heubel on 06/18/13 04:47:00 pm

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


I’ve been a video gamer from the beginning.  Pong console from Sears?  Had that.  Atari, Activision, Spectravision?  Yup.  I was hooked.  Zork?  Played it.  Doom?  Are you kidding me?  I am an FPS king with a long pedigree.

So, it should come as no surprise that in 1999 I joined a company associated with the game industry.  We had a vision to “improve the human-computer interface.”  And in the early days this meant game controls.

I worked in a gaming technology for what we know today as force feedback for joysticks, racing wheels, rumblepads and even mice.  We helped Microsoft write the original DirectX input method for force feedback devices.  I was in heaven the first time I played a flight-sim using a force feedback joystick.  And when the first force feedback racing wheel came out, I could not believe how realistic and immersive the game experience was.  Rumble is practically synonymous with console gaming now.  So, I know I’m not the only one that likes to feel their games.

Today I help game developers bring a more tactile, more realistic feel to their mobile games.  After more than thirty years as a gamer and fourteen years designing feedback effects, I know sense of touch is a visceral element in game play.

We are at an interesting gaming crossroads today; a mobile crossroads where the gaming industry is doing their best to bring the gaming experience anywhere and everywhere.  Of course, our mobile devices are playing a huge part in this new revolution.

So, where does that leave me?  Very happy, actually.   And very busy.  I play more games today than I did when I was a kid…But I digress.

It’s important for developers to know that the same type of feeling you get in console games is possible for most of today’s mobile devices. If you’re a gamer, you may have felt a strong “buzz” vibration when your game ended or when your virtual car crashed.  That’s fine.  But it’s not very compelling and doesn’t really satisfy a gamer’s senses.  Much more is possible for today’s mobile game developers.

 Actuator control and tactile effect design is as much art as science, but Immersion Corporation (my employer since 1999!) is offering developer tools that include a library of tactile effects, with everything from UI “clicks” to explosions, weapons fire and more.  With 124 effects, the library and tools help developers find the right effects to match the audio and visuals of the game.  The ability to enhance tactile effects for even simple games can be very satisfying, and addictive.  You could feel a subtle (yet crisp) tactile confirmation of dragging your finger across the tiles in a puzzle game.  You could feel a subtle humming as you rev your engine in a racing game or the texture of the gravel as you drift off the track in a slide.  Imagine if every weapon in a shooter like Rockstar Game’s Max Payne Mobile for Android felt different.  Well, they do and you can feel it. Developers are now using tactile feedback to enhance game play, and create more intuitive and compelling mobile experiences, like those in console games. 

Immersion’s Haptic Effect SDK, effect library and tools are free for game developers and helps them quickly integrate haptics into their games, it takes as little as 10 minutes.   No joke.  We’ve started with offering the tools on the Android platform, and have plug ins for popular environments like Unity3D and Marmalade.  The effects compensate for the differences between all the different mobile device motor types allowing games to feel fairly consistent across all Android devices.  Also, because this library controls the voltage being used for the pre-designed effects, it conserves battery power over the standard vibrate method.

Oh, and “how much battery power does using these tactile effects cost me,” you ask?  Well, it does vary from device to device, but it is not much.  For example, on my “old” Samsung Galaxy S3 handset, using vibration for gaming will cost me less than 1% of my overall battery consumption, but the average is closer to 3% across all device types and for the more immersive gaming experience, it’s hard to believe anyone would turn off the feature to save power.  It would be like turning off the A/C or stereo in your car to save gas.  Sure, you could do it, but would you enjoy the ride as much?

Don’t get me wrong. I know some people don’t like feeling their games, just like some people don’t like ice cream or beer.  But those people are few and far between.  At best, tactile feedback can make a game feel bigger than the sum of its visual, aural and tactile parts.  And at worst, you can turn it off.

And before you ask, no, this library is not yet available for iOS, only Android.  I know, that kills me too. We hope other platforms open up their vibration API to developers.

 If you want a chance to experience tactile effects in a mobile game for yourself, grab an Android game like Rockstar Game’s Max Payne Mobile or Sega’s Sonic 4 Ep.II or just download Immersion’s own “Haptic Preview App” from Google Play.  Or maybe you’re just one of those people that don’t like ice-cream.   And that’s cool too! (ha, ha).

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