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September 9, 2011 / Abe Pralle


After the iPhone’s touch screen came out all kinds of interesting control schemes have emerged.  After implementing my fair share of overcomplicated and frustrating schemes, I’d like to give my thoughts on the best ways (and worst) ways to implement touch controls.

Problematic Touch Controls

Never say never, of course, but we’ve had user frustration issues with all of the following:

Heavy Dragging
Dragging your finger constantly around the glass screen for minutes at a time (Air Hockey, Deathride) becomes somewhat uncomfortable after a while.  You can’t just swap out mouse movement control with fingertip control!

Virtual Joystick
Even though
they’re heavily used in mobile games, virtual joysticks are a poor substitute for the real thing.  It’s easy for your finger to slip off-center or run off the edge of the screen.  Using the sides of the screen (which are easier to keep track of) can work for a slower-paced game, but the distance from edge to edge is a little unwieldy for arcade-style games.

Relative Tapping
Relative taps (tap to the right of the hero to slide or turn right, etc.) make a lot of sense in theory, but as we’ve discovered with Armageddon Rider and Zombie Conga, this idea of “it matters where you tap but not what you tap on” can be a little too abstract (for casual players, at least).

Multi-Finger Taps and Swipes
You can explain it all you want in the instructions, but if you have to do a two-fingered tap to bring up the menu or some such then you’ll just frustrate the majority of players who either didn’t read the instructions or have forgotten those special cases by now.

Elegant Touch Controls

There’s nothing easier or more transparent to the user than tapping on a big, clearly visible button or tile.  Just make sure the buttons don’t blend in to the background too much – and if you ever catch yourself requiring the user to tap a tile and then another tile next to it, consider a swipe instead.

Light Dragging
There’s certainly a place for dragging as long as the player’s fingertip is given a break at regular intervals.  The biggest danger then is in players not realizing they can drag something around!

Swiping is one of the most elegant, most underutilized tools that touch game designers have at their disposal.  When it came to replacing the keyboard and D-Pad with a touch screen, most of us thought a little too literally and made virtual buttons.  But what is the purpose of keys in most PC games?  It’s not to type in W, A, S, and D, it’s to move the hero up, left, down, and right.  For discrete movements, nothing’s easier on a touch screen – just swipe up to go up, etc.  The swipes can be anywhere on screen and they still work just like a D-Pad!  As a bonus, you can then have a world with much smaller tiles than you could have if you needed to be able to tap on a particular tile to walk to it.


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