Few things irritate me more than failing to follow standard interface conventions. There are tremendously good reasons for these standards existing – I should be able to grab the mouse and immediately get to work without weird things happening, forcing me to trawl through the help pages.
Consider something like 3D Studio Max. It’s a 3D program – functionally it could not be further away from a Word Processing application and yet consider how the mouse actions work:
Left Click: Select an object for interaction as you would place the insertion point for interaction
Left Click & Drag: Select objects as you would select words
Right Click: Context-sensitive menu as in everything
Mouse Wheel Scroll: Zoom in and out, as you would scroll the document up and down
Middle Mouse Click & Drag: Pan the viewport as you would scroll the window
In the same way, there are certain conventions used with gamepads – ‘A’ should ‘accept’ and ‘B’ should be ‘back’ and while obviously all controls should be customisable (you may have physical reasons why using your index finger for accelerate is not ideal), that out of the box similar driving games should use similar controls is sensible.
There is, of course, room to move – not every game has the same requirements. But you’d be mad to decide that, really, the camera should be operated using the left thumb stick with movement handled on the right for… well, no real reason really – just the designer happens to prefer it that way round.
Gamepads are designed with these conventions in mind. Some buttons are nice springy analogue triggers because these are the buttons located in the sensible place for actions which require sensitive analogue control. Attempting to use a button designed for digital use (like the face A, B, X, Y type buttons) for sensitive acceleration is almost always completely awful.
So, it’s taken many console generations. But we have finally arrived at something approaching a sensible generic controller design which it is possible to assign sensible control standards to.
HOORAY! LET’S THROW IT ALL AWAY! WOOOOO!
It seems that the controller is perceived as a barrier to the sort of mass-market person essential to get if you want to take gaming to the masses. No, we must instead develop a more intuitive control system like pointing a wand or waving our arms around like lunatics. But none of these control systems are particularly intuitive either – you still need to learn how to interact with them but the point is, having learned for one game then intuition can take over for every other game.
But now that control schemes with controllers are reasonably standardised, the same applies to conventionally controlled games too. Hand my mum one FPS game, and after being thrilled blowing the heads off civilians she can move onto blowing the heads of slightly different civilians in another game without many barriers. At least in theory. Assuming sensible control decisions were made.
So. Touch controls.
If I pick up my phone right now, and attempt to interact with an e-mail application – it’s pretty obvious how it will work. Flick up and down to scroll the messages. Click and swipe to the side to pan between the various windows. There are guidelines for all these sorts of things in tremendous depth because it’s important that applications on a phone behave consistently.
What about a game? How should that be controlled? Should you draw some buttons on the screen and have me press them? Should I click and drag the main character around directly while simultaneously obscuring it with my finger? Should I swipe gestures to get it to do stuff? Bollocksed if I know – there’s no good standard because there’s a bazillion ways to make a game for a touch screen, and only a touch screen to control them with.
You can argue that it is this very freedom which makes developing games for phones so exciting. I’d argue that it’s not tremendously “free” when you’re basically attempting to design the least awful way of interacting on a device that’s clearly not designed to do these sorts of games. It’s kind of like playing Gianna Sisters using a joystick as opposed to playing Mario on a SNES controller. You can certainly argue that Gianna Sisters was brilliant (it was), but you’d be mad to say that playing Mario on a SNES pad wasn’t better.
I once made a pinball game for the Palm III. It worked pretty well since pinball only requires two buttons (plus one for tilt) which need to be on the left and right. That’s great, but you still need to tell the user that they need to press “Calendar” for the left flipper and “Memo” for the right. It’s stupid, but that’s what happens when you take a personal organiser and whack a game on it.
The closer your game matches the purpose the device was designed for, the better. Make a game for a touch device which is menu driven – like some sort of management game – and those highly developed and tuned standards come out to play in force and you end up with something that anyone can pick up and immediately feels right.
There is, however, almost bound to be an unexpected genre that’s the perfect fit for touch controls – nobody designed the keyboard and mouse with the idea of developing something which 30 years or more later would turn out to be brilliant for shooting civilians in the face, after all.