There’s a new wave of products coming out now that convert your tablet device or phone into a mini arcade cabinet, complete with a joystick and a couple of fire buttons.
I love my retrogames, but this seems a bit of an odd product to me.
On the one hand, the product recognises a problem that’s inherent in mobile gaming, namely that it can be hard to play arcade games on touch screen devices.
You don’t realise how much you depend on the tactile feedback you get from a keyboard or a joystick until it’s gone. I often find that when I lift my finger off a button on a touch screen and put it back, my finger has moved slightly, so I drift away from the controls.
I need responsive and reliable controls when I’m being pursued by aliens or supernatural enemies, so the on-screen joystick hasn’t worked well for me.
But is bolting a peripheral on the front of the device the right solution? It’s a clever idea, and I’m sure it’s a lot of fun for use at home. I love the mini arcade look, and I’m sure I’d have a blast playing with it. But the joy of mobile gaming is that it’s mobile: you’re supposed to be able to play mobile games anywhere, any time, without having to worry about carrying around peripherals.
The challenge of game design is to use what the device offers you to create unique experiences.
On the Nintendo DS, there were puzzles that involved shutting the device and opening it again to use an ink stamp (Trace Memory) or blowing on the microphone (Phoenix Wright).
These are a bit gimmicky, of course, but they made great use of the device and gave people an experience they could only have on that device. Similarly, the text adventures that were popular in the 80s (a genre that still enjoys something of a cult following as ‘interactive fiction’), require devices with good keyboards. There’s a reason we don’t have text adventures on console devices.
Creative people always draw inspiration from the past. They can build upon the lessons learned, and use the vocabulary that players and developers have built up together as shortcuts in the game design.
But it’s important to think about what today’s devices uniquely offer us, and how the games we create can make optimal use of that.
The touch screen enables all kinds of new interactions, and we’re only just beginning to explore that. Until very recently, the screen was something you looked at. You saw your character represented on screen, like watching him through a window, and used the controls to direct him to the appropriate place on the screen. Now, players can touch anything they see.
There doesn’t need to be a separate representation of the player on the screen in some kinds of games. The pace of games can be faster, because players can touch the screen anywhere at any time and there’s no need to wait for an on-screen character to traverse the play area.
Tilt sensors can be used too to create new kinds of gameplay. The device itself can become the controller and the feedback mechanism, responding to how players move it. When combined with the camera that is often on a handheld device, it’s even possible to have augmented reality games, with monsters jumping out at you from nearby offices and houses. When GPS is thrown into the mix, it’s possible to invent games in which people have real adventures travelling around major cities, uncovering unique in-game experiences as they move through the physical world.
Of course, one challenge is the variety of devices available, and their different capabilities. The Intel AppUp developer program helps to solve the challenge by providing one channel for distributing apps for different devices (netbooks, laptops, tablets, in-vehicle and smart TV) and operating systems (Windows and MeeGo). But having one channel for distributing different apps does not necessarily mean that you should aim to directly port games across to all platforms. Some games are perfect for keyboard devices and others need a touch screen to really fly.
If developers are to create truly memorable gaming experiences, they should think about what makes each device special, and craft games that fully exploit that. The solution is not to plug a joystick into a mobile phone. It’s to create the right kind of games, so that you never need to.