Do touchscreen controls get in the way of core mobile gaming?

by Phil Owen

Way back in 2006, I bought an Xbox 360. I had previously owned an Xbox, but I had used it mostly to play sports games and RPGs, and so when I wanted to play a shooter or a Grand Theft Auto game, I got it on PC, although by that time my computer was out of date, and I hadn't played anything more substantial than San Andreas or Half-Life 2 on it in a while.

So when I got my Xbox 360, it became the focus of my gaming world, and the first game I purchased for it was Prey, a first-person shooter. As someone who had long been used to controlling shooters with a mouse and keyboard, it was not easy to get accustomed to using a gamepad. I spent my first few weeks with the console stumbling through the game, wondering if I would ever be any good at it. I even began to research how I could use a mouse and keyboard with my console. (For the record, it is possible, if not cheap, and I was a poor college student who had spent all his extra cash on the console itself. That setup was not an option.)

I preserved, and eventually became proficient with the gamepad. Now, six years later, I don't blink at playing any game on a console, even those with the most complex control schemes, because I know that controller and the DualShock 3 for the PlayStation 3 like they're a part of my body. And it only took me a month or two.

The move to touchscreens

Nowadays, in addition to playing shooters and other action games on game consoles and the PC, I play them on my phone, thanks mostly to Gameloft and EA. I have Dead Space, N.O.V.A. 2 and N.O.V.A. 3, Modern Combat 3, two Gangstar games, The Dark Knight Rises and Grand Theft Auto III on my various mobile devices. All of those are games that look like true AAA core games, and I don't need a powerful game console or PC to play them.

But the question I have today is this: are the touchscreen controls for these games a barrier between the traditional core gamer and these mobile games? The answer, to me – being a person who has been experiencing the transition to mobile gaming in the past year – is an unequivocal "yes." And that leads me to a second question: can we learn to be as proficient with touchscreen controls as we are with gamepads or a mouse-and-keyboard setup? That answer is a little more complicated.

Are they are a barrier?

The first and biggest problem facing mobile AAA action titles is that you have to do everything with your thumbs, which means that in shooters it is quite difficult to aim and do anything else at the same time. In Modern Combat and N.O.V.A., for example, you must move and look with your thumbs, and when you want to do something else like aim down the sights of your weapon or shoot, you have to reassign your right thumb from look to doing either of those things, which makes the games inherently hard to play.

Gameloft came up with an ingenious near-solution to this problem: using the gyroscope to aim precisely, so you can aim and shoot at the same time. This is only a partial solution, however, because unless you're standing up and turning in circles, you cannot use the gyroscope as your only means of looking. You still must use your thumb look most of the time, which makes it clumsy to go from shooting at someone on your right to shooting at someone on your left. Even so, one can overcome said clumsiness to become pretty good at these games. I know this because I have spent a couple weeks playing Modern Combat 3, and have sorta become OK at it to the point where I don't feel frustrated playing it all the time.

Different titles, different control schemes

The second issue facing these games is potentially more deadly in the long run. As more developers start making mobile games like this, the issue becomes the control scheme itself. For Gameloft shooters like N.O.V.A., Modern Combat and Rainbow Six, the controls are pretty much unified, by which I mean that the on-screen buttons for shoot, grenades, reload, etc. are in the same places across those games. But it's not only Gameloft making these games. When you go from one of those to Dead Space, you'll have to learn a completely new control scheme.

It's true that not every shooter on a console uses the same control scheme, but they do generally use the same controller. It's easy for a seasoned gamer to get used to a new control scheme on a gamepad because he knows where all the buttons are reflexively. He may accidentally hit “square” to reload in Red Dead Redemption a few times instead of “circle,” but as soon as he realizes his mistake, which will be very quickly, he'll hit the right button.

In new Gameloft shooters, you have the option to touch anywhere on the left and right sides of the screen to move and look, respectively, with a button on the bottom right corner to shoot, or you can use virtual joysticks that are locked in place to move and look, while tapping anywhere on the screen to shoot. In Dead Space, you simply put your thumbs anywhere for movement and look, and tap anywhere to shoot. I can see going from N.O.V.A. to Dead Space wouldn't be so difficult, but the reverse is more of an issue.

The problem with onscreen buttons

And that leads me to my third problem. While in Dead Space you don't have any onscreen buttons, which makes it simple to deal with, in Gameloft games you do. Onscreen buttons are intently an issue because you can't find them without looking at them. On a gamepad, you can feel where the buttons are, which is why so many people can play with one so easily. It's less easy to remember exactly where on the screen your buttons are if they aren't right in the corners.

The good news for core gamers is that for the extreme majority of mobile games, controls are not an issue. You can pick up and play Cthulhu Saves the World without a hitch. But for games, like the ones I've mentioned in this column, that require twitch reflexes, things become more difficult. If you give them enough time, however, you can become proficient with them. There may not be enough of these high-quality, console-level titles available right now to make it worth investing the time to get used to the controls, when you could instead spend your valuable mobile gaming time playing something with which you won't struggle.

But know this: if you do decide to try these games, you will figure it out eventually. It just might take some time.