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Mobile Controllers: Game On or Dead On Arrival?

Mobile Controllers: Game On or Dead On Arrival?

Wed 04 Dec 2013 3:46pm GMT / 10:46am EST / 7:46am PST
MobileHardwareDevelopment

We chat with several devs about the new iOS game pads and what impact they will ultimately have

Last month, both Moga and Logitech unveiled the first officially licensed iOS controllers designed to work with Apple's iOS 7. For the last year or more, mobile advocates have argued that consoles are being threatened by smartphones, and that when combined with a viable controller they could essentially replace a console. That theory is clearly quite flawed, and having played around with Moga's Ace Power in addition to speaking with mobile developers, we're convinced that it's going to be long time before mobile gaming can live up to consoles.

On its face, having the ability to use a controller instead of finicky and often imprecise touchscreen controls is any gamer's dream. Devs we spoke with were generally pleased that they have the option to offer controller support.

"We love the idea, since everyone (including us) hates touchscreen controls," says Seth Coster, co-founder at Butterscotch Shenanigans.

"I like the idea of it and what it can bring to the mobile gaming experience," says Mike Lu, vice president of product at Gree.

"My immediate reaction to it is that when it works, it works well," adds KevinKuenstler, Producer at one of Sega's mobile teams, speaking about Moga's controller.

That's all well and good, but the inherent problem in games built for mobile is that they still have to be designed with touchscreen controls in mind first and foremost.

"It's very very difficult to make a game that plays well with both touch and physical buttons"

Seth Coster

"If a game has to factor in both touchscreen and controller-based inputs, I believe it will just end up compromising both the touchscreen and controller-based gaming experience. The alternative (having two separate versions of the game, one to cater for each input system) is not feasible either, from a development costs standpoint," notes Wicked Dog Games producer Jeffrey Lim.

Paul Johnson, managing director at Rubicon, agrees that it's a pretty serious limitation. "I've always believed you should develop to a platform's strengths, so make a dedicated shooter for a dedicated controller, or a tap and drag game for a touchscreen. Trying to do both is a recipe for failure. I'll revise this position when I hear of the first of these companies to sell 10 million units," he says.

According to Coster, it's a complicated situation for developers that really like the idea of controller support. "It's not limiting per se, but it does cause problems. When you design for a touchscreen, you have very different parameters of how to structure the game. For example, if your GUI is designed to be tapped, or to have things be dragged from one place to another, one of the few options with a controller would be to have an on-screen 'cursor' that is controlled with the joystick, which is far less intuitive. It's very very difficult to make a game that plays well with both touch and physical buttons," he explains.

1

Moga's controller collapses into a smaller piece when not in use

"To top it off, your interface is much more cumbersome when you have touchscreen controls, and it has a higher tendency to block the view of the gameplay, so you have to build that into the design. When you switch to a controller, you don't need all that stuff on screen, but if the game is designed to have those things there, removing them might make things look weird and require a bunch of tweaking. Overall it's just a pain to try to accommodate both options at once."

Lu was one of the dissenting opinions, offering that developers simply have a creative challenge on their hands, but one that's manageable.

"I don't see it as limiting," he says. "There has been tremendous success on devices that have both - for example, the Nintendo DS, which has been in the market for a long time supporting both a touchscreen and a controller. It will be a fun challenge for game designers to come up with innovative ways to take both controls into account and my guess is that games that are more action-based will lean toward a controller play style while plenty of other games will continue to focus on touch-screen-based controls."

Ultimately, where the mobile controllers will offer the most palpable difference is when studios utilize for familiar genres, argues Kuenstler: "In my experience, the option to allow the user to play with an external controlleris really most valuable when the game is a port of a console game."

Even if a developer is adamant about adding controller support, there's also the question of whether it's worth the time (and cost) to build that into the code. That being said, most devs told us that it's fairly painless.

"For games like dual stick shooters and platformers, there is an existing synergy between the controller and these genres so the addition of controller support should be straightforward," says Lim, but he cautions, "the two different input schemes should not exist together or else it would confuse the players. Hence developers would still likely need to customize the game interface for both modes (i.e. with and without controller)."

As Lim alludes to, adding in controller support is automatically going to mean further testing is needed before a game can be released.

Kuenstler notes, "It is not a huge amount of work for most games, especially any that are built to use digital d-pads or analog sticks, as it's simply a case of mapping inputs - other games, for instance RTS's or touch-centric games may have to add a fully new control scheme into their game to make the controller useful.However, even adding generic support still takes specific development time in order to refine and make sure that the customer is receiving an optimal experience."

"If these controllers prove to be popular, developers might be encouraged to create games that sidestep the limitations of touchscreen interfaces"

Jeffrey Lim

So what's the real impact of these controllers going to be? Are they doomed to become niche peripherals that only a small fraction of smartphone users purchase (meaning dev support will be correspondingly low), or can they genuinely change the face of mobile gaming?

"I'll be amazed if they get to 'niche'," remarked Johnson.

Coster largely agrees, commenting, "I don't think they will change [the market] much -- at least not in their current state. Because they are a peripheral that doesn't come with the device, that inherently makes them a niche item. The player has to physically go out of his way to acquire one of these gamepads, and there will be very few games that support them very well, or -- better yet -- are designed with a controller in mind."

"It would be a mistake for a developer to make a game that is intended to be used with a controller, because such a small portion of mobile users will have one. It's a catch-22 that can only be broken by having one of the big hardware companies incorporate controllers into the phones themselves at retail," he adds. "I would even argue that just bundling a gamepad peripheral with the phone won't be enough -- people can't be bothered to lug a gamepad around with them and then attach it to their phones when they want to play. The controllers need to be a part of the phone for this idea to really cause any kind of change."

2

Logitech's iOS controller has no analog sticks

Lim is equally pessimistic about the mobile controller field. "I see a number of issues which prevent iOS controllers from gaining widespread adoption. The first and most obvious is of course, that they are not future-proof; if the next iPhone has a different size/form factor then the controller can't be used anymore," he points out. "Next, the controllers are fairly expensive (about $100). No doubt they come with other features (e.g. dual function as a portable battery charger), but for the purposes of gaming $100 is a lot to pay for a controller. Lastly, the controllers look a little bulky to me; which negates the whole notion of mobility."

Negativity aside, Lim sees a ray of hope: "But at the same time, I'm keen to see how this will influence the future of gaming on the iPhone. Because playing with a gamepad provides a different tactile feel, which may be more suitable for certain games (e.g. first-person shooters, or fighting games like Street Fighter). Furthermore the additional buttons could allow developers to add more interactivity into their game (e.g. quick-time events). If these controllers prove to be popular, developers might be encouraged to create games that sidestep the limitations of touchscreen interfaces."

Indeed, to paraphrase an old adage goes, "it's about the games, stupid." If the software is compelling, the controllers could eventually reach an installed base just big enough to make developers take notice.

"As with most platforms, the success of the hardware really depends on the games. Controllers will give developers a way to bring proven genres that haven't quite hit their mobile stride- like skill-based action and first-person shooter games - to the mobile players," Lu says. "That being said, what makes mobile gaming interesting is how big and varied the market and players are. Mobile is about on-the-go and quick burst gaming, which means a good touch screen experience will continue to be key to success - regardless of genre."

32 Comments

Whilst the current crop of mobile controllers are not future proof, I think its a really good addition to bring touchscreen mobiles into the territory inhabited by the PS Vita and Nintendo DS. It could even bring a small spurt of growth from casual gaming to more serious gaming onto mobiles, limited by gestural or touchscreen controls.

What do you reckon Bruce! :)

Posted:10 months ago

#1

Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

111 198 1.8
Popular Comment
"...additional buttons could allow developers to add more interactivity into their game (e.g. quick-time events)"

I never thought I'd see those two phrases in the same sentence!

Seth's point about a peripheral needing to be part of the offering from day 1 to gain acceptance is the key here, that's the only way its ever going to catch on. After-market solutions never make much of an impact, and those that do make any kind of splash at retail have traditionally needed a considerable marketing push and a whole bunch of dedicated titles (e.g. KInect, PSMove) to get that far.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jed Ashforth on 4th December 2013 4:32pm

Posted:10 months ago

#2
I suppose extrapolating that, Kinect would do great with a Move/device that folks can have a tactile connection with.

Imagine being a gladiator in Ryse, and wielding a Gladius device...

Posted:10 months ago

#3
Lu was one of the dissenting opinions, offering that developers simply have a creative challenge on their hands, but one that's manageable.

"I don't see it as limiting," he says. "There has been tremendous success on devices that have both - for example, the Nintendo DS, which has been in the market for a long time supporting both a touchscreen and a controller. It will be a fun challenge for game designers to come up with innovative ways to take both controls into account and my guess is that games that are more action-based will lean toward a controller play style while plenty of other games will continue to focus on touch-screen-based controls."
Sure it's a design challenge and the DS is a success, but DS developers know that their customers will most definitely have a touchscreen, d-pad and buttons, and even know the form factor of them (ie. how easy it is to transition between using buttons, to touch and back). On a smart phone, you don't have that assurance. You know that they will have a touch screen, and might have a controller attachment. Of those that have a controller you don't know in advance how many inputs they will have, it might be 8 buttons, 2 thumbsticks and a d-pad, or it might only have 2 buttons and a thumbstick (this isn't a hypothetical condition btw, I've actually integrated support for this 2 button variety before). Also the controls may be like the one pictured in the article, that attaches to the sides of the phone, making it easy to transition between touch & controller, but it could just as easily be connected by a cable or bluetooth and be significaly harder to swap between the two. Developers will have to take into account all of these variables and ensure that they ship a game that is still fully playable and just as enjoyable in whatever combination you happen to have. You can of course choose minimum requirements for you game, but that just limits your audience even further.

I love the idea of controller support in mobile games, but it really isn't as trivial as some would make out. An interesting note however, one input device that works wonderfully on an Android smartphone is the humble mouse. Customising touchscreen games for mouse support is a far simpler objective.

Posted:10 months ago

#4

Craig Page Programmer

384 220 0.6
I like the controller idea, but it would be a lot more useful if it was made for tablets instead of phones. Tablets usually sit somewhere in your house, where it doesn't matter if they're extra bulky from having a controller added to it.

Posted:10 months ago

#5

Anthony Gowland Lead Designer, Outplay Entertainment

201 670 3.3
They'd have a hard time gaining traction anyway, but for $100? Good luck!

Posted:10 months ago

#6

Jean-Claude Cottier Director, Ovogame

2 0 0.0
My new game will have both support: touch screen and gamepad. I'm currently doing it on android and yes, it is a bit of more work but not that much if you do it from the start (ios support will mean no extra dev cost). I think a lot of more devs will support both like me once the rumoured android console by google and amazon hit the stores. I've got a ouya, and it is pretty cool that the exact same code is supporting both android touch screen device with gamepad and android console. I want my games designed for as many platforms as possible, so having gamepad support means future ports will be easy to do on next gen console (if possible). Let's see what happen in a year time, I'm sure the situation will be very different.

Posted:10 months ago

#7

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 942 0.7
A standard needs to be developed. Who is to say that your gonna buy one of these controllers and it will support your games. Im assuming compatability, issues will arise.

Remember when a charger for a phone was exclusive to that phone and you couldnt use just any charger to charge the battery? Now most phones have a micro-usb that does everything from charge your phone to data managing and file transfer through a single input. And you can use any charger from any brand tu plug your device in.

And you can now find these chargers or cables really cheap, for just a few dollars.

So until a standard is developed, to me its a dead on arrival. And the pricess are greatly exagerated for what these controllars are. they are almost the price of a portable gaming console, and its just a piece of plastic with a few buttons. it doesnt have the internal components of a VITA or 3DS to to play games. So why the fuck are they so expensive? So yeah, dead on arrival.

Posted:10 months ago

#8

Morgan King Animator

48 92 1.9
There's little chance enough people are interested in this way of mobile gaming (that haven't satisfied that with an existing portable device) for developers to bother adding support for it, much less designing with it mind. The way a touchscreen game is designed is rarely how a controller navigated games is designed, and unless we're looking solely at a sudden boom in controlling streaming console games through the cloud over 4G, I can't really see the demand for this any time soon.

Posted:10 months ago

#9

Peter Bond Studying Art & Design, University of Bedfordshire

72 19 0.3
Agrees with Rick, there needs to be a standard. I often wondered why Apple themselves have not released a controller since iOS 7 was released, i mean if they did, then at least you know for sure that every game that's released thereafter will be compatible with it. Or just give people the option to pair their existing controllers (ps3/wii etc) and away you go (without jailbreaking).

Posted:10 months ago

#10

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd

321 748 2.3
Perhaps the first sentence of the article doesn't make it clear enough that Apple have set a standard.

There are already loads of iOS games that just about work with on-screen controls that would benefit hugely from physical controls. Saying it's impossible for a game to support both is like saying it's impossible to support joypads and mice+keyboards.

But the price has to be right first. Bundling with games that demonstrate their strengths (GTA:SA, any racing, fighting or platform game) wouldn't hurt either.

Posted:10 months ago

#11

Nick Wofford Hobbyist

180 190 1.1
The extra bulk makes it DOA. I agree with Craig that it should've been a tablet add-on. No one's going to carry this thing around for the off-chance gaming session. I don't have 10 pockets for all of my daily necessities (wallet, phone, keys, etc...)

Posted:10 months ago

#12

Techni Myoko Programmer

43 81 1.9
"It's very very difficult to make a game that plays well with both touch and physical buttons"

Sure, if you suck at programming. If you have properly modularized your code so that the game actions triggered by your controls, is separate from the input listener, its easy to add other input listeners to trigger the same game actions.

Posted:10 months ago

#13

John Bye Senior Game Designer, Future Games of London

481 453 0.9
"everyone (including us) hates touchscreen controls," says Seth Coster, co-founder at Butterscotch Shenanigans"
Not being funny, but why are they developing games for a touch screen device then?

I can't imagine these controllers gaining any traction. They're expensive, they look clunky and cumbersome, only a handful of games currently support them, and of the first two controllers released, one of them has two analogue sticks and four shoulder buttons and the other has no sticks and only two shoulder buttons. So there's no consistency for developers or players.

Surely it would be better to just let people use existing USB and bluetooth controllers with a phone or tablet, like you can on Android devices? Although I can't imagine Apple ever opening up their system like that.

Posted:10 months ago

#14

Steve Goldman Journalist.

81 92 1.1
buy a 3ds

Posted:10 months ago

#15

Soumen Internet Marketing Manager, PurpleTalk

2 0 0.0
Controllers will be there for Tablets too?? or is it just for mobile phones?

Posted:10 months ago

#16
I reckon, because more folks have contract/PAYG mobiles and are not "gamers" per se compared to those who would walk about with a Vita/3DS, the mobile phone by virtue of its userbase is immense, gargantuan. As such, although it counterintuitive to develop for more gamic centric devices, one cannot ignore this mobile market and the opportunity to be afforded to convert casual and occasional gamers into more interactive entertainment devices.

As such, its highly unlikely mobile manufacturers will develop a touchscreen device with a joypad . Most have a tough fight on their hands and the current shootout is really between HTC, Samsung and Apple. Blackberry & Nokia - not in the ring for now.
As such, it relies on the 3rd party manufacturers to bring us such game related accessories.

Much like the way battery power packs have become semi integral in most mobiles...it probably makes sense, to have a battery extension pack/gamepad after market option, that with the right set of entertainment devices can suddenly be a MUST HAVE hot item.

The opportunity is there, now fortune and luck awaits the bold and lucky developer.

Posted:10 months ago

#17

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany

822 654 0.8
When somebody tells me about a peripheral created not to expand your experience but to make it less clunky or uncomfortable, I automatically think that it proof of either a wish of taking more money from people (The 3DS Extra analog controller) or the proof that it was originally not intended to be a gaming platform (Every Smartphone in the word)

Posted:10 months ago

#18
Granted - add ons probably hint that smartphones were not meant to be a gaming platform, and yet the paradox is, can one make decent games using touchscreen experiences on a dinky mobile, or are tablet minis/3DS the better portable gaming medium??

I am curious what the footfall is for 3DS/Vita in the west.

Posted:10 months ago

#19

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Smartphones and tablets have more and better user interfaces than consoles. So why try and convert them into something that is worse?

Posted:10 months ago

#20

Adam Campbell Associate Producer, Miniclip Ltd

1,183 975 0.8
The problem with these controllers is that they introduce expense and intrusion to the experience. As an optional extra, these controllers could be a positive thing. I would still like to see more R&D and thought go into the games themselves, making good touch based interactions and controls for the mobile experience, without always trying to emulate the console gamepad.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 5th December 2013 2:18pm

Posted:10 months ago

#21
Popular Comment
Smartphones have better user interface - seriously???

Posted:10 months ago

#22

Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator

954 183 0.2
Smartphones have better user interface - seriously???
+1

This is why I generally don't play 3D games on mobile devices. Slidey invisible joystick that goes everywhere ruins the fun.
I tend to only play games that have been designed for mobile devices from the start, not games which are the spirit of console games but awkwardly translated onto mobile.

Relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBnF4bfD45c

Posted:10 months ago

#23

Justin Biddle Software Developer

159 484 3.0
Popular Comment
@Bruce

Better for its purpose. If you truly think that you will persuade hardcore gamers to switch to a touch screen interface for a first person shooter you truly are living on another planet!

Posted:10 months ago

#24

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany

822 654 0.8
@Bruce
Smartphones and tablets have more and better user interfaces than consoles.
Ok, first of all: UI depends on how it is programmed (That is 50% of it)

Now: Will like to see a smartphone handling the 10 button and two analog sticks of a console. Also the interface of every MMO pn PC withotu a mouse to click on those 20 icons on screen. Not to mention that that is a quite big generalization

In the very moment in which your fingers get in the middle of the screen and the control panel takes room on the interface. like... not. That already limits your options.

Every game ported from PC (Carmageddon) or console (Devil May Cry 4) got worse controls. Those are proved facts

Posted:10 months ago

#25

Justin Biddle Software Developer

159 484 3.0
Popular Comment
Saying a smart phone has superior input controls is as nonsensical as saying a violin bow is a better input method than a piano's keys for playing piano music

Posted:10 months ago

#26
Popular Comment
"its a trap!"

Cmon, you know ole Brucey is just winding us all up hehe. Good one!

Posted:10 months ago

#27

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments

304 387 1.3
Much like the way battery power packs have become semi integral in most mobiles...it probably makes sense, to have a battery extension pack/gamepad after market option, that with the right set of entertainment devices can suddenly be a MUST HAVE hot item.
That makes sense - mobile gaming relies so much on convenience, so anything you need to take along as well need to justify it's presence. I can't imagine carrying a clipon controller around, but I already carry an external battery sometimes - combine a controller with that, and it might get used more often.

Posted:10 months ago

#28

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd

321 748 2.3
@John Bye: When the new features of iOS7 were announced I did wonder if it would be possible to make a utility app that communicates with existing controllers and runs in the background. I expect Apple would block such an app (if it's even technically possible) if they're making money on licensed controllers though.

Posted:10 months ago

#29

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,193 1,170 0.5
"And soon... we will all be playing with our MINDS!" Expect the surgically installed Google Antenna brainwave peripheral to debut in 2017. Everyone will be a game with that device - those QTE's won't stand a chance!

Posted:10 months ago

#30

Richard Nunn Graphic Designer

6 2 0.3
Gameklip - 20
Connects your PS3 controller to your Samsung Galaxy or similar Android phone and you can then enjoy your mobile games with one of the best controllers ever made. Loads of compatible games, not to mention the thousands of classics available via emulators.

http://buy.thegameklip.com/

This product is selling incredibly well (I'm getting one myself this Christmas) both to kids without the disposable cash to afford a dedicated gaming system but already have a phone, and for parents etc. who can't justify paying 100's for a new console.

Posted:10 months ago

#31

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
Rick, Peter: you really should do basic research before commenting. USB and Bluetooth have had HID profiles for, well, forever; they're so old that even the PS 3 controller uses them. And Android's had gamepad support in its APIs since version 3.1.

Posted:10 months ago

#32

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