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Mobile Controllers: Game On or Dead On Arrival?

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 Kevin Kuenstler, 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.

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 controller is 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."

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."

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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