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Out of Control

What's wrong with mobile gaming?

Imagine you're one of the world's greatest racing drivers, and you've been approached by Ferrari to test drive their new sports car. It's a beauty, sleek lines with vast power under the hood, and all you're required to do is take it at top speed around a nice, empty track, just to put the machine through its paces. Easy. You're the world's greatest racing driver. What could go wrong?

Then you get in the car, and there's no steering wheel, no stick, no pedals. On the dashboard there's half an old PC keyboard, and there's a rusty door handle where the brake should be. The gears are switched by rotating an oily stopcock. You, the world's greatest racing driver, try your best with what you've got, but manage to crash the car on the first corner, without even getting to 20 mph.

It's a stupid made-up example to illustrate a simple point - a device can have all the raw power in the world, but if your method of control isn't fit for purpose then that power isn't going to go anywhere you want it to.

Mobile phones and MP3 players represent a new frontier for electronic gaming. With high resolution screens and a solid chunk of processing power available, these mobile devices are potent platforms for games, offering the potential to put them in the hands of consumers who would never dream of owning a home PC or dedicated games console.

Control issues

These mainstream consumers may previously have been put off from gaming by the Byzantine control systems on offer. To the outsider, joypads that require the use of every finger on both hands, or the tricky art of using both keyboard and mouse to play a PC game, can represent an intimidating barrier to entering gaming. By presenting them with a simple interface they already know - a phone keypad, an ipod wheel - mobile gaming removes that barrier and allows them to join in without fear of fumbling.

With these barriers removed, whole new markets await, in terms of selling games to previously inaccessible consumers and pushing gaming further into the mainstream.

The software is rapidly maturing to keep pace with the hardware - new mobile phones offer games with graphics to match the handheld consoles of only a few years ago, while the games now available from iTunes are close conversions of popular online titles.

A golden age of convergence between the world of traditional videogaming and the mainstream of phone users and music lovers would seem to be around the corner, with hardcore gamers playing their favourites on new devices and new gamers getting into formerly hardcore titles via their phones. Right?

Fingers and thumbs

Not quite. To go back to the imaginary scenario of the sports car with the crudely assembled controls, there's a mismatch between the interfaces of the devices currently in consumers' pockets and the needs of traditional games.

While the numeric pad on a phone may be an almost universal device that we're all well used to by now, it isn't the best way of controlling a platform-jumping character or steering a firing reticule. A numeric pad is designed to be used in brief bursts, to enter a number or type a short text message, and is built for those deliberate, firm key presses.

We pick up our phone, we use our thumb to firmly press each digit, watching each number appear as we hit each key. If the keys are too responsive, mistakes are easily made, which is no use at all. MP3 players, whether the iPod wheel or the buttons of other devices, are designed for a similar measured process, the selection, playing and pausing of songs.

Console controllers and handheld games consoles have a very different design brief. They're designed to sit comfortably in the hands for an hour or so, and to respond quickly to the twitch of instantaneous movement. Gamers will manipulate the buttons and sticks of a controller in quick succession, often simultaneously, and expect instant feedback rather than a methodical, firm response.

Mistakes of input will be quickly corrected, so sensitivity is prioritised over sturdy reliability. Successive generations of gaming technology have moved further and further away from the simple red buttons of early arcade titles, with analogue sticks providing an unparalleled level of precision and responsiveness.

Game and match

It's therefore unreasonable to expect the kind of gaming experience native to home or handheld consoles to meld comfortably with the control methods of a mobile phone or mp3 player. One is not fit to go with the other.

This tension could be resolved in a number of ways. Handsets could shape themselves into something closer to a conventional game controller or handheld console, with wider buttons on either side of the screen and on the side of the phone, allowing for comfortable two-handed play.

This is the path pursued by the original N-Gage a few years ago, and resulted in a handset that made for a usable mini-console but an unwieldy phone. With handsets getting ever more compact, the market for one the size of even a Game Boy Micro is unlikely to be there.

Alternatively, phones could carefully stick to the kind of games that have proven successful on mobiles to date. Although it could hardly be said to use the capabilities of modern handsets to the full, a game like Snake is ideal for mobile play because it works on a simple choice of periodic presses of one of two buttons - go left or go right. Games that eschew fluid, continuous control in favour of these simple, occasional jabs will continue to work best on handsets that offer only traditional phone buttons as a control method.

The wider gaming world may offer a few suggestions as to how mobile manufacturers and software houses can square the circle and grow the market for mobile gaming. Nintendo has demonstrated with its touchscreen-based DS handheld that streamlined controls can open up gaming to previously reluctant consumers, and that different gaming styles can be adapted to such a control method.

It's perhaps a dose of this kind of lateral, creative thinking that will help bridge the gap between conventional gaming and the mobile devices in everyone's pockets, allowing access to the vast revenue potential that's out there to be found.

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