Thinking about controls for mobile games

Why is designing controls for a mobile game so darn difficult? Compared to designing controls for a PC game, touch controls are very limited. On the PC, you have two methods of interactivity:  a Keyboard and a Mouse. An English keyboard will have at least 28 keys to choose from, and standard mouse will have 3 buttons. This allows tons of possibility for control schemes, which makes the PC a very attractive platform for sophisticated games.

And then there’s mobile devices. iPhones and popular Android devices do not include a keyboard, only a multi touch screen. You can touch and swipe. That’s about it and I find it very diffcult to design games with such a limited control scheme. If you take a look at the app stores charts, you’d assume other app developers are having the same issue. How many infinite runners and “match four of something” games do you see? Either developers are having a hard time coming up with intuitive controls on touch devices, or somebody creative hasn’t came up with a new control scheme.

So when the time came to redesign the controls for my first game Stellar Alien, it was a challenge. Stellar Alien is not an infinite runner and the play can move in all directions, so the controls can’t be a “one touch to do one action”. There’s also a shooter game mechanic in some levels, so there will be times where they would prefer to use two thumbs for play. The first thing that comes to mind  is why not mimic analog stick controls? You can move in all directions, you can easily add more than one sticks. The problem with them is that many users don’t like them and casual mobile gamers won’t “get them”.

The prominent complaint is that the on-screen stick controls take up too much screen space therefore players can’t see the game view very well. That’s a legitimate issue, especially on mobile where you don’t have much screen space (although a trend in mobile devices right now is so to make the phones bigger, so that’s nice). So a solution a developer would have for that complaint is to make graphics for the stick controls transparent. But I question why should we show a graphic at all for touch stick controls? It’s just more visual clutter and it’s distracting. I’ve seen developers argue that players should see a graphic for the controls so that they’re aware where to touch, and I agree with that, but when a user is using the controls there’s no need to show a graphic. They’re engaged in the gameplay, so they would want to see the game view in full.

In Stellar Alien, the controller graphic hides when the player engages in game play

With that said, I decided for Stellar Alien I would mimic analog stick controls and show a graphic when the controls are not being touched, to give the player a visual on where the controls are located on the screen. Then, when the controls are active I hide the controller graphic completely, so they can enjoy the game view in full. I like this control implementation, and I think the most subtle of things can improve a game’s controls. The controls in Stellar Alien are still far from perfect, and I still think developers can come up with better control schemes for touch devices. But for now, I am satisfised.

Mobile game developers, how did you implement controls in your game? Share your knowledge and leave a comment.