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[GAMING] The Trouble with Touch: Gaming Without Buttons

Posted by Eric March on January 23, 2008

Wherefor art thou, game pad?The iPod Touch and iPhone are great devices, and it’s hard to argue that the best thing to happen to these devices has been the Jailbreak. Some great — and let’s face it, some not-so-great — games and applications have emerged from the independent development scene, and a number of them have become almost legendary in their popularity. It’s hard to speak of the iPhone and iPod Touch without making references to iPhysics, Tap Tap Revolution, various emulators, and Doom.

Ah — Doom, the penultimate granddaddy of first-person shooters. (The ultimate being id’s previous effort, Wolfenstein 3D) It has become a running gag amongst gadget heads to ask of new devices, “…but can it play Doom?” Yes. Yes, it can. But not without qualification. It isn’t that the Touch and iPhone can’t handle it — obviously, they can. The real problem is buttons. There aren’t any. (Sleep and home don’t count since they can’t be reassigned.)

Not that a lack of buttons has stopped devices before; plenty of PDAs play first-person shooters despite an insufficient number of buttons to handle all of the functions necessary to play; they just use the touchscreen. However, the Touch and iPhone have no buttons. None. So every function must be assigned to the touchscreen somehow. Can Doom do it? Certainly it can — to an extent. Drag the finger around to move, tap to open, two-finger tap to shoot, as it stands right now. Further functions I am sure could be added for strafing, weapon selection and such. It’s possible, if slightly cumbersome, but Doom could pull it off.

But what about Doom’s successors, say, Duke Nukem 3D? That’s a different story. The problem with Duke (and his contemporaries) is that it expanded upon Doom, adding more functions such as jumping, looking, flying, and a complete inventory system. More functions mean more buttons. More buttons mean more room is needed for those buttons. Just where do you fit the dozen or more buttons needed for the average FPS, keeping in mind that on the Touch and iPhone, this also means that those buttons need to be made large enough for a human’s fat thumb to mash without worrying about mashing other buttons at the same time?

That brings up the other problem: No physical buttons mean no tactile feedback. This is not an insurmountable problem; with enough practice you can develop enough muscle memory in your thumbs to be able to position your thumbs/fingers where they need to go without spending so much time looking at them. Still, when the control mechanism becomes as complicated as those found on first-person shooters, even this becomes a challenge.

This is not to say that it is impossible — I’m sure something can be worked out. Whether or not any given control mechanism would be practical however remains in question. Sacrifices will have to be made to pare the control scheme down to its barest essentials. Get rid of two-way inventory and weapon cycling and reduce them to a single button, perhaps one that pops up an in-game sub-menu with those items selectable from it. Eliminate dedicated weapon and inventory keys altogether. Eliminate the need for strafe and look keys by utilizing multi-touch — left thumb dragging to turn left and right and move forward and back, plus right-thumb dragging while left thumb is held down to strafe left or right and look up or down. Eliminate jump and fire keys by using one-finger tap to fire and two-finger tap to jump.

Of course, this is still a bit awkward to control, so how effective any of this would be is something we would have to leave to experimentation, but it is likely to be about the only way one could effectively make games like this fit the iPod Touch — not just work using clunky on-screen virtual buttons, but actually work with the control mechanism we already have.

It is nice to dream about some of our favourite games making appearances on our favourite toy, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it helps to keep in mind that while many games work very well with the current interface — some are even better suited to the iPhone and Touch than just about any other mobile platform — not everything is possible, and more importantly, not everything could be done very practically. Duke Nukem 3D on the Touch and iPhone? Maybe. It’s possible. It might even be capable of being made practical. But it’s never going to be made easy until someone can come up with a way to bolt a joypad onto this thing.

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One Response to “[GAMING] The Trouble with Touch: Gaming Without Buttons”

  1. […] starfishy wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptYes. Yes, it can. But not without qualification. It isn’t that the Touch and iPhone can’t handle it — obviously, they can. The real problem is buttons. There aren’t any. (Sleep and home don’t count since they can’t be reassigned.) … […]

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