You could call it a scandal that, in 2015, touchscreens are still a limitng factor how we can interact with mobile and tablet games, over seven years after the first iPhone was released. Some manufacturers have siezed at this niche, with the likes of the Moga controller and Nvidia Shield aiming to bring traditional gamepads into the world of smartphones and tablets. These attempts are well intentioned, and in theory should have a sizable market, but we haven't had a breakout success yet.
There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. My sense is that the key factors are portability, mass market appeal and compatible games available. Every year brings a new set of thinner and lighter devices, that easily slip into a pocket or slide into a small rucksack. The convenience is lessened somewhat if you have to bring along a controller every time you go out. And then most games on android and iOS are not controller supported, despite a notable selection on offer for the Shield. If there were more gamepad compatible games, might there be more consumers? You could equally ask the reverse, suggesting a chicken and egg problem is present. And don't forget the market for portable controller based games is still dominated by the 3DS, so maybe all the consumers who really want to play this type of game have one already.
I want to suggest taking a different approach to the masses, with something that will extend the potential of touchscreens in a way that naturally draws from their current functionality.
What mobile devices need is to take the all motion tracking technology found in wiimotes and cram it into a stylus pen. Add a couple of buttons and a scroll wheel, and you have a mouse-like alternative perfect for touchscreens. This small expansion of existing technology would do wonders for smartphones and tablets: with it comes rejuvinating innovations not just for games but potentially a whole range of uses.
So simple, so much potential.
Some ideas I've been kicking about for motion tracking styluses:
Strategy games: Real time strategy games are a niche on iPads because historically using a mouse right click has been so essential to the way units are controlled in PC games. With a touchscreen, you have just one click, and it's much less precise. Multitouch is a mitigating factor, allowing for useful tricks such as pinch zoom, but these are not enough to make rts games as smooth on tablets as they are on PCs.
But hold on. What we have here is not only the ability to hover with precision, press with precision and right click, pressing the stylus onto the touchscreen allows for a third click as well. If the pen has more than two buttons there could be even more, and we haven't even got to combinations of touching while button-pressing...
Shooters: Okay it's an obvious one here. And possibly nothing much to add over over the many fps games on wii and playstation move. But hey, if we can get them on android and iOS, why not? I'm tired of shooting zombies with responseless, on screen controls. And maybe the interplay between mote and touchscreen will foster some innvoative mechanics.
No more screen obscuring (probably every game ever): One of the biggest problems with input for touchscreen games is that the player is constantly obscuring a large chunk of the screen with their hand. To account for this, apps tend to either require only tapping near the edges or alternating between "bursts" of player input and passive periods of feedback, allowing the player to move her hand away.
Simply by substituting a screen-press for a button-press onto the stylus' projected point on the screen, styluses would completely remove this problem, allowing a lot more action across the whole screen. Of course, the touchscreen is still available if it happens to be easier, and developers are free to create alternative functionality for the stylus buttons than do not map directly onto touchscreen presses. There are games which require and actively explore the awkwardness of pressing on a screen, but they are very much the exception that proves the rule.
Pressure sensitivity: This is one of the few technologies already present in styluses accompanying high-end, specialist tablets. Setting aside the expense and reliance on tailor-made touchscreens, this doesn't feel like the best way to implement pressure sensitivity. Why not instead measure the distance from the tip of the stylus to the screen, making pressure not only controllable but visibly so? Or use a scroll wheel to adjust pressure on the fly?
New genres? I'm sure there are loads of things I haven't thought of that could be done here. Why not make a co-op game where one person traces their finger across the screen while the other performs their own role with the stylus laser? Or an assymetrical local pvp game similar to those on the Wii U?
For that matter, why not think even further outside the tablet? Isn't it such a pain how in nearly 2015 it's still so awkward sharing and sending files across nearby devices? With very real forthcoming improvements in GPS technology you could potentially use a stylus to pick up a file or url on your ipad and literally shoot it at someone else's in the same room. (Que the cat gifs, rickrolling, etc.)
Adding motion control to stylus pens is not particularly innovative in itself. (And as a disclaimer, I don't pretend that much or any of the ideas listed above are likely to be original.) The Wii U already allows developers to combine its touchscreen gamepad with a wiimote. Hovewer, wiimotes are too big and clunky to be used with the level of precision mobile devices could benefit from. These are small screens you can reach out and touch, not big plasma TVs on the other side of the living room. By putting motion control inside something that can be held close to the screen or far, and can actually touch it, styluses are a much better option.
What's more, these things already exist! Those cheap, throwaway bits of metal and rubber are already in the hands of tens of millions of people. They are a familiar tool for interacting with screens to save your shiny new toy from the evils of greasy fingers. Similarly, everyone's uncle, grandma, and probably grandma's cat knows how swing a wiimote by now. Why haven't we combined them yet?
(As a final note, it's looking likely now that Apple has developed this kind of technology already. I find this both exciting and slightly disconcerting. Endless patent battles have brought out a darker side to the smartphone wars of the past years and I think it would be a real shame if this motion sensing styluses became locked down to a single platform. Doubtless other manufacturers will make their own versions; whether Apple will happily permit the competition is another matter.)