Designing better controls for the touchscreen experience

Best practices for touchscreen design are finally maturing, and uniquely-touchable game experiences have shown the ability to excite and surprise players.
As part of our mobile games-themed week, we speak with developers who've been able to design great touchscreen controls. We'll be updating our mobile event page all week long. Although the mobile market has become crowded and complicated, it's still a frontier for innovation -- that's because best practices for touchscreen design are finally maturing, and uniquely-touchable game experiences have shown the ability to excite and surprise players. Industry veteran Anna Marsh of Lady Shotgun Games (Buddha Finger) is now applying her sharp design wisdom to the touch space, and earlier this year brought the house down at Develop with her tips for how to achieve good feel on mobile devices. Fireproof Studios' The Room was such a big hit partially because the object-puzzle game felt so intuitive and real to manipulate. Designer Mark Hamilton had two problems to solve -- how can the player manipulate the camera and also the objects in the environment without confusion? Two-person studio Simogo developed two immersive iOS games this year, Year Walk and Device6. The two stylish, story-led games were incredibly different, but had in common a commitment to invention and an intuitive understanding of what feels natural on touchscreens. Here, we talk to Marsh, Hamilton, and Simogo's Simon Flesser about their tips, tricks and learnings when it comes to designing for touch screens.

How would you describe your design philosophy on touch screens?

Anna Marsh, Lady Shotgun Games Let the player touch stuff! If you think you want to touch it, it should have a use when touched. I've always been left cold by those games where there is a super gorgeous graphical environment that is just a pretty brick wall. Now, with a touchscreen, I've extended that mentality to include being annoyed by touchscreen games that don't let you interact with stuff that looks like it should be touchable. Mark Hamilton, Fireproof Studios Our design philosophy was basically "no floating d-pads." They don't really work, and even games that execute them well feel awkward and stilted compared to console games in similar genres. There are plenty of other places to play FPSes, cover shooters and platformers -- I don't see the point in spending a year making a game that can only ever be described as "like that Xbox game, but with shit controls."
Simogo's Year Walk
Simon Flesser, Simogo I think when working with interactions on touchscreens, you have to be very aware that your fingers don't get the response or confirmation they'd get from buttons, or basically anything they normally interact with in everyday life, be that keyboards, door handles or what have you. That doesn't make touch screens worse in any way, but I think creators have to be aware that they're speaking to only the eyes and ears of the user.

What's most important to you when it comes to making sure the inputs and the feel for the user match the game design, and how do you achieve it?

Anna Marsh I always start a game design with the experience that I want to impart to the player. That will dictate the pace of the experience - is it a game where you want the player to feel they are in control, highly skilled, in a whirlwind of action? Then I sit down with the device, and start imagining how the touch actions should work. I used to do this with a controller too, when I worked on console -- sit there pretending to play the game pressing the buttons. People think you're being really pretentious [laughs]. But I think being able to feel the game's fundamental interactions without all the visual polish going on is vital to get a clear focus. Some concepts have clear links to real world actions, be that to surgery or knitting or whatever you can take into account. I also have this theory that the hand can create the feel of the whole body performing an action in miniature -- the positions of fingers and the direction you get the fingers to move in. Like finger yoga! When I positioned the points for Buddha Finger, I wanted to get the player's hands to make the same kinds of actions across the screen as a martial artist would make with their whole body.
Lady Shotgun's Buddha Finger
Mark Hamilton We wanted the user to feel like they were actually manipulating the boxes and machines in the game, rather than just activating them. I love Frictional Games' (Amnesia, Penumbra series) work on PC -- the way holding the mouse button down grabs onto drawers, levers and doors allows the player to control how they open something. Are they slamming open a door as they flee in terror, or slowly opening a drawer so they don't make too much noise? It gives the player that much more engagement with the world, which is vital when you're trying to make a game with a lot of atmosphere. With touch controls, that kind of interaction just seemed like a no-brainer, and that was our starting point for the design in the game. Simon Flesser It's impossible to point out one thing that is more important, because it all depends on what you are trying to achieve. We are fans of doing as little abstractions as possible. That's the strength of touch screens, you can shorten the distance between the user and the game. For example, in Year Walk, putting down your finger on the screen and moving it translates to putting down your finger on the world and moving the world. An example of an abstraction would be putting down two fingers on the screen and translating that to a button press that brings you to the menu, for example. Often abstractions like that needs instructions, while more "direct" interactions often need very little explanation.

What's the most common mistake you've seen in games designed for mobile?

Anna Marsh Not allowing the player to touch the actual objects of the game they are being asked to interact with, which generally means "virtual controls" -- putting buttons on screen for in-game actions. You see less of this these days, but it still crops up. I've downloaded a fair few children's games lately for my daughter, and also because we're working on a children's title currently - and it's extremely frustrating for her and me when she presses stuff on the screen and it does nothing. There's one particularly big licensed kids' game that is terrible because of this. One example -- it contains a driving game that instead of letting the player touch the cars, insists you control them with a steering wheel at the bottom of the screen. My daughter was pressing the cars themselves and nothing was happening. It cost almost £4 -- which is a lot for a mobile title -- and my daughter played it for less than two minutes because to her, the game was broken. I was furious, not only as a parent who'd spent money on a product that was not fit for my child, but also as a game designer because the developers so massively misunderstood both the device and the audience. I told my daughter it's not your fault, it's bad game design [laughs]. Mark Hamilton Choosing to make a game in a genre that requires you to invest a significant amount of time and resources answering the question, "How can you do (x) type of game, but with touch controls?" If that's your game's selling point, you are coming at the problem from the wrong angle. Also, going free-to-play because everyone else is, rather than because you have an idea that actually benefits from that model. Simon Flesser We make our games with the mindset that "if it works it works," and try to not think too much of general rulesets, as it's probably more limiting than helpful. I think that goes for almost all creative work.

On input variety

Anna Marsh: You need several points of feedback! It's the belt, braces, spare pair of trousers and change of pants technique! You know when you read a book, you only have one thing to concentrate on -- reading the linear text at your own speed. And still sometimes you have to go back and re-read a passage, right? Now with a game, you have information coming from the graphics, from the UI, from the audio and you're not only interpreting that at the pace the game sets, but having to take action on it. No one can take in 100 percent of all that. So you need to make sure that the player knows if they did something right, or wrong, and give them an instruction that they can't miss. You have to flag it in as many ways as you can. [This includes through] animation, special effects, audio, graphical change, UI and all of them at once, if possible. A lot of these flags happen at pre-attentive speeds, before the brain has consciously recognized them. This is a very awesome thing about games. It's like poetry -- you know when a poet uses words, they're not just using them for their bald meaning, but for all the subconscious thoughts and meanings that they trigger in a reader, too. That, I think, is what designing a game is like; you don't just want to design the bits the conscious brain will notice, but also all the subconscious dingledangles, too. Because if you stopped the game every time the player did a correct thing and put a text box up saying "WELL DONE YOU HAVE DONE SOMETHING RIGHT PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE YOU UNDERSTAND THIS," it would really ruin the pace and flow of the game [laughs]. You need to be moving at these subconscious speeds to make it all feel wonderful and fluid to players, so you have to make sure the player has as many chances to notice these fast moving flags. And of course on top of that, you've lost the tactile feedback of a controller. Your fingers know when they have pressed a button, which is actually many times faster and more immediate than visual feedback, so you need to pick up some of the slack with additional audio and visual flags on touchscreen. Mark Hamilton: Solve interesting problems! The toughest thing to solve [in The Room] was camera and object interaction and how to do both at the same time -- is the player swiping the screen to look around, or are they trying to open a drawer? For the longest time we were convinced that we would need to have a button on screen to switch between two states -- camera and interaction. But it was a disaster! It made the game so much more confusing than it needed to be, and we wasted a lot of time on that button, making it toggle between the two, making it a hold to move the camera button, making it hold to interact. Whatever we did, players ended up moving the camera when they wanted to interact and vice-versa and it frustrated everyone who played it. I was convinced that there was no other way to do it; in a game where there is a lot of trial and error on the player's part, the worst thing that could happen would be for them to try to do the correct thing, fail due to poor controls, and think that they were wrong. I felt that we needed a black-and-white -- you are looking, or you are moving things -- system to be sure we wouldn't have any false negatives. Luckily our coder ignored me and did it anyway! He came up with a way to detect the kind of touch the player was doing and react accordingly. It was so much better, it really was a moment where the game just clicked and we knew we were on the right path.
Fireproof's The Room
Simon Flesser: Design with the iPhone in mind I like all of our games better on iPhone, because I simply like the format of the iPhone better. It's more intimate and more comfortable to hold. We design our games to work with all of the aspect ratios on iOS, and try to find a balance so the art looks good in all sizes and swipes and other interactions don't feel too large on the iPad. I'm not sure how most studios do, but I think we're probably helped by the fact that we design with the iPhone in mind, and many things tend to work on the iPad quite naturally then. I think it's probably harder the other way around.

What role do other aspects, like sound, orientation and visual design, play in creating a game for mobile that communicates well with the player?

Anna Marsh: When you design a game's functionality, that is only half of it. The other half is telling the player what is happening. To a player, it doesn't matter how engaging the functionality is if they have no idea what's happening, so a lot of the stuff that we tend to lump together as "polish" -- animations, effects, audio -- is super vital to the game. The trick is to figure out which bits of polish are necessary, and which are just fluff that will obscure the functionality. The overall atmosphere of the game too is enormously important, and that is absolutely created by all the visual, narrative and audio elements working together to create a consistent believable environment. Nailing that means you get off to a flying head start before the player has even touched the device. You're communicating to them the kind of experience they can expect to have. I am guilty of being a kind of coldhearted, "pure gameplay" person not interested in atmosphere! But I know that for most players, that is massively part of the experience. I'm learning! Mark Hamilton I was really worried that the game wouldn't work at all, we were trying to make an atmospheric game on a device a lot of people have muted most of the time, that people play sporadically with one eye on the TV or during the commute with so much else to distract them. We put a lot of effort into the look, feel and sound of the game and just hoped that it would draw them in enough to overcome those distractions. It seems to have worked. Simon Flesser I'd rather encourage others to look at interactions for things in everyday life, and also from other non-gaming software, rather than games. Interactions in things like the to-do app Clear, the little stretchy reload arrow in the mail app of iOS 6 (sadly removed in iOS 7), and the way you swipe to read web pages; things like that have been more influential to us than other games.

How have you seen trends and best practices for controls, user interface etc. evolve on the platform since you started working on it?

Anna Marsh It's gone forward in leaps and bounds! A few years ago, Angry Birds was the epitome of mobile gaming, now we get XCOM on iPad. Unnecessary virtual controllers fortunately are far less common in mobile games now. Developers are getting good at implementing touch controls that include all the analog niceties of controllers, getting just the right amount of inertia in there. And tons of games which are very sophisticated designs specifically exploiting the device -- Simogo's Device 6 and Nyamyam's Tengami, to name but two. And talking of kids' games, the DipDap game where players draw their own objects to solve problems is a fantastic little game. I know controllers are being touted as the next big thing for mobile devices, but I hope there's a hardcore group of us still making interesting stuff for touchscreens because, man, who doesn't want the future to be like Star Trek? Mark Hamilton People these days are so used to touch devices and the controls used in most touch UIs, like swipe to pan and pinch to zoom, that those commands can pretty much be taken for granted. By building The Room around them, we could piggy back on the movements every touch device owner had already learned. That really helped broaden our audience; we had so many mails saying The Room was the only game a person had been able to play. So the ubiquity of touch, and the fact that almost everyone these days knows how to interact with touch devices really helped us out (plus, I hate tutorials, so not having to teach the player a complicated control scheme was really important to me).

Other Tips

Anna Marsh Whatever advice I give, someone will make a game that is totally awesome that completely contradicts that advice! I guess the most important advice is to watch players playing the game and see what they want to touch, and how they want to naturally interact with the game. Always think of the punter, as a wise designer once told me in my first job. Mark Hamilton Start with the controls and work out from there. I find most games where you have to hold a finger on the screen all the time typically play well for the first few minutes, but are horrible after a short while. Your finger sticks to the screen, you get uncomfortable holding the pad in the same position for a long period of time. Test your game the way you would expect people to play it and be honest with yourself about how it feels after 15 minutes, 30, and an hour.

Latest Jobs

Sucker Punch Productions

Bellevue, Washington
Combat Designer

Xbox Graphics

Redmond, Washington
Senior Software Engineer: GPU Compilers

Insomniac Games

Burbank, California
Systems Designer

Deep Silver Volition

Champaign, Illinois
Senior Environment Artist
More Jobs   


Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter


Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more