Controls – A Huge Problem With Mobile Game Design

Filed under: Game Design — Simon Walklate

I know some would say we’re just conditioned to expect a mouse and keyboard combo, or a gamepad when playing games and it just requires thinking outside the box. But there’s no doubt about it, a lack of any sort of meaningful input device on mobile devices is a huge barrier in mobile game design. We’re only offered a very basic, imprecise input device. This basically boils mobile game controls down to prodding or swiping with a finger or tilting the device, making it difficult to implement many of the traditional genres we know and love.

Of course it is a very different market than for web based, or traditional PC and console games, so I suppose it comes with the territory. Dumbed down, “one-button” and grid based puzzle games, with little depth, are what the devices thrive on. But I’d argue that the market is due to the limitations of the device, not the limitations of the device are due to the market. If, for instance, you want to implement a retro action game, platform game or anything at all that involves shooting (to name but a few) you’re really out of luck.

The main problems with designing mobile game controls are:


Being forced to put your hand/finger right over what you’re looking at and/or tilting the device obscures our view of what’s going on. This is all without taking into account the greasy finger smears that can end up partially obscuring the screen.

Pointer Accuracy

Touch screens obviously lend themselves towards mimicking other pointer devices such as mice, trackballs and graphics tablets. The problem is they are much less accurate than all of the traditional pointer devices. This means hit areas such as buttons need to be bigger and people with large hands and fingers often struggle.

This and the visibility issue are huge inherent problems with touch screens and a big part of the reason why touch screens are also a bad idea on desktop and laptop PCs.

Lack of Multiple, Physical Buttons

Without multiple, physical buttons your control options are seriously limited. Say you’re faced with having to design a game to coincide with the release of an action film. Then you’re struggling. Prodding a screen with a greasy finger, whilst watching a constantly moving character simply jump through hoops just isn’t going to do it.

Current Solutions

These devices were never made for games. Their crude, simplistic input devices were designed for a totally different purpose.

If you need to implement multiple distinct interactions required by most retro game genres (such as movement, jumping, attacking/shooting) without a keyboard or controller you’re left with having to use a virtual, on screen controller. Again, this can obscure the on-screen action (particularly on small smartphone screens) and provides none of the feel or physical feedback of a physical input device.

The other alternative is to try and force a basic point and click based control system into every game. This leaves you in a similar position to only having a mouse for PC games (but with much less pinpoint accuracy). It’s ok for certain genres, but try using just a mouse to control a retro 2D platform game. This is why these sorts of games tend to turn into overly basic single action, one-button games, with most other actions happening automatically.

Physical Controller Add-Ons

Physical gamepad controllers for smartphones have started to emerge, usually clipping onto and extending the phone. This is a step in the right direction, but I worry about the practicalities of having to carry around a physical add-on that is at least as big as the smartphone itself. These are meant to be mobile devices and with smartphones getting bigger and bigger anyway, is anyone really going to be bothered to carry another bulky item around with them? There’s also the price issue. These controllers can often be an expensive addition to an already extremely expensive device.

A Solution is Required

As it stands now, gaming on smartphones and tablets is great for the Nintendo DS casual crowd. Although these are often people that wouldn’t normally play computer games. Until the control issues on mobile devices are sorted out it’s going to be extremely difficult to lure gamers away from consoles, PCs and even dedicated handheld gaming devices. Anything other than simple timewaster games are difficult to pull off on mobile devices and at best involve some serious compromises, in terms of controls at least.

3 Responses to “Controls – A Huge Problem With Mobile Game Design”

  1. wallCat says:

    I grew up with console and PC games and so these are the types of games that inspire me when it comes to what I like to build. Then I went to a Game Jam and it was thrown at us that we were going to be building games for touch screens, which I’d never done before. I saw it as a fun challenge that I had to design my own input systems and so I continued to attempt to build such games afterwards, but I have to admit that I find it incredibly difficult to work around the small screen size and controls. At first I designed controls that involved a lot of finger movement, but then I realized that can actually make your finger feel sore and isn’t very comfortable to use – as a gamer I have limited experience with apps. I’ve just never come across a mobile game that I’ve found interesting and I would much rather use my PSP or DS for gaming on the move.

    While I think touch screens could shine with certain genres, overall I feel limited by what I can do with it. I also prefer developing games on my tablet, as this allows me to experiment with the touch controls while also enjoying a much larger screen size. I think that when I do return back to building for PC it’ll feel amazing to suddenly have access to all those buttons again.

    • This is a huge problem. With all the excitement over mobile gaming being the “next (or current, whichever way you look at it) big thing”, it seems like everyone’s just trying to shoehorn traditional PC and console gaming into mobile. The result in most cases isn’t good. For instance, after 5 minutes of trying to play the mobile port of Max Payne on a Galaxy S4 with touch screen controls, I wanted to throw it at a wall.

      I know people often bring up mobile gamepads, but mobile’s a bit of a misnomer in this case. Full size tablets are bulky enough as it is (and I’d argue to call them “mobile devices” is a bit of a stretch to begin with), but you’re supposed to carry a gamepad with you as well. May as well just chuck the Playstation and a portable TV in a rucksack and call that “mobile gaming”.

      It’s certainly a challenge and I don’t have the answers, but it does seem like a lot of developers are trying to get in on mobile with games that just aren’t suited to mobile devices. This also begs the question, if everyone is pushing towards mobile gaming and it really is the future (which I have my doubts about anyway), then are we just going to end up in a position where gaming gets completely dumbed down and the majority of games are just free-to-play Cut the Rope style games. Micro transactions/in-game purchases and whatnot are already starting to infect the commercial PC and console gaming world, because of their popularity on mobile with F2P.

      Sorry, I’m on a bit of a rant here, but I just don’t think this blurring of the lines between tradition gaming and casual mobile gaming is good for either. Two very different platforms and would probably be best just playing to their strengths.

  2. Donovan says:

    I still don’t see that mobile gaming will ever take over the throne from console or PC gaming platforms. Mobiles generally take the stance that they will be F2P just to get themselves established as developers or, more importantly will use this as a tool to get you into a F2P with Microtransactions included. It’s how a company from nowhere like KingPop became the giants that they did..By finding an addictive mechanic that preys on those with an addictive nature, gives it the “no harm” approach by making a free game to play..However it’s tied in microtransactions with the average persons “compulsion” to get ahead etc.

    I personally hate microtransactions in games full stop, be it in a F2P game or even in a paid game…I agree with Simon on this. You can’t put together “Casual gaming” and dedicated gaming together as they are two very different audiences as a whole. Each have their merits and that’s fine. But you can’t say one will over take the other when their audience groups are VERY different.

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