Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 24, 2014
A tale of two user interfaces

I received an invitation to participate in the beta of World of Tanks: Blitz, the iOS version of a game I played a lot on the PC. But I decided to look at a gameplay video on YouTube first, because I was worried about the UI and controls. And it turned out that Blitz is using the same controls as other iOS tank games: Virtual thumbsticks. You hold your iPad in both hands and use your thumbs in the lower left and right corners for control. Of course you can also put the iPad down and use other fingers. But the virtual stick control remains the same. And I can't play anything with those controls. Unlike real thumbsticks you don't get any tactile feedback, so the experience is very different to that of a gamepad. I ended up not playing Blitz at all because I hated the controls.

What I was playing instead was The Collectables from Crytek, although I'm not exactly a valued Crytek customer. I played none of their Crysis games on PC. And there is a lot about The Collectables that you might dislike: It is Free2Play with cards that come from random boosters, plus it uses an annoying energy mechanic, where after 7 games you run out of energy and need to wait hours (or pay) to play again. But the controls are brilliant! The Collectables is a tactical third-person shooter and it is astounding how well that works with just a few taps. Your squad moves where you tap on the screen. Only if you want to be in cover you need to drag and drop individual soldiers, and honestly, to me it seemed the cover wasn't doing much. In addition you can easily drag and drop action cards onto the battlefield, for example to heal your soldiers or to throw a grenade.

I much prefer the Free2Play business model of World of Tanks to that of The Collectables, but in the end it was the controls of those games that decided which one I ended playing.

Getting double virtual sticks right on mobile is tough. I've seen a few games which change the location of the stick based on where you put your thumbs. So if you are off a little bit, the stick moves, instead of you moving all derpy. Suprised that's not a standard feature of all virtual stick games. Or maybe it is, and it still doesn't work well enough?

What is your thoughts on dedicated controllers for tablets?
I went through a few control iterations when designing Cops 'n Robbers for iOS. I started with the idea of using tilt controls, but my own testing and watching others try it showed me they wouldn't work. So I put a d-pad in the corner that I expected people to tap the directions on (since you don't need to constantly control the character) and found out that playtesters would hold their thumb on the d-pad area, which wouldn't work as expected. After fixing that, I also added the ability to swipe anywhere on the screen to change direction. This seems to be the most popular option as it mimics normal behavior on the iPhone.

So I agree, user interfaces and control schemes for your games are very important!
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