Quark Games: Touch gaming needs to evolve beyond simple taps

Can touch and complexity co-exist?

Quark Games: Touch gaming needs to evolve beyond simple taps
Shawn Foust is a VP at Quark Games, handling a mix of business development, lore writing, and game design.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Quark's next game.

For the better part of the last month, my primary job has been to establish the foundational elements that will make up the beating heart of the game and then begin fleshing out the details that'll provide nourishment to the extremities.

Designing is enjoyable, but there's one aspect that I find terribly difficult to judge: input complexity.

Games have come a long way since the arcade by just about any measurement – graphics, depth, and yes, complexity.

By way of example, consider the number of buttons on a console controller. We've gone from a joystick with a button to two joysticks, a directional pad, four buttons, two bumpers and two triggers.

The end of buttons

Not surprisingly, the complexity of games has shown a similar increase. It's no longer too much to ask a player to remember the various commands associated with all of these buttons and put them to good use.

Indeed, many gamers would feel quite put out if we were to take a button or two away.

And this brings me to the touch screen. The end of buttons, as it were. I cannot help but wonder what this shift in input means for the design of games and their 'optimal' level of complexity.

The question is particularly pressing when you consider designing for a hardcore audience. How much can these clowns handle? Are they ready for THE SHOW? Can I ask them to input 30 taps in ten seconds or have they not had enough time to build up sufficient gaming calluses?

It boils down to this – can touch interfaces compete with more traditional means of inputting commands?

Twitch time

When I consider the more popular games of our day (Halo, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and so forth), I can't help but notice the frenetic mashing associated with each experience.

Games have evolved to the age of twitch. Actions per minute measure in the hundreds, and gamers are well accustomed to highly responsive environments. Surgical precision is the name of the game, and the controller is our scalpel.

This is not something a touch interface can replicate. The absence of tactile feedback is enough to doom the project before it begins. This is to say nothing of limitations associated with hand blocking, concurrent input restrictions, and screen smearing.

It's a fact that we won't be seeing a controller equivalent popping out of an iPad any time soon, though there are some tantalising prospects on the horizon.

Push it to the limit

Yes, the future is looking grand, but I'm stuck designing for the present. Quark's first foray into hardcore games, Valor, did not face these problems. The game, while extraordinarily deep as a strategic offering, required little by way of exertion from the user when it came to inputs.

Since things happened over the course of hours, days and weeks, a user was quite at his or her leisure. Our next game will be far more active – real time player versus player has a habit of doing that.

This means every tap needs to be measured and considered. More importantly, there needs to be an upper limit on expectation. There must be some point where an extra tap does not produce an extra benefit for the user.

Why? Because intensely slamming fingers against a glass screen for a prolonged period is a decidedly poor user experience.

If we are going to get players to engage in our hardcore experience with a hardcore level of dedication, they can't be wearing their fingers down to nubs. After all, gamers are the sensitive sort.

The Tap Frontier

Somewhere out there, deep in the dark recesses of designdom, there is an optimal input number for a touchscreen based game.

Few games to date have dared delve into this dark morass, to plumb its depths and come back with serviceable data on the subject – not too surprising given the high number of simulation games dominating the App Store.

Games such as these rarely demand actions per minute of the scale required to solidify the Tap Frontier.

But our desire to move into a more active real time experience means I spend a lot of time concerning myself with the question.

How fast can I make the action in a real time game with players facing off against each other? How long can a high octane game be before a player begins to experience discomfort and fatigue?

Controllers have been highly optimized for ergonomics over time, and they're still claw-inducing torture contraptions. The touch screen delivers a finger fatality if a game demands too much.

Through testing and experimentation, we believe we've honed down the Tap Frontier a bit. We've created disincentives for constant tapping and designed an individual instance of a game to be generally complete within a particular timeframe.

The constraints this puts on the design are meaningful, but necessary.

Touchscreen evolution

For the most part, I believe touch interaction will be an evolving art. There is a great deal of experimentation with input options (tap, tilt, swipe, complex swipe, etc.), but very little by way of uniformity.

The 'proper' user interface just hasn't been agreed upon for touch games in the way that the cross hairs with a trigger fire have come to dominate first person shooters, or the 'QWER' keys for MOBA games.

The end result is that simplicity reigns supreme. Game developers cannot rely upon the hard work in muscle education done by previous games. It's an interesting dilemma when you consider how sophisticated gamer tastes are nowadays.

A hardcore gamer expects twenty buttons, or, at the very least, a right click and a left click. Yet here we are with a tap. Sure you can throw in a swipe, but it's a cumbersome novelty rather than a pleasurable experience in a game requiring nuanced inputs.

And so we wait for a game to come in and lay the groundwork. 

For the most part, we haven't had any true blockbuster games for hardcore gamers. I'd say Supercell's Clash of Clans is the closest to the mark, and I expect it to establish certain parameters for similar simulation games that are sure to follow.

But the future will be decidedly more 3D and decidedly more real time than the games of today, and there seems to be very little established craft on that mark.

Alien inputs

I would love to jam our next game with all sorts of sophisticated input mechanics. I find the tap to navigate menu motif easy to understand but terribly inefficient.

I want players to be used to swiping to swap a unit or double tapping to issue an attack, with a single tap to move. These sort of tap savers are deeply attractive, but entirely foreign to users. Believe me, we've tested it thoroughly.

Alas, I am left to weep at night as I tap, tap, tap through the games, knowing it could be so much more. It's hard to return to a joystick mentality when you've seen the majesty of a double bumper, double joystick, d-pad, double bumper world.

Baby steps I guess. Evolution is like that.
To find out more about Quark Games and Valor, take a look at the company's website. For moment-to-moment updates on everything Shawn Foust, you can follow him on Twitter.

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