Top 3 tips for designing play for touchscreens, by Lady Shotgun Games

Putting players in touch with the game

Top 3 tips for designing play for touchscreens, by Lady Shotgun Games
Anna Marsh is design director at Lady Shotgun Games, a co-operative of freelance game developers.

It's supposed to be spring, so what better time to embrace some positive energy.

This month I'm going to write about how awesome touchscreens are, especially since veteran designer Warren Spector recently admitted to having "no idea" how to design for them.

A few years ago all my design experience had been for controller/keyboard – bar some dabbling with Wii motion controls and the DS touchscreen for cross-platform titles. I did love my DS, which was constantly with me on commutes, but my use of it was confined to public transport.

But then I got an iPod touch and an iPad, and found myself completely converted to mobile gaming and the touchscreen interface.

Here's how much of a convert – I was playing the Wii U version of Batman: Arkham City this week. It's a fantastic game, really well designed and totally captures the feel of being Batman.

Nevertheless, within a few minutes I was running out of patience with the controls to the point where I thought "screw this."

I have to press this and then what to drop from a glide? Trigger which two buttons to initiate investigation mode? Click both thumbsticks together in the middle of combat? Pffft!

That's no dig at Rocksteady. The team has made an excellent game, targeting a demographic at ease with game controllers, but it made me realise how quickly I've moved from being part of that demographic, to wishing I could just damn well TOUCH things to interact with them.

Path of least resistance

Convenience is often the driver of customers from one way of consuming things to another – out of town supermarkets decimating high street shops, for instance, or home consoles replacing arcades.

Plenty of people have already pinpointed the convenience of mobile as the biggest threat to console gaming too.

Punters historically massively favour more convenience over greater performance, quality, choice or other factors. For me, it's not only the digital delivery of mobile and its portability but also the touchscreen interface that provides this convenience.

The touchscreen has removed a crucial layer between user and game, meaning you don't have to mediate through keyboard, mouse or controller. Instead, you are directly in touch with the game.

The use of a gamepad is a convention which seems natural to those that play games regularly but presents a learning curve to the uninitiated which has helped keep games confined to 'gamers.'

Well, NO MORE! Absolutely anyone can understand a touchscreen in seconds.

Take my advice

If you're still with Warren Spector in wondering how best to use this awesome and intimate interface, here are three things I learned about designing for touchscreens while we at Lady Shotgun worked on our first game: Buddha Finger.

(Incidentally, there's plenty of far more in-depth touchscreen design advice out there: take a look here and here for example)

Make it Juicy – Response to player input is even more important on touchscreens than on controllers where the player has tactile sense to confirm that they have pressed a button.

For every right or wrong input the player makes, try creating as many outputs as you can technically and aesthetically get away with.

On Buddha Finger, for every correct press or mistake the player makes, between 10 and 20 events are triggered – audio effects, visual effects on the gameplay screen and the HUD.

Some of these are almost subconscious – flashing enemy bodies white for two frames when they take damage – and some are very obvious – enemy pain expression faces are150 percent larger than the default face.

I recently heard the term "juicy" to describe this, which I love. The player is essentially squeezing a heck of a lot out with a relatively small input.

Faster the game, larger the touch areas – You cannot tell by feel alone of the extent of touch areas on a screen, as you can with a physical button. The smaller the touch area, the more time you need to co-ordinate a touch to it.
Clash of Clans and Hay Day have a myriad of items on screen you can select with a touch, and each element is relatively small on screen.

But since the pace of both games is leisurely, you're never under any time pressure to complete an action. If you happen to slip up with a touch it's easy to move your finger a little and reselect.
Super Hexagon and Punch Quest, meanwhile, give you the WHOLE of the right side and the WHOLE of the left side of the screen as two great big touch areas.

These vast input areas are necessary, though, as the games move like the clappers and mis-touching an area would be incredibly frustrating.

On Buddha Finger we more than doubled the touch areas to –on a 'retina' resolution or equivalent screen – about 100 pixel diameter to get a size that players could find and target in less than a second.

Jazz Hands – One of my favourite things about designing for touchscreen is that, unlike a controller where the player has their hands in a fixed position, you can actually make player's hand movements across the screen part of the experience.

For Buddha Finger, a game where you target touch areas appearing on screen as fast as possible, I wanted the player feel as if they were actually doing martial arts with their fingers.

I positioned the touch areas and touch types across the screen in patterns – for example, if the areas were distributed in a spiral to the left on one screen, I'd spiral to the right on the next, then have a bunch at the top of the screen followed by one large on at the bottom, and so on.

A mixture of quick (2/10th second) and slow (5/10th second) delays between the appearance of touch areas provided a sense of pace. My aim was to recreate the kind of pacing and movements you see in classic Kung-Fu film choreography.

The result was pretty successful in making even the least agile in-real-life players feel like Finger Ninjas – I was happy.

Brave new world

Console joypads and controls have evolved over 15 years to be very good at controlling single characters, and the triple-A world has become almost all about third- and first-person titles that play to that strength.

Touchscreens make possible a whole bunch of new interactions that can give us new experiences and stories not necessarily confined to what you can do with a lone character.

The most important thing about designing for mobile is, I think, not to be too bogged down by trying to create what has gone before but to embrace what the interface can do.

Explore the possibilities, push against the boundaries and above all, make sure it feels great to play!
To find out more about Lady Shotgun Games, have a look around the company's website.

Alternatively, to keep up with the news from the studio, such as the recent release of Buddha Finger for Windows Phone, follow Lady Shotgun on Twitter.

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