Linking fiction to action: How touchscreen controls can help you connect with your players
It was lovely to hear that many people found my presentation on designing gameplay for touchscreens at the Developer conference in Brighton earlier this month interesting and useful.
For those of you who were unable to make it to the English south coast or even those eager for more - here's the first part of an expansion on the presentation's concept of linking game fiction to touch actions to improve game feel.
In part one, I'll be looking at using real world action, with less literal actions to follow in part two.
Finding ways to link the what's going on at the narrative level of your game to the actions that players are performing is always a great way to improve player experience.
I'm sure most of us have played games with interesting stories that unfortunately don't feel connected to what the player is actually doing the game ending up becoming pretty irrelevant as a result.
Linking the fiction to the action helps get the player to sympathise with the narrative and makes the game overall feel like a more complete experience.
Here's a really good example from a non-touchscreen game: God of War's frantic button bashing to open a door totally suits both the character of Kratos - angry, letting nothing stand in his way - and the actual animation, straining powerfully to force open a door.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta on PSP
As a result, the player is able to appreciate a little of the anger and determination of Kratos whilst they are hammering away at the button to open the door.
What touchscreens add to this concept is the ability to create a very wide range of touch actions.
Replicating real life
With a traditional joypad, we tend to get meaning from actions arbitrarily assigned to the buttons.
Bar the obvious link between trigger buttons and gun triggers for shooting, the rest of the buttons on a joypad are all pretty similar you can press them, or press and hold them, and that's it.
On a touchscreen though, we can combine touch events to create a large number of 'verbs' here are just a few: Tap, Pull, Push, Drag, Stroke, Swirl, Swipe, Hold, Pluck, Draw, Buff, Slice, Pinch, Fling
As such, we have the opportunity to derive meaning from the actual actions we ask players to perform.
An added benefit is that if the touch action the player performs recalls an action the player might do in real life, it makes the game extremely intuitive and immediate, drastically reducing the time players need to spend learning which-button-does-what.
An obvious example is Angry Birds, where the player's dragging touch action pulling back the on-screen catapult is very close to the kind of action you would take with your whole hand to pull back a real life catapult.
Another good example is The Room. Players will be familiar with the actions used in real life to operate the constituent parts of the puzzle boxes - keys, drawers, levers, and so on so they pick up the game play and controls instinctively and quickly get stuck into the real fun part working out the puzzles.
Bitmonster's Lili also serves as a very interesting example of this concept.
Gameplay revolves around picking flowers - this is how players both gain currency and beat enemies. Players first touch the flower, before then pulling up and away from the flower's anchor point. The pulling action is reminiscent of plucking a flower in the real world, by pulling it away from the ground.
What's particularly interesting about Lili is that, unlike Angry Birds and The Room, the player is controlling a visible player character Lili.
Bitmonster could have chosen to implement flower picking using a virtual controller with an on screen 'action' button that appeared whenever Lili was beside a flower.
However, the touch action the developer opted for instead makes the game feel far more immediate, cutting out the 'middle man' of character agency.
Lili's animation simply has her reach out a hand as the player successfully plucks a flower, and the flower appears in it. Yet no one finds the fact that sometimes they are controlling a character, and sometimes performing actions directly in the world, jarring or 'immersion breaking'.
It simply feels good to play, with our subconscious brain filling in the logic gaps quite happily.
Here's another aspect of using touch actions that recall real world actions. We have muscle memory a tactile sense - that knows about actions we perform in real life. We also have tactile senses in our hands that tell us that we have pressed buttons when we play with a joypad.
These senses are much faster than our sight or hearing so we generally don't consciously notice them. Nevertheless, the feedback is there pre-consciously, and it's something that's obvious lacking on touchscreens, which feature no physical buttons.
To make a touchscreen experience feel good it's necessary to make up for this lack of super-fast feedback.
As well as using lots of clear visual feedback to fill the gap, using touch actions that recall muscle memory actions is another way to get those fast pre-conscious tactile senses firing and the game feeling good.
And just as it can work for you, if you mis-link the touch action to the fiction it can also work against you.
In the game Horn, players control a character who occasionally needs to perform the kind of actions typical to a platformer.
One of these actions is to jump across a gap, grabbing onto a ledge on the other side. Your character doesn't grab that ledge automatically, however the player is forced to tap the ledge mid-jump.
As a result, Horn's narrative is therefore telling me, the player, that the character I'm controlling is going to grab and hold the ledge, yet the required touch action is a simple tap. In fact, continuing to hold actually causes the character to fall.
Although I understood consciously after my first failure that the game was actually asking for a simple tap, it took me another few goes to actually do this, because I was so convinced that the action would require me to hold.
The end result is, Horn's approach to this action was not intuitive, and lacks immediateness.
So how you can avoid falling into a similar pitfall? Finding touch actions that recall actions players perform in real life radically improves the intuitiveness and immediacy of the game, and that accordingly contributes to great game feel.
Check back on PocketGamer.biz in the weeks ahead for part two, where we'll be looking at how you can implement less literal actions in play that, nevertheless, help lift the feel of your game in a similar manner.
You can view highlights of Anna's presentation at Develop below: