Develop 2013: How to turn touchscreen controls into an asset, by Lady Shotgun

They don't need to be a compromise, says Anna Marsh

Develop 2013: How to turn touchscreen controls into an asset, by Lady Shotgun
Why does solving puzzles in The Room feel so satisfying?

According to Anna Marsh of Lady Shotgun, one of the game's great strengths is the link between the way you interact with objects via touchscreen controls and the way you'd interact with them in real life.

"In The Room, you turn keys, pull sliders, all with your finger – almost as you would do in real life," said Marsh during her talk on designing meaningful touchscreen interfaces at the Develop conference in Brighton.

Other games that pull the same trick are Angry Birds - where you physically pull back on the catapult to launch your bird - and Flight Control, where there's a logical link between drawing lines on the screen and a plane's flight path.

All in all, Marsh's talk was design to break down the myth that touchscreen controls have to be a compromise. In many cases, they're an asset.

Like magic?

"People tend to think that the way a game feels is like some group of magical elements that somehow just comes together," offered Marsh.

"A lot of the time, what's happening when we touch and feel is subconscious – a lot of Hollywood movies use tricks to tell us what we're going to feel, and it's exactly the same in game design."

That means, Marsh said, making sure the player makes a mental link between any inputs they make on a touchscreen and the action that happens as a result.

"Because touchscreens don't have tactile feedback, you have to pick up the slack with audio and visuals," said Marsh.

"On Buddha Finger, we throw shitloads of stuff at the player to tell them 'yes, you have pressed that'."

Marsh recommends that developers process all touch events in their game as they occur, as the player's subconscious is "very good at picking up lag or delay." She added, "Always do something at the beginning of the touch – don't wait until it's over."

Fighting myths

Of course, a lot of the issues developers and gamers alike think they'll have with touchscreens never materialise in reality.

Marsh argued that the notion that using touchscreen means your hands obscure the visuals to an intolerable degree is something of an untruth – apart from in some extreme cases, such as many FPSes, your brain fills in the gaps.

What's more, the lack of a control pad is a definite advantage most of the time.

"Even though we think that it's very natural for gamers to use a controller, actually it's a learned convention," said Marsh.

"A lot of people who have been designing for controllers tell me that touchscreens are limited. I don't think that's actually true – screens are very immediate for our brains – it shortens the circuit.

"You can directly touch the objects in the games, and so it radically reduces the learning curve."

You can read Marsh's top 3 tips for designing play for touchscreens here.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.