Thoughts from PAX East.

This past weekend was PAX East in Boston and at the last minute I decided to go. I think it was jealousy from hearing about everyone on twitter talking about GDC but I figured I should take advantage of the fact that I live about a half hour from Boston.  PAX was, in one word, excellent. The one downside it had was that it was packed. I think I read somewhere that over 3 days there were around 70,000 people there. Thats a lot of gamers! The venue was nice and big so it didn’t really feel that packed inside the expo floor but the lines, oh the lines.  At any given time there were talks going on about all kinds of topics: Games, dev, writing, media, communities, etc, and each one would have a line form up before it.  Most of the talks reached capacity in the line well before the start of the talk, I didn’t even try to make it to most of the main events. What I did want to go there for were several talks being held by the IGDA in a room called the IGDA Dev Center.  One thing, this room held 80 people. Thats right, 80. Eighty people in an event where there’s several thousand at any given time is leaning towards the ridiculous side of things but luckily for me I caught on to this and got there plenty early making it to most of the talks I wanted to go to.

There’s a whole other world out there

Lately I’ve been focusing so much on iOS I’ve almost forgotten about other consoles.  I’ve been on sites like TouchArcade.com and gearing up for games like Casey’s Contraptions but there’s so much more out there. I do love how accessible the iOS app store is to developers, and I really hope this is a trend that continues making it easier to release games on all kinds of platforms.

Some of the most exciting things for me at PAX:

  • Battleblock Theater (A new game by Behem0th if you haven’t seen the opening yet check it out, it’s hilarious )
  • Portal 2
  • Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 (Single Player MTG game)
  • Starwars: The Old Republic
  • Pokemon TCG Online (I’m a sucker for TCGs, I’ll play the single player probably)
  • The Nintendo 3DS…..

Which leads me to a brief tangent. I don’t like the whole 3D trend.  I’ve tried it, It seems like it only has gimmick value.  In my opinion it plays out in two ways: It’s badly done and thus distracts from the film or it’s done well and you stop noticing it after your eyes adjust defeating the purpose. The best argument I’ve heard on the subject, though I can’t remember who wrote it, said that: Movies (and games) are already three dimensional, when you see a Train go off into the distance you don’t say “Oh that train is shrinking”.  I imagine when I play games on the 3DS I’ll just turn the 3D off, new Zelda, new Mario? Lets be honest I will. The one thing I am impressed by is the lack of glasses, if you’re going to do it that’s how to do it right.

Ok aside over.

So yeah, it’s easy to lose track of all the other aspects of gaming when focusing on mobile games so much but it’s important to keep track of your roots and the things you love.

What it means to touch

One of the best talks I went to was pretty directly related to mobile gaming. It was by Grant Shonkwiler (@g_shonk) who’s a game designer at Megatouch Games in PA.  Megatouch is a company that makes those bar top game systems in, well, bars.

I think controls are arguably the most important aspect of a game. Having great controls can make a game feel really intuitive and help lessen the amount of explaining someone needs. Where as bad controls and make it hard to understand what’s going on, frustrating or just clunky. Lets look at the tools of the trade on the iPhone:

Touch:

Most commonly used for buttons, simple single taps can be really great but they are also the most abused.  We’ve all seen console ports with an on screen controller and personally I hate them.  They have two major flaws. 1) Your fingers block the screen, I have pretty small hands compared to some people and it can be pretty bad for me. 2) The lack of physical feedback. For buttons this isn’t so bad but I absolutely hate a d-pad or joystick on screen. So how do you use touch right? Well for starters touch is great for clicking on specific things, when you tap an item in your inventory, you know they wanted something to do with that item. I do think it’s important to not overload the user with choices though. When at all possible, I think simpler is better.

Double Touch:

Using two finger taps is a great way to differentiate some action from another without overloading the screen with different buttons.  Maybe to move a character you tap but to attack you tap with two fingers. This is something I think is underused a lot right now and I want to look into integrating it more into my games.

Gestures:

Gestures are great for commands. This is another area where I feel like there’s a lot of room to grow.  I know there are some games out there that do this (Infinity blade for one) but I really think this is a way mobile devices can really take advantage of the format and really break out.  It can get kind of chaotic if you have to make commands too often so I think it’s important to keep a balance.

Multitouch:

@g_shonk made a great point about how few games out there use multitouch correctly. Multitouch should be used for two actions that have to be done at the same time not things that can be done sequentially.  He pointed out that Cut the Rope is a great example of how it should be used. There are times you have to cut two ropes at the same time and there’s no way to do it with just one finger.

Acceleration:

This is something that’s seen a good amount of use already there are tons of games out there that use tilt controls. One of my favorites is Tilt to Live, a game that is really fast paced but still manages to keep really fine control possible to weave in an out of the waves of evil red dots. I think tilt controls are really useful for platformers and side scrollers too. Hoggy is a pretty great example of a platformer that just feels good on the iPhone if you haven’t played it I recommend checking it out.

Common Pitfalls

The biggest area of fail when it comes to touch controls is the problem of covering the screen. It’s a fine balance between interacting with the screen and getting visual information from it. Battleheart is a game I love, but after you get a bunch of skills for each of the four characters it can get pretty chaotic and you have to keep pushing skills and dragging party members around, most of the time your hand is covering the screen. There’s a couple ways you can deal with this: First don’t put buttons on the top of the screen. As Grant pointed out in his talk Plants vs Zombies did this right on their iPhone port of the game. Originally the plant buttons were on the top, but on the iPhone they are on the left. Second, limit the amount you have to be touching things on the screen. If you have to make a gesture/tap/selection per attack consider having half as many attacks for twice the damage, it won’t slow the pace of the game down but it slow the flow of input you have to supply.

Overall Im looking forward to all the new innovative ways people keep finding for pushing the boundaries on controls.  Next time you’re working on a game think if there’s a way you can make your controls more innovative and intuitive.

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