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Can't Touch This

by Jonathan Metts - March 3, 2005, 10:18 pm PST

Jonny takes a look at the role of touch-sensitive input in DS games and how the feature can be used effectively in game design.

Four months into the life of the Nintendo DS, and one month before the launch of the competing PSP system from Sony, I’m going to go out on a limb here: touch input sucks for video games. Or at the very least, it’s being poorly utilized in the first generation of Nintendo DS games, and we’ve seen very little on the horizon to give hope that developers are maturing in their approach to the feature. Current and upcoming DS games can be put into a few loose groups based on their use of the touch screen:

a) The touch screen is not used at all.

b) The touch screen is optional or is used for minor features.

c) The touch screen is the primary method of control.

As I explained in another editorial, we shouldn’t expect every DS game to use every DS feature, so it’s fine that some games are not using the touch screen for much, if at all. But most games on the system do use the feature to some extent, and the few examples we have at this point are already showing some limitations and problems inherent in applying this technology to gaming (which has never been done on any large scale before the DS came along).

I’d like to start by exploring a common complaint about Wario Ware: Touched!, one of the few first-party titles currently available. Many reviewers and players, including myself, noted that the micro-games felt repetitive, despite there being well over 100 of them to go through. What’s odd is that this same complaint was not heard at the release of the original Wario Ware, even though the two games both use very simple micro-game designs that are all played with extremely simple controls. In fact, the touch screen is a much more open, complex form of input than the GBA’s D-pad and face buttons, so it seems stranger still that Touched! would be lacking in variety while the original was not.

I believe the key difference in these two games is the abstractness of control. Pushing buttons is such a simple action that we can do it subconsciously, and more importantly, without even looking at our fingers. This abstract method of input makes it easier to assign almost any type of action to the button presses; we can more easily imagine that we are picking a nose by pressing A because we don’t even have to think about pressing A when we do it. Playing Touched! with the stylus is a completely different experience. Most of the controls involve drawing, rubbing, or tapping on the touch screen. These are more complex actions, and they are consequently harder to ignore while we perform them. When you slice a flying piece of fruit with the stylus, the act of drawing a line with that stylus is at least as important in your mind as the imaginary action of using a knife to slice the virtual fruit. In other words, touch controls are not as transparent as button controls. The micro-games in Touched! all feel like they’re about drawing, rubbing, or tapping because we realize, quite consciously, that we are doing those things while playing the game.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that Touched! and many other DS games are primarily played on the lower, touch-sensitive screen. That means you are always looking at both the screen display and your own hand or stylus. It may be necessary to perform accurate touch screen actions, but the obstruction hinders your ability to focus in on the game screen, which furthermore destroys the suspension of disbelief that is so important to gaming immersion.

How can developers get around these major flaws of touch-sensitive gaming? The best method on display in current games is to use the top screen as the primary display. Doing so moves your eyes away from your hand and the stylus, allowing you to sink into the game’s fantasy and forget about how you’re controlling the action. Games like Super Mario 64 DS and Metroid Prime: Hunters use this method to great effect (although using the touch screen like an analog joystick has its own problems, which I won’t discuss here). Another key to achieving immersion in touch-sensitive games is to avoid familiar tactile actions, choosing to use the touch screen as a more abstract device for controlling the game. Remember that pressing buttons is not a game in and of itself, and neither are drawing, rubbing, and tapping. Any touch input needed to control the game should be fluid, natural, and forgiving enough that the player doesn’t need to look down or think about what he or she is doing.

There is perhaps some hope for improvement in the near future, in the form of games like Yoshi Touch & Go. According to my colleague Dan Bloodworth, who has played the Japanese version inside and out, the game lets you use the touch screen for several different actions at any given time. You’re still drawing and tapping, but you have to mix up these actions and use them strategically, as opposed to literally being told what to do by a game like Feel the Magic or Wario Ware: Touched! Though Touch & Go may not be an epic quest, it indicates the potential for touch input in real action games, even those in which you primarily look at the touch screen. Another type of game that may be able to use the touch screen fluidly is the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. These games are typically played with a computer mouse, which is similar in many ways to the DS touch screen, but currently no RTS games have been announced for the DS.

But for the most part, I’m not convinced that the touch screen offers anything useful to the DS that couldn’t be done (and probably better) with an analog joystick. The obvious uses for touch sensitivity in gaming, like anything involving drawing, are proving to be less than compelling, for the reasons outlined above. But the DS is still very young, and no doubt some brilliant developer will find a truly innovative, substantive way to apply touch input to gaming. Until then (and afterwards), game creators need to be very mindful of how using the touch screen affects the player’s experience of playing a game.

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