When I sat down right now I was planning on doing a review of the game N.O.V.A. 2 that I picked up from the Gameloft sale, but I knew it would only turn into a rant anyways so I might as well make a general post about what the issue with such games are. No matter how hard you try, you cannot have two virtual analog sticks and at the same time have other controls. It doesn’t work, our finger’s don’t bend that way. We need a gyroscope.
The kind of game I’m talking about is the kind where you have to control both movement and camera in a 3D game, and at the same time use weapons or whatnot. Some games can get away with this (barely) by giving the player a close range, inaccurate weapon (read: sword), but when you involve guns you need to have some sort of control to be accurate. I play way too many 3D shooter games on the PS3, ranging from straight up first person shooters like Call of Duty to action-RPGs like Borderlands and Fallout, so I can perform virtual surgery if you hive me a controller with a couple of analog sticks and a few shoulder buttons to fire (for those of you who aren’t familiar with console controllers, analog sticks are positioned to be used with your thumbs and shoulder buttons with your index fingers). However the bullshit control experience that these touch based FPS games try to pull off is such a pain (both literally and figuratively) to use that it makes me want to physically hurt my iPad- and that is not good.
The problem is that there are no shoulder buttons on tablets. That means that you can’t use your index fingers to fire any weapons. If you hold the tablet with both hands while playing, your thumbs will be in the right positions to each control a virtual analog stick, but all your other fingers will be on the back of the tablet. That means you somehow have to control three buttons with your two thumbs; movement, camera (“look around”) and fire control. Unfortunately you need to be able to do all three things simultaneously, or you’ll die. If you move and fire, you can’t turn right/left/up/down so enemies just have to move a bit (or duck). If you move the camera and fire, enemies can walk away and you’ll just be standing there. And if you control the camera and movement, well, you get the picture. This is why shoulder buttons were invented, this is why touch based FPS games try to compensate by having automatic lock-on, and it’s why these types of games fail miserably.
There is however a solution. Gyroscope. The iPhone 4, iPod touch 4, the iPad 2 (presumable, no reason why not) and a lot of Android devices have gyroscopes. A gyroscope is basically a sensor that helps the accelerometer in telling the OS how the tablet is being moved. A gyroscope is able to measure orientation, which an accelerometer is not. Because of gravity though, which is a constant downwards acceleration, an accelerometer can do some of the things that a gyroscope can- basically by knowing which was is down. That’s why you don’t need a gyroscope to automatically rotate the screen. In the same way, a device with an accelerometer can be used as a motion controller for games because the accelerometer always knows which way is down and can calculate most of the movements the tablet makes by looking at how “down” changes as you move the device. The reason you need a gyroscope is to measure rotation around the Z axis, because that sort of rotation doesn’t change the tablet’s position in relation to “down”.
Confusing? Yeah, it is. The simplest way to understand this is to imagine a perfect sphere with a ball inside it. Almost any way you rotate the sphere, the ball will roll to what has just become the bottom- because of gravity pulling it as close to the gound as possible. You can rotate it all you want in any direction you want but the ball will roll to the bottom of the sphere and point down. The one exception is if you rotate the sphere perfectly around its Z (up/down) axis, as if it was hanging from a string. In that case the bottom of the sphere would remain the bottom no matter how much you spun it, and the ball wouldn’t roll. In this thought experiment, an accelerometer would be a device that would be able to calculate how you move your tablet based on how the ball is rolling. That works fine as long as the ball actually move, which means that there’s always that one type of rotation (around Z) where the ball isn’t moving at all in which the accelerometer is useless. That’s why we need a gyroscope, to cover that type of movement. Why not use only a gyroscope then? Because an accelerometer also measures other types of acceleration, like throwing the tablet across the room. That’s why we need both sensors.
With the gyroscope in place, you finally have all the pieces necessary for a true motion controller- which means that you can skip the analog stick that controls the camera. Instead you can rotate and tilt your tablet to control the camera, and be left with only one virtual analog stick on the screen. If you don’t have a gyroscope that won’t work because of the issue above. For instance if you’re holding the tablet up in front of you like a steering wheel, you would be able to tilt it up and down and rotate it, but you wouldn’t be able to tilt it left and right because of the Z axis issue.
With the gyroscope in place, you still have the issue of tactile feedback. Moving your fingers on a smooth touchscreen is never the same as having something physical to manipulate, which is why the PSP can get away with a tiny analog stick that only moves a few millimeters in either direction and still feel more accurate than a virtual analog stick which can be moved several centimeters in each direction. This is where the Fling comes in. It’s basically a suction cup physical analog stick that gives you tactile controls. I’m getting one, and even though I know it’s no substitute for a 100% hardware based analog stick I’ve seen people use it and they say it’s like night and day compared to using on-screen controls.
The last piece of the puzzle is similar tactile feedback for the firing controls- which are virtual buttons. Nothing is more annoying than not hitting the button you wanted because you concentrated on the enemy and didn’t see where the button was (touchscreen = no way to feel where the button is). The Classic tactile touch screen button is a Kickstarter project I wrote about a few days ago, so it’s not on the market yet. Hopefully it will be, so we can get Fling style tactile feedback for that as well.
With all these three pieces in place, we might have a tablet that can work for FPS gaming. A gyroscope to handle camera movements, a Fling to handle actual movement and a pair of Classics to handle weapons. I can definitely see myself spending more time with games like N.O.V.A or Modern Combat (aka fake-Halo and fake-Modern Warfare, though don’t take that as a bad thing) with such a system. Games like that are cheap compared to console games, and if you buy them on sale you can get a stuffed tablet full of awesome games for the price of a cold Coke- which is why people buy these games at all instead of sticking to consoles or PCs with real controllers. As long as the controls make sense, and they currently do not in my opinion.
PS: I tried being generic with using “tablet” instead of “iPad” in this article, but currently you won’t find many games that fit this bill on Android. Hopefully Gameloft, which frankly has most of these types of games, will bring their titles to Android as well- but we’ll see.