iPhone gaming: a lack of controls?

I’ve been a gamer for a very long time. I distinctly remember my dad helping me to play one of the earliest Space Invader units by lifting me up (what with a diminutive version of your correspondent not being able to see the screen properly) and then pretty much instantly regretting it (what with me being rather heavier than he realized). I’ve devoured games on ZX Spectrums, Commodore 64s, BBC Micros, Amigas, PCs, Macs, and consoles from Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Microsoft and Sony. And although today’s gaming landscape is clearly significantly more conservative and homogenized than that of the 1980s or early 1990s, there are still many gems lurking amongst the dross.

It’s curious to see Apple again taking interest in games. Few will remember the disaster that was the Pippin, a joint production with Bandai that rightfully made #22 on a top 25 worst tech products of all-time list by PC World, and Macs have never really been at the forefront of gaming, with users typically forced to pick up two-year-old PC games at current PC-game prices.

With iPhone, there’s a feeling things might be different this time. Right from the start, Sega was extolling the virtues of the device, demoing a highly competent version of Super Monkey Ball, and reports suggest spec-wise that Apple’s hardware rivals Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s DS, which are the only two mobile gaming platforms worth a damn. Also, Jobs claims a third of the first wave of applications on the AppStore will be games.

My concern is that the genius of Apple’s lack of physical controls for most applications (thereby enabling context-sensitive controls and keyboards) might be its undoing in the games world. Jailbroken iPhones offer emulators of classic consoles, but the lack of tactile controls renders them borderline unplayable, and although the iPhone’s accelerometer and touch-screen will force (some) developers to create unique and innovative products, there’s a real risk iPhone as a gaming platform will remain a seriously niche concern, by virtue of lacking a D-pad and other ‘standard’ controls.

Some might argue that iPhone’s unique controls can only be a good thing, using Nintendo’s Wii and DS consoles as ‘proof’. But while both of those devices have proved staggeringly popular, they offer alternatives to developers. Yes, you can wave the Wii remote around like a loony, or draw on the DS touchscreen, but more typical control methods are also catered for. And it’s pretty obvious that some developers try to shoehorn unwieldy control systems into games (a shocking number of DS games require hateful microphone-based controls at some point) on such consoles because they can. But with the iPhone, they will sometimes have to.

iControlPad

Looking at iPhone gaming demos to date, there’s already a split between games such as Super Monkey Ball using iPhone to fashion highly intuitive controls via tilting, and more traditional games being hamstrung, leading to having to ‘jolt’ your iPhone upwards to make a character jump. A quick glance around the web suggests I’m not alone in wishing iPhone catered for all, rather than those with an ‘accelerometer and tilting’ fetish. One Mac user created a mock-up of a PSX-style controller for iPhone, and the people over at icontrolpad.com (pictured right) have prototyped a device that almost turns iPhone into a PSP-style handheld console.

Unfortunately, any devices along these lines are likely to be limited to jailbroken iPhones—at least for the foreseeable. But here’s hoping Apple takes these ideas on board. For while I’m all for innovation and playing something new, it’d be a shame to restrict iPhone to certain types of games, simply by not giving developers access to a full range of controls, tactile or otherwise.

  • Peruchito

    the old school gamer in me agrees with you, but i do like the fact that this forces games to be different. like everything before the DS and Wii, games were basically all the same, different graphics, stories, rules but the same. having this new input system changes that. like the Wii, and the DS, new games that are radically different than other games can finally develop. new ideas, new concepts, sky’s the limit on the possibilities. for this reason, despite me wishing i could play street fighter on my iphone, i welcome this new interface and i wait with excitement on the new generation of games.

  • Bone

    One game i have imagined all along is for EA Sports to create a version of “Tiger Woods”.

    It would be pretty incredible on the iPhone given that it could all be touch driven.

    - Bone

  • Craig Grannell

    @Peruchito – I agree with you in principle. Given the choice between a lot of new ideas and a load of rehashed old ones, I’ll go for originality every time. The thing is, the Wii and DS have shown some developers go to great effort to shoe-horn concepts into control methods that simply don’t work. And, frankly, I’d love to see some old-school emulators and arcade classics alongside new titles on iPhone, with some third-party controllers to match.

  • Aaron

    I’m ready for some great “different” games to come out, breaking the paradigms we have as gamers, but that does not mean that’s all I want. I want some high quality “retro” with some classics (not with crappy virtual controls tyvm Ms. Pac Man on app store) and “normal” gaming with a D-pad and buttons (preferrably only two for me).

  • Frost

    The iPhone would be the perfect mobile gaming platform with actual control buttons vs. just a touch screen. A plug in controller of some type would be an excellent accessory. The more we can do with it, the more we will buy to do something new with it.

About the author

Craig GrannellCraig Grannell is Cult of Mac's designer and an occasional contributor. He also runs iPhoneTiny.com, a Twitter-driven reviews site for iPhone apps and games. Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigGrannell and visit his website, Snub Communications.

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