The web aficionados among you may know Shaun Inman from his web design site experiments, the Mint analytics package, Fever feed reading app, or more recently, iOS games like The Last Rocket. He took some time to talk to The Verge about the difficulty of implementing touch-based controls, why Super Mario Bros. still works so well, and his favorite pixel art designers. You can find him online at shauninman.com and on Twitter at @shauninman.
Where are you?
I currently live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a southern college town with a strong art and technology community. It's also home to the fastest internet in the western hemisphere, one gig a second, up and down.
What was the last time you were really stunned by a development in technology (e.g. launching Spotify for the first time, using the original iPhone, seeing sports in HD)?
AR Games and Face Raiders (both included with the Nintendo 3DS) were surprising. Their gameplay is rather shallow but the combination of the 3DS's autostereoscopic 3D screen, 3D camera, and accelerometer/gyroscope is still pretty impressive.
What's your online reading setup look like these days? All Fever, RSS? Twitter?
Fever's Hot list and Twitter. I've also been using the Reeder 3.0 beta which now has support for Fever. Daring Fireball is always open in a tab on my mobile devices.
Why are so many touch-based control systems so frustrating to use?
I think it's probably the lack of physical context. When you rest your hands on a physical keyboard you know when your fingers are misaligned or resting between rows or columns of keys without looking. Touch screen interfaces rely on manual visual alignment. Buttons on touch screens also lack the light resistance and satisfying snap you get from physical buttons. It's impossible to identify the state of an onscreen button by touch alone.
What are some of the biggest problems you've had designing games for touch screens?
Fingers and hands obstructing gameplay and the elements you're interacting with is a huge problem that you can minimize (but not eliminate) with intelligent interface and level design. If you use onscreen controls it's very common for fingers to drift off of them in the heat of play. Another significant problem is one of scale. The minimum recommended size of an onscreen button on iOS is 44 pixels square. Onscreen interfaces can quickly dwarf the content they control.
Is there anything that simply doesn't transfer when you move from an analog controller to a virtual one?
Almost nothing translates. With a physical controller, your thumbs don't hover over the buttons you're not actively pressing, they rest lightly on their surface. You can't rest your fingers on onscreen buttons without pressing them. You can't roll your thumb on an onscreen d-pad to quickly change direction. You can't flatten your other thumb to hold down more than one onscreen button at once. An onscreen d-pad and buttons may look familiar but they are nowhere near as responsive or more importantly, reliable.
"The best classic games feature a limited skill set that is thoroughly explored through level design."
Have you rediscovered any great ideas from classic NES or arcade platformers (physics, controls, design) or incorporated them into your own games?
The best classic games feature a limited skill set that is thoroughly explored through level design. Abilities are gradually introduced in non-threatening environments, interplay between the various abilities is explored, and environmental safety is removed. Super Mario Bros. is all about jumping. Mario jumps over holes and onto pipes and platforms. He jumps over or onto enemies. He jumps to collect coins and break bricks. He jumps to reach the top of the flagpole. Mario's fireballs bounce, forcing him to jump for extra precision when aiming. The vast majority of gameplay possibility is designed to reinforce the core mechanic of jumping.
What games are you most looking forward to in 2012 (any platform)?
FEZ (XBox Live Arcade) looks like a wonderful blend of old and new. I've heard great things about The Last Story (Wii), a new JPRG by the creator of the Final Fantasy series. I've been playing the EU import of Xenoblade (Wii) which has a 2012 US release. I'm also looking forward to Ni no Kuni (PS3), a collaboration between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli with music by Joe Hisaishi. Sign me up for Shigeru Miyamoto's smaller, post-Skyward Sword projects too.
Who are your favorite pixel art designers?
Joakim Sandberg (The Iconoclasts, Noitu Love), Craig Adams (Sword & Sworcery EP), and Jonathan Lavigne (Ninja Senki, Wizorb). I love the density of old Squaresoft SNES JRPGs like Final Fantasy III/VI and Chrono Trigger, and the economy of Capcom's 8-bit Mega Man games. There's also some great pixel art to be found on the Gameboy Advance, Drill Dozer and Metroid Zero Mission come immediately to mind.
What's your favorite music to listen to while coding?
I tend to favor soundtracks when developing (Bear McCreary's Battlestar Galactica scores, Joe Hisaishi's Studio Ghibli scores, and Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy scores) or chiptunes (classics like Mega Man 3, Akumajou Densetsu and Streets of Rage or more contemporary stuff from BitShifter, Anamanaguchi and Alex Mauer).
Who (or what) are you most excited about on the web these days? In the mobile app space?
How do you stay focused?
I'm not sure that I do. I'm kind of all over the place, with my attention split between web apps, iOS games and apps, and Safari extensions. I'm not especially disciplined. I use plain old text files for todo lists. I try to limit my time on Twitter and in my inbox. If I feel my focus waning, I let it wane. Curiosity or that unpleasant feeling of leaving something unfinished usually draws me back to a problem or task before too long.
What's the best movie you've seen lately?
Does rewatching all six seasons of The Sopranos count? I get antsy watching movies. I have difficulty getting invested in characters and narratives that only last an hour and a half. If I have a few uninterrupted hours to kill I'd rather play video games.
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