Making Smartphone Game controls non-intrusive

This was originally written by me as a blogpost, hence the tone.
But in light of the Sep. 12 announcement, I thought it would be interesting to you.

The game has literally changed: Companies like Nintendo and Sony, who sold portable game systems and the corresponding games for decades, just do not hold up to an opponent they didn't respected enough. Smartphones.

They are in fact the perfect portable game system, because they are also, no, mainly, -not- a game system. They are still phones, and that means we have them in our pockets all the time. Perfect for casual gaming, yet grown powerful enough for heavy, almost console-like, immersive gameplay. App stores and marketplaces with massively sold titles force down prices, and the ability of constant connection to friends whom to play with is as important.

But wait, did I say perfect? Sorry, I mean almost perfect.

Adaptability is not enough

As you might have already guessed, I want to address the problem of control. Control of that immersive world you want to be sucked in.

Game control on smartphones happens via the touchscreen, which is infinitely variable in form and function. That's the power of the touchscreen, really.

Perfect in the concept of not touching the screen, but the elements of the game itself underneath. That's where they shine. But with more processing power come studios, which want to bring console-like (e.g. first-person-) games with more story and a need for more control to these systems. But there is a problem. A big problem. Your fingers.


They hinder your sight of the screen, especially on phones with sub-4inch screens, to such an extent, that that ‘world' is one third dark curtains on a lit window into virtuality, when it comes to on-screen joysticks. Even worse, the control buttons them self interfere with your view, as they need to be big and positioned right in the worst place.

Let's open this curtain.

An excellent start

An excellent and bold start from Sony Ericcson. With the Xpiria Play, the company created the first smartphone that has dedicated game controls. Reminiscent to the classic Playstation Controller scheme, the phone futures two analog joysticks, a d-pad, two shoulder and four face buttons.

Sadly, Sony missed its opportunity to make this a success as they stumbled over platform problems such as game selection, integration and user adoption.



The huge problem with this device scheme is: not everyone wants to have a phone that is good at gaming, but thick and heavy. The buttons and slide-mechanism simply need too much space.

Like I said earlier: we are in the age of casual gaming. nobody buys a smartphone for the sole purpose to use it as a gaming device - It's an addition. But then again, first people discover casual gaming, and then the heavy games. You suddenly -do- need better controls, and well, buttons and joysticks aren't bad.

So, we need hardware controls, but the Xperia play variant isn't good either.

Let's start different: Do we need to make all controls touchable, meaning molding them in plastic?

Although I said that on screen bottoms hinder sight, I want to specify that this only applies to the joysticks really. For most games that have them, the standard way of using them is to constantly have your fingers on them, swiping across the screen. Here lies that ‘curtain'. But software buttons that correspond to face or shoulder ones, are actually not that much of a problem, because most developers make them semi-transparent and more importantly: you tab them with the same thumbs that rest on the joysticks, which means that area is only hidden under them for milliseconds.

Another point here are the sensory abilities of our fingers. The whole concept of joysticks only works when the fingers can find their way over the control-surface on them self. Also finding the middle spot of the joystick area back after hitting something else with your thumbs is hard without your eyes moving away from the game scene. Both problems simple buttons don't really have.

So: buttons can stay software buttons, joysticks better become hardware ones.

The idea

The idea I want to present here is to move the joysticks right up next to the screen.

Like a classic mobile gaming device, the controls are symmetrical. In this position the whole device lies natural and comfortable in your hands, with the joysticks at a nicely reachable position.


Since that surface is normally of the glass-kind, we need to help the finger find itself. This can be done by giving the glass a little bump, representing the middle- or zero-position of the joystick,similar to the way the Experia Play does it, except that it wouldn't contain an optical sensor.


Instead, one easy way to make this work would be to simply extend the surface of the touch sensor beyond the boundaries of the display as shown below.


The advantages are clear: Your thumbs are off the screen, you have basic haptic feedback in form of the nob and hardware wise, it is cheap and easy to implement.

But most importantly: except these two little bumps, this implementation of joysticks has zero footprint. It doesn't make the device bigger, nor heavier. It becomes a great addition, and not the main feature of the device.

Further more this implementation allows for other usage of the joystick area other than the joystick. You can also map directional- and face buttons around the nob.

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What do you think?

Does this make any sense, and what would you wish for in a phone?