#BoRT: The Control Environment


If you were to travel back to a time before the iPhone (seven years ago) and asked gamers what they thought about mobile, touch-driven games, you’d probably hear complaints about how they are a gimmicks for Nintendo DS games.  Their explosive growth and adoption on mobile devices in the past several years has been a surprise to many gamers.  Their appreciation of games is tightly coupled with the nuanced control schemes and level designs for console and PC based games.  A touch-driven game meant sacrificing too much of that nuanced control.  The opinions of the core gaming community can’t be projected onto the larger gaming public though.

For most people, touch control games weren’t about giving anything up, it was about having games that were accessible to them without a high barrier to entry.  An activity that used to require them to purchase special hardware, wire up TVs, wrestle with PC drivers, and pick one place to play to enjoy games became an activity that they could take anywhere, at little cost.  Core gamers can grouch about on-screen controls and how the market is catering to a “casual” gaming audience or trying to cash in on free-to-play games, but the concept of gaming grew tremendously during this time.  And it has reached far more broad audience than any one single console or PC game has been able to.

There are few mobile, touch-driven games that I can think of that I don’t think would be better on a game console or PC.  I can’t deny the value that they present to the larger gaming public though.  I also think it’s just the beginning of a significant shift in how we think about games and how we play them.  The concept of “next generation games” is now meaningless.  The technology driving games is improving continuously, and isn’t restricted to how graphics are presented.  The technology surrounding games and the way we play them is now about technology and how it surrounds us.  Augmented reality games, GPS-enabled games, and RFID-enabled games, are all examples of how this trend reshaping the gaming landscape.

One concept that interests me in particular is the idea of second-screen apps.  We’ve seen them used to augment gaming experiences in trivial ways, but think about how this technology may begin to integrate non-video games.  If you’ve ever played the Battlestar Galactica board game, you know just how fun it can be to compete with your friends, deceive them, and try to fulfill your own goals.  It’s an incredibly elaborate game that includes many sets of cards, game pieces, and rules.  You’ll also know just how long it takes to set the game up, tear it down, or teach someone how to play.  It’s appealing to consider how the game could be digitally managed, but it is not well suited at all to being played via mouse and keyboard, controller, or PC monitor.

However, this sort of game could be translated to being played across phones and tablets which share a game board on one large display.  Each player could use a device to manage their decks privately, and to interact with the game board.  You’d no longer have to wrestle with the rule book or worry about finding a space that’s large enough to fit several people and arrange a game board.  And, most importantly, it would allow you to just enjoy the game rather than spending all of your time managing it.  It’s a scenario where it utilizes technology and interfaces that people are already comfortable with to make games more accessible to those who might enjoy them but can’t get past the barrier to entry.

Going forward, the technology driving games will be about how we control games through our environment.  Right now, phones and tablets are a key part of that environment.  And soon, perhaps wearable computers will expand the concept of how we play games even further.  The ways that we think about controlling games shouldn’t be limited to half-attempts by console and PC gaming companies.  There will always be a need (and an audience) for classic game pads but we are no longer limited to them.  PC and console games are now a subset of a larger gaming market.  And we’re no longer forced to consider alternative control schemes through the lens of a gaming market that caters to that subset.

There’s been a great deal said about the recent purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook.  VR gaming is interesting and will no doubt have a place in the future of the market.  But there’s (in my own opinion) a far more interesting development occurring in the second-screen development space.  The Google Chromecast is a $35 HDMI dongle that acts as a simple media receiver.  When initially released, it was just another device that could stream shows on Netflix from your phone.  But in early February of this year, Google released the SDK for developing your own apps that utilize the Chromecast.

What makes this device interesting is the small footprint of the platform.  It turns your TV into a canvas that’s driven by computers, tablets, and phones.  So, instead of the platform (Xbox, Blu-ray player, etc.) driving the user to setup an app on a platform, and then another app on another device, the user can simply setup the device and then “cast” whatever needs to be on the screen.  To go into technical detail for a moment: the app detects a Chromecast that’s on the same network, connects to it, and then tells it to download a single-page application that handles messages from the first device and any others that connect to it.  Devices running iOS, Android, or the Chrome browser can all simultaneously connect to it and interact with each other.  The simplest example of this is a tic-tac-toe app.  It’s HTML5 driven, and platform agnostic.

Hopefully, the low cost of the Chromcast combined with the ease of building second-screen apps for it will lead to the proliferation of non-video games like Battlestar Galactica on the platform.  It’s too early yet to tell, but even if the Chromecast were to fail, other devices will emerge that facilitate this process of integrating more games into the digital space.  Expect games to break out from classic formats, which rely less on singular platforms and more on the technological landscape surrounding you.  There won’t be any one control scheme, but it will continuously evolve and diversify as much as games themselves do.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the April/May 2014 theme: The Right Touch.


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