The Limitations of iPhone Gaming

In the years since the iPhone was introduced, the platform has grown by leaps and bounds, making it far easier and better to do the simple tasks we tend to do every day. In the process, iPhone gaming has become wildly popular, with all sorts of different styles making the transition from the web, consoles and PCs to the tiny phone that sits in our pockets or purses.

But for all the talk about how great the iPhone is for games, what are the limitations? What is good on the iPhone and what just plain sucks? I started thinking about it the other day, and you know, iPhone gaming sure is cool but it’s just not quite perfect for everything. Let’s hash this puppy out after the break.

What It’s Good At

The iPhone has a speedy processor, amazing graphics and a completely fluid interface, making it perfect for certain types of games, and absolutely horrible for others. Take, for example, Scrabble. I can play that by myself or against a partner and have no problems at all wiping the virtual board with my opponent. And when it comes to word games, the iPhone is just great.

Vent and dent? That's creative.

Vent and dent? That's creative.

In fact, any game that doesn’t require you to touch a very specific area at one point in time or another is just great for the iPhone. Let’s use Tiny Wings as an example: Touch anywhere on the screen and the bird dives into the landscape with no problem. It doesn’t matter if you touch the bird specifically, or the corner by where your thumb naturally sits, it all works. And for those types of games, the iPhone is king.

Virtual D-Pads and Joysticks

Where things start to get hinky is when the developer tries to mimic the gestures that made the game popular on another platform. Confused?

Think about that time you played Super Mario Bros. on your cousin’s NES, or when you spun down hills at a million miles an hour playing Sonic the Hedgehog on your friend’s Sega. Both those, and many other consoles, used a D-Pad controller that navigated the protagonist through your world. Since the iPhone is now powerful enough to play games that were designed to run on consoles built just 10 years ago, they try to emulate those controls on the iPhone, and most of the time it just sucks.

How many buttons are here? Like a bazillion?

How many buttons are here? Like a bazillion?

This has popped into my head before, but it really hit home when I was playing Grand Theft Auto III, one of my all-time favorite games. My frustration, as I pointed out in the article, comes down to the controller, or lack thereof:

I will say that the controls have been the main reasons for my frustration. Although there are many different ways to tweak and fine tune them, it’s just so frustrating when you’re close to making a turn but your finger slides away from the control area. I will say though that if you turn on analog steering, you get a joystick that repositions to your hand. It’s not perfect, but it can be easier to use.

Since then, I’ve played the game quite a few times, and although I’m getting the hang of it, there’s just no easy way to replicate a 14-button controller complete with d-pad and multiple joysticks on an iPhone without littering the screen with icons. But even if you do attempt it, then there’s the other problem: Your thumbs.

Two Hand Gaming

I was born with two hands, so when I play a game that requires them, I think that these things really come in handy (See what I did there?). But since the screen on the iPhone isn’t that big, and my hands are, trying to tap on two sides of the screen can limit my viewpoint.

Yeah, this doesn't work.

Yeah, this doesn't work.

Take a moment and pull your iPhone out of your pocket. Hold the iPhone horizontally in your hands and put your two thumbs in the lower corners of the screen. If you’re anything like me, you’ve instantly lost 1/3 of the viewing area, just because of where the controls are located. This sucks pretty bad if you’re trying to fight a bad guy who surrounds you at all turns, or shoot the enemy with your gun and can’t target him because he’s under your thumb.

Also, because there’s no tactile response from the screen, you have no idea if your finger has slipped off the d-pad and onto no man’s land, and you won’t know until you die or get injured. Take a look at that Sonic The Hedgehog screenshot above. That’s a d-pad and one button, and more often than not, I found my finger sliding all over the d-pad, leading to an untimely death.

That’s why I find one-handed games so much better than the alternative. More often than not, I find myself getting frustrated because I either can’t see the action or something is in my way. It’s never like that with a console game, whether it’s on a Nintendo 3DS or a PS3, so it sucks that it is that way here.

The Solution That Wasn’t

The solution, it seems, just doesn’t exist.

I mentioned in my GTA III review that I had considered buying a joystick for the iPhone, but apparently I’m not the only one because many of the types that I’m interested in are sold out. But a stick-on joystick isn’t the perfect option; what would be is a dock that has handles like on your PS3 controller, but also has buttons, too.

Thing is, that’s just not going to happen, even though it’s technically possible. I have a PSP charging adaptor that has two handles just like my PS3 controller, and it slides right around the PSP, keeping it in place and charging it simultaneously. And the same thing could work with your iPhone, be it through a Bluetooth connection or a plug into the dock, but it’s just not going to take off.

Why? Because it would need universal adoption, something that’s just never going to happen. Let’s say that you’re a manufacturer, and you want to build this mythical controller that I’ve dreamed up. To get it to sell, you need app developers to make it work with their apps, otherwise it’s just a useless hunk of plastic that no one wants to buy. Sure, you might get a few games to join in, but unless the company who makes this controller is huge (think: Apple, EA, Zynga, etc.), then there just won’t be widespread adoption. You’ll get a few niche games here and there, but that’s it. And that sucks.

The Answer?

So how does this all get fixed? Well it doesn’t, which is why we have to know and accept the limitations of gaming on the iPhone. We can’t just expect to have the full console experience in our pocket, because the physical nature of the iPhone just won’t allow it to happen. Sure, we can get really close, but we’ll never be all the way there because there are no buttons or joysticks to press.

For me, that’s fine. Sure, I really wanted GTA III to bring the console experience to my pocket, but it just wasn’t meant to be — at least not with my big mitts. So I’ll keep playing the Angry Birds, Words with Friends and other games that really don’t try to reinvent hardware through software, and instead use the multitouch nature of the iPhone to its advantage.

For me, that’s where the iPhone really has no limits — and that’s where iPhone gaming should be headed.


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