Monday, January 30, 2012

Why Keyboards Rule the Gaming World.

This post comes partially out of a twitter exchange with my LIS460 class, so hey guys! It wasn't possible to express all this via twitter, so I've poured out my soul here for those interested:

The question is this:  
Why are PC gamers unlikely to abandon their keyboards and mice in favor of touchscreen technology?

The answer is many-fold, but it all comes back to the core concept of gaming. Games must provide an interactive experience that immerses the player in what he or she is doing. In order to do this, the player has to be able to input commands quickly and effectively with no thought. So controls must be easy, instinctive, and non-obstructive.

For many casual games, a touch-pad works fine. Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds are two excellent and popular examples. Those games, however, are not the bread and butter of the PC gaming community. They aren't designed to provide immersion, because they can't! You cannot immerse yourself in a visual representation of another world when your fingers are between you and it. Unless perhaps the game is at a realistic scale...anyone up for some bug smushing?

Presuming that the game does not have the user interacting with its visual representations directly, but rather using a separate control panel (such as a pop-up keyboard), you are still losing a great deal of display real estate to provide the control mechanism and setting the two side-by-side. On any device where control and display are integrated into one screen, it is impossible for control to be non-obstructive.

Keyboards (and game controls for consoles) sit apart from the display--out of sight and out of mind. A gamer does not have to look at the keyboard or the mouse when playing a game, which removes the command issuing process from the visual experience of the game. It seems counter-intuitive, but this actually increases immersion. As a comparison, imagine if you had to be visually conscious of every motor command issued to your hand and mouth while enjoying a big greasy eggburger. Integrating game control into game display does exactly that.

More importantly, though: touchscreen controls do not have the ergonomic, standardized layout of keyboards. And even if they did, they would still be inferior. Touchpads cannot provide the three-dimensional 'push-in, click, release' sensation that lets a gamer know that a command has been issued. This sensation is like breathing to a gamer--just as it is to a anyone who types. We usually become conscious we've made a typo before we actually see it because something didn't feel right. We can tell if a finger slipped over two keys, hit the wrong one, or if our intended punching sequence didn't quite translate correctly during transmission from the brain to the fingertips. Taking away that sensation to someone playing a game like Starcraft--a complex strategy game that demands the accurate input of around 150 commands per minute--is like putting concrete shoes on a runner. A player who has to give thought to which keys he is pressing in addition to keeping up with what is actually going on is a player who is going to lose.

For a few years now, the game industry has been pursuing the idea of making a command input system that provides more immersion...and most of these forays have been lackluster at best and disastrous at worst. Motion controls, for example, were once touted as the next great step in putting users inside their games. What they have actually done, though, is quite the opposite. After figuring out rather quickly that forcing players to dance and flail all over a room actually destroys immersion, motion controllers have by and large been relegated to the casual gaming realm...or the occasional loathsome, immersion-breaking gimmick in a more complex game.

I am looking forward to the leap in technology that will provide us with a better way to input commands into hefty, complex, meat-and-potatoes style games, but nothing we have right now comes close to superseding a keyboard, mouse, or Playstation controller. Smooth touch-screens are flat out. This isn't me being a Luddite, but me recognizing that technology designed for one function is not always applicable to another. Touchscreens make wonderful devices like my iphone and kindle fire possible, but they are simply incapable of providing the kind of functionality necessary to play the kinds of games I play.

No comments: