Touch screens have become a big part of the video game landscape over the past decade — but they’re still an untapped opportunity within the realm of console gaming.
Over Christmas, I spent some time with family back home in the United Kingdom, and – like many other households over the festive period – we dipped into some board games. However, in addition to the traditional and physical games that have been kicking around the house for years, we delved into the Jackbox Party Pack.
If you’re not familiar with the title, it’s a compendium of multiplayer party games that’s available on everything from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One to Amazon Fire TV. The best title in the package is the word game Fibbage, which challenges players to come up with a lie to fool other players by inserting their own word in a given sentence.
This mechanic would be executed with a mass of notepads and perennially unsharpened pencils in a physical board game, but the Jackbox allows players to input their responses with a smartphone or tablet. I had worried that this reliance on technology would discourage my family from getting involved, but this was far from the case.
There was a brief period of trepidation during the first round as everyone got to grips with the flow of the game. From that point onward, however, the entire experience was as natural as any other board game would be. Switching focus between a smartphone and the television is awkward for a moment, but that soon disperses once the game is in full swing.
Fibbage in action.
The secret seems to be how simple the set-up process is; at the start of a game, you’re given a room code to enter on the Jackbox website. Once that’s done, a straightforward user interface simply presents you with either a box to enter in your own answer, or the options submitted by your rivals to pick from afterwards.
For completely separate reasons, I had partially expected both my wife of 25 and my father of 60 to be put off by the experience — neither would typically step foot near the Xbox. Both would point to the complexity of the standard controller as a major factor, but were much more comfortable with a smartphone in hand.
Mobile gaming has often been criticized for attempting to copy console-like control schemes with a touch interface. Those experiences are never all that much fun, largely because they’re reaching for an impossible goal while ignoring the strengths of the hardware.
The versatility and flexibility of a touch screen allows for accessible menu-based input that could benefit a host of genres. Obviously, twitch gameplay is far better served by a standard controller — but there are certainly opportunities being offered up by the fact that a large proportion of the gaming audience will also have a smartphone in their pocket.
Everything from the blossoming visual novel genre to a turn-based strategy game could benefit from using this sort of control method. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution — but for the right studio, there’s the potential for a big hit if the availability of this tech can be properly harnessed.
Critical hit The Walking Dead could be played just as comfortably with touch controls as with a conventional controller.
Video games have had a longstanding reputation for being targeted at teenage boys, and the continued prevalence of games like Call of Duty doesn’t do much to suggest that things have changed. The hobby seems insular and exclusionary to outsiders, and it’s true that the typical content of AAA releases should take some of the blame.
However, there’s also a question of assumed knowledge. Manipulating two sticks, a host of face buttons and several different triggers might not seem like such a Herculean task to someone who plays video games on a regular basis. Video game controllers have become much more complex over the past two decades, and to a novice player, they can potentially be an insurmountable barrier to entry.
Should every game feature a smartphone scheme to cater to inexperienced players? Of course not, but perhaps there should be more gateway games that welcome newcomers into the console environment. These titles need to offer a break from the norm in terms of both subject matter and the way that a player interacts with what’s on screen.
The rise of the smartphone means that just about everyone under a certain age is comfortable using a touch interface, and even older generations are doing their best to get on board. More people would instinctively know how to manipulate an iPhone than an Xbox One controller if they were told to pick it up and start playing a game.
Any studio looking to target hardcore video enthusiasts would likely find little benefit in broadening their horizons this way. However, for development houses like Jackbox Games and anyone interested in more diverse games for a more diverse audience, there’s perhaps something to be said for touch screen input.
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