Figuring out the game controls
I started out with the classic tilt and thrust controls as a starting point. These work well, just like they did in the classics. But you spend a lot of time having to micro manage your flight, thrust and counter thrust. The speed at which the ship turns, and the amount of thrust to apply, provide the challenge to flying the ship through a cave system. Translating this to the touch screen of a phone or tablet was a problem. It needed one thumb for tilt and another for thrust. I couldn’t apply thrust and fire at the same time. This made the controls too fiddly, and you don’t want fiddle game controls. They just frustrate the player.
I tried to think about ways to move thrust and tilt so that they were both on the same thumb. The obvious answer was thumbstick controls, but I decided against them. It would simplify the controls and remove the thrust-tilt-thrust that provided the challenge to the flight. With a little bit of lateral thinking, I ended up with this monstrosity.
It made sense on paper. If the thumb was on the left or right of the control, it would tilt. As the thumb moved up the control, it would apply thrust. But it really didn’t work. When I gave it to friends to play test, they seemed a little confused and had a hard time getting the hang of it. Even though it made totally sense in my head and seemed quite obvious, it just wasn’t. This is exactly why figuring out if your game controls are intuitive can be tricky, in your head it always makes sense.
So I scrapped it and put a thumbstick control in. The thumb sits over the pad. Distance from the centre point sets the amount of thrust, angle from the centre point sets the direction of travel. There’s an old saying, ‘keep it simple, stupid’. It totally applied here. The simple, obvious, common solution worked great. When people played with the thumbstick they could immediately move the ship the way they wanted to. I’ve had to compromise and lose some of the challenge of flying the ship, but it’s made the game more accessible.