Smash Heat – Example of Where Not to Place Game Controls on a Touch Screen

Few days ago, I downloaded this iPad game called Smash Heat from the app store. It had fairly good ratings when I downloaded it. To give you some introduction to the game – (you as) the player are a cop and drive a cop car to catch the ‘bad’ guys who are also either driving a van or car. The cop never gets out of the car. He/she drives around and catches criminals by ramming his/her car into the ‘bad’ guy’s vehicle until the ‘bad’ guy’s vehicle is damaged and is ‘arrestable’ (in gaming terms).

When I saw the game, I liked it’s graphics. I was little surprised by the controls for the game when I first started playing the game. Game designers seemed to have followed the game design principles but somehow forgot to consider the ‘hot’ touch areas on an iPad. These hot areas are based on the comfortable range of reach of the fingers and thumbs of the user. (Here’s an article on designing for touch screens by Josh Clark that explains these ‘hot’ touch regions better). In this game, there’s just one sweet spot at the bottom center of the screen to control the car’s steering and acceleration (Figure 1).

Sweet spot to control car in Smash Heat


Figure 1 – The highlighted (with red rectangle) “Touch Start” is the sweet spot to control the car.

I played the game for 5 minutes and my thumb was stretched to its full extension range (Figure 2). My thumb was tired and I wanted to find another better way to play the game. I turned the iPad in portrait mode to see if it would be easier for me to reach the controls. Disappointingly, the game can only be played in landscape mode.

Thumb extended to reach the bottom center of the iPad screen


Figure 2 – My thumb is extended to reach the bottom center of the screen. (I had to place the iPad in my lap to take picture with the camera)

I am 6 feet 3 inches tall, so I would consider my hands to be towards the longer range of the population. I wonder how the users with smaller hands can play the game. The only possible way seems to be by holding the iPad in one hand and using other hand for driving the car. This means that the grip on the iPad would be shaky and the user won’t be able to enjoy the game. It is very common to provide game controls for the steering (or direction control) on one bottom corner of the iPad (or other similar tablets) screen and for acceleration on the other bottom corner of the iPad screen. It seems very ubiquitous control placement for games but the designers for Smash Heat seem to have missed this common control placement. I liked all the other features of this game; the graphics, the way the level of difficulty of stages progressed but I can’t play the game because I want to play a game for recreation and not exercising my thumb.

I have been studying and doing research on user experience and usability engineering for around three years. I will be honest and accept that it took some time for me to be convinced that how important user experience is for making an interface/product/website/software application successful. Users have so many options that designers have to come up with innovative ways to encourage product adoption and prevent product abandonment by the users. I am happy that my conviction in UX and UE is increasing everyday when I pay attention to the design of products and services around me.

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