The iPhone gaming Fallacy

Recently I’ve had a lot of discussions about how good the iPhone/iPod touch is for playing games on. Most people contest that, unlike a traditional handheld console, the iPhone is limited by it’s control mechanism. That is to say, there are no physical buttons. I don’t agree, I see the iPhone’s control mechanism as something that makes it different, not something that makes it inferior. The reason for this is very simple, and can be seen by splitting up games by genre. I’m going to look at several game genres, and which platforms play them well.

First Person Shooters

FPS games need the ability to turn fast, and perform lots of interesting actions. In reality, the most important requirement here is being able to spin on the spot. This is something that mice are *incredibly* good at. They provide the ability to move extremely precisely to any point, and at any speed you require. For that reason, along with there being over a hundred buttons on a keyboard, PCs have to take the crown in this department. But I was talking about hand helds. Which of those takes the crown here? An analog stick doesn’t give you the fast precision of a mouse, a touch screen can simply let you tap where you want to turn to. I’ve not though seen any fps games implemented this way yet, they all try to simulate an analogue stick for some silly reason. On the other hand, traditional controls have plenty of spare buttons to use for fire, jump etc. A touch screen has no such luxury. For this reason, I’m going to give FPSes to the traditional console.

  1. Desktop PCs
  2. Traditional handhelds
  3. Touchscreen

Racing Simulations

Racing simulations require a smooth, analogue input that mirrors a steering wheel well. There really is no contest here, traditional handhelds have the perfect control mechanism! PCs similarly gain the perfect control mechanism, as long as you attach a steering wheel.

  1. Traditional handhelds
  2. Desktop PCs
  3. Touchscreens

At this point, things aren’t looking too good for the poor old iPhone, but lets carry on with some more game genres

Role-playing games

Controlling a character in a role-playing game for example is done quickly an easily with an analogue stick, though often selecting enemies to fight can be a chore. With a touch screen, we can tap where our character should go, and we can tap on enemies and actions to have a punch up. This one’s close, but it’s got to go to the Touchscreen. A side note though – the PC, with it’s combination of keyboard and mouse can do this better.

  1. Desktop PCs
  2. Touchscreens
  3. Traditional Handhelds


Strategy games require you to be able to pick units quickly, and give orders out fast. That means being able to select something on the play area near instantly, and then direct the something somewhere else on the play area similarly quickly. The touchscreen is a clear winner here, you can simply tap units, and drag/retap them where they must go. With a traditional console, we must sit pushing buttons repeatedly to select the right area of screen. With a PC, we at least have a mouse with which we can quickly point to the relevant units and move them.

  1. Touchscreens
  2. Desktop PCs
  3. Traditional Handhelds

New Genres

The iPhone seems to have spawned a whole new genre of game – the line drawing game. Be it Flight Control, or 33rd Division, all of these games involve lots of things moving about the screen, and you drawing out lines to control where they go.


That’s by no means an exhaustive list of game genres. What we’ve hopefully seen though, is that the iPhone is not an awful platform for gaming. It doesn’t do so well on some game genres that traditional handhelds excel at, on the other hand, it does extremely well for other generes, and has even invented whole new genres specifically for it’s input mechanism.


3 comments on “The iPhone gaming Fallacy

  1. BMeph says:

    I think you’re forgetting iPhone’s second-most important input method, if not the most important: the accelerometer. It allows the whole device to act as your steering wheel for your racing games, and it gives an even more intuitive means of turning and other motions than the PC’s mouse: move the device around.

    I’m not sure if iPods have motion sensors in them as well, but it’s an integral input for iPhones – there’s a commercial demonstrating the race cart steering thing on one, and the whole “turn the phone to the side and watch the screen tilt with you” trick is even older.

    • beelsebob says:

      I’m not forgetting it as such, just not really concentrating on it.

      Re racing games, I still don’t think it brings the iPhone’s controls up to par with a hand held – there’s no feedback about reading the steering lock of your car, because you can only sense within a 360° circle, it has to be way over sensitive, and finally, what you’re playing moves as you control it, which isn’t very useful.

      Perhaps I should mention it, but I don’t think it really changes anything in that genre.

  2. Trevion says:

    I’m not sure about your assessment of strategy games. Most players find the keyboard invaluable when playing traditional Starcraft-style RTS’s. Simply selecting units and giving a destination isn’t enough – do you want your units to move, attack-move, patrol, harvest, etc?

    Similarly, most games automate selecting units by allowing you to assign groups to keys. While this may seem restrictive – why only have 10 or 12 groups? – I’ve rarely found myself wanting that 13th group when playing.

    This isn’t to say that these hurdles can’t be overcome on a touch screen. For instance, with slower-paced gameplay, having quick access to different movement or construction options might be less important. With more detailed combat models – for instance, that better rewarded flanking or cover – having finer control than the classic 10 groups of units might be more significant. Finally, one could either use contextual menus – pie menus come to mind – or a dedicated area of the touch screen to simulate the keyboard functions. However, I think that modern RTS’s – like modern FPS’s – have evolved to make tight use of the mouse/keyboard interface and that successfully porting that style of gameplay to touchscreens will be more involved, and less direct, than you suggest.

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