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Tilting: Mobile’s Dirty Little Secret

Written By Brad Kennedy

Now unarguably an adult, I grew up in a house with two brothers and a father who enjoyed bringing home toys. We loved video games; they were always around. Between us kids, we owned a Game Boy, Nintendo and Super NES, a Game Gear, Sega Master System and Genesis; we paid for that collection ourselves, though dad could be heard sneaking in play time after we were sent to bed with suspiciously early bedtimes. I think he groomed us. He got us hooked while we were young, showing up with all sorts of pre-Nintendo and Sega systems: some you’ve probably heard of – Atari for one – and some you probably haven’t – TELSTAR? He then let us fund the addiction ourselves with babysitting money, paper routes, and pitiful, weekly allowances – and reaped the benefits all the while.

Having been a gamer from essentially the dawn of household video games and at the same time a tinkerer-child grown into a mechatronics-engineering-professional, I’ve always loved, and paid attention to, the tech. Nothing was thrown away in my house without first passing my approval. Electronics were dismantled and repurposed. Items others called trash, I called raw materials. I remember at around the age of eight I invented a front door alarm from such refuse. I meticulously activated it each night before going to bed. After about a week, I woke to the sweet, sweet sound of my first successful burgle prevention, and I raced to the front door. Upon inspection, the door was still closed, the deadbolt still locked. Moments later my parents appeared behind me: mom wrapped in a blanket, dad in nothing but boxers. I quickly explained that cardboard requires a more rigorous maintenance schedule than anticipated. They didn’t say a word, just turned back up the stairs, destined for the bed my invention had so tersely torn them away from. I made a quick, temporary fix and the following day checked through what old toys I could scrap for parts. The house must be protected! My inventions became more elaborate as the materials I had at my disposal grew in complexity. Oh, and how the tech did evolve wonderfully.

That TELSTAR I mentioned, it was about the size of a flattened lunch box. On top were two rotating knobs. This is how it all started. The console was the controller; you shared it with your friend. You got cozy and jostled with your shoulder, hoping they’d miss that tiny pixelated ball. As the years went on, personal space was awarded through separate controllers, and though the coiled cables were incredibly short, you were isolated from player interference unless someone armed themselves with a pillow (melee weapon) or one of the dog’s chew toys (ranged). Controllers started to include buttons and joysticks. Full number pads became very popular – for a time. We’ve embraced digital and analog, handguns and bazookas, touch-pads turned to touch screens, steering wheels – with both pedal clutches or paddle shifters; pick your poison – an evolution of floor pads, flight peripherals, guitars, drums, and even a glove. All the while, developers would embrace the technology entering the industry and create fantastic games around the peripherals that were being put into our greedily awaiting hands. But here I put forth the notion that there’s no longer an open invite to the party.

Almost every person you see these days has in their pocket – if not currently occupying their hand – a gaming device. And no, we don’t all use it for games, but it’s there, and truth be told, a lot of us do. Inside each little wonder is a tiny piece of tech called an accelerometer. Oh, if eight year old me could have only harnessed its power – would-be burglars beware! But, you ask, what does it do you slow-to-get-to-the-point author of this article? And I respond in hushed tones… it lets you tilt. Wait! Don’t run. This is important in an “I-love-games” kind of way. Four years ago I gave up the mechatronics engineering gig and started a mobile gaming company: Shiny Talisman Inc. I knew video games. How I knew I enjoyed making them was from my junior high programming class; I painstakingly spent evenings programming in the Turing language, to create Tank Wars: a two player overhead tank battle with bullets, bombs and heat-seeking missiles. Each tank was a pink circle over top of a teal square, plus the gun barrel, of course. I was proud of my pastel tanks. Players required a password to start; the phrase-for-entry was Colour Me Bad (if you don’t know who that is, look them up). So I knew games, though my music tastes were questionable. Unfortunately, I knew the gaming industry as well as someone knows the automotive industry by owning a car. As I learned how to create games by doing all of the coding, art, and sound myself, there was no one else to bring the needed practical experience; my naivety was given leave to stand strong. While creating my first game, Warp Looter, I decided one day to try out tilt control. I spent a reasonably short amount of time to just get it working – a test. Immediately after, I deleted all my d-pad code (something I would never do these days; commenting something out is such a better idea). I was amazed at how clean the control was. I was amazed at the automatic improvements of the game simply by switching to tilt. Gone were the days of fingers blocking the screen. An end to thumbs inadvertently slipping off d-pads. Tilt a little, move a little. Tilt a lot… It was great. I was excited! I did a search to see how others were using the technology and found they weren’t. I was first. I was sitting on a gold mine.

I was wrong.

Adult me was eight-year-old me all over again thinking cardboard would last more than a week used on a home security system; I just didn’t know any better. I built Warp Looter and released it – and I’ll still argue that it’s the most precisely controlled space-side-scroller in mobile. I convinced myself that I didn’t make it mainstream because my studio was new: I needed to put in some elbow grease, start at the bottom of the ladder, other well-known cliches. So I confidently pushed onward. I then built Caveman Cliff using the same amazing tilt control scheme. I took Cliff to a cottage and watched as everyone who tried it played for hours. Literally hours. One friend had the phone die on him so he sat on the floor in the corner with it plugged in to keep going; he played for just over three hours. Another friend, when she’d had her fill, placed my phone – quite aggressively – on the table in front of me, “I hate it. I’m never playing it again.” And in my head I’m thinking, But you played for over two hours! Cha-ching! She was right, the game at that point was infuriatingly difficult, but addictive nonetheless. After play testing, the difficulty was brought to a more reasonable measure. All through this process I missed one thing; it’s been one of the greatest limiting factors to my success; it’s the reason I feel this article needs to be written.

I was not the first to think of tilting. The big studios already had. I have no proof of this. My reasons are purely anecdotal, but I am confident in them regardless. It comes down to five words, “I don’t like tilt games.” The big guys know these words. They probably have them etched into a plaque hanging on the wall. I heard them. My problem was that I always supplied five more, “Well, just try it anyway.” Unfortunately, in a post-release reality, this prompting wouldn’t exist, and their reluctance would rule the day. Close…delete. I heard those five words over and over and it never sunk in; I won’t be sitting beside the user on the bus or in the bathroom when they play the game the first time. I often asked people after they declared their distaste for tilting – just to bug them really – what tilt games they’d played. I knew there weren’t any. The answer was always essentially the same: “Well, I haven’t, but I don’t want to go like this,” followed by a wiggle of their hands in front of themselves as if trying to catch their reflection in the side of a shiny toaster. But the joke was on me; it doesn’t matter how much someone might enjoy my game if they aren’t willing to try it without me telling them to.

People don’t want to play tilt games. The industry knows, so no one makes them. Almost – some suckers do. I see that most users who download my games, close them immediately upon finding out it’s a tilt game. My third game, Gravtrav: Gravity Traveller, a physics game, doesn’t use tilt at all. It’s been a much more successful title even though the other two are much deeper games. I recently downloaded R-type; I crossed my fingers as I searched the App Store, hoping that one of my childhood crushes would be there. I loved R-Type, and it was there. I quickly had my heart broken. R-type hadn’t aged well. Still trying to hold on to its youth, the little ship was sporting a d-pad; it blocked my view, and my thumb kept accidentally moving off the edge, making the ship stop, usually right in front of enemy bullets. That denim vest should have been trashed long ago. R-Type had the option of dragging the ship around with my finger, but that was more like cutting your hair with a Flowbee: it seems a cool idea; very quickly you realize it’s not. R-Type did not embrace the fact that it was no longer on a television with a separate control peripheral. So, like a comb-over, it tried to pretend it was something it was not. R-Type could have implemented tilt, but they chose not to. Why can’t I tilt? Because it’s not worth the development time. Mobile gamers don’t want to learn a new control method when they’re already kick-ass at d-padding. So we sit with cool new tech in our pockets that no one is willing to exploit for the purposes of improved commutes and more entertaining poops. Oh simply stated lesson, where were you years ago?

My friends at the cottage, my six year old nephew who always wants to play “the one with the dino-might” (although he’s unaware of the cool spelling my brother came up with), I was just sent a video of my friend’s 81 year old father playing Warp Looter – he plays all the time, they can all tilt. They can now at least. I haven’t seen a single user who just instinctively has the skill. It’s not a hard skill to learn. It takes only a couple minutes to get the hang of, but people won’t give it more than ten seconds. Only the nephew didn’t require prodding: “Well, just try it anyway.”

Why? Why in an industry that’s always been so open-armed to new tech are people so averse to something we all already have in our pockets; something with huge potential? Because we no longer need to be so open. This is mobile we’re talking about. It’s the video game equivalent of the free sample stands at your local grocery store on a Saturday. You try everything you want for free, judging it as a snack when it’s intended as a meal. If you put something to your nose and it smells not like what you were hoping for, you’ll still walk away with it, but that morsel is living out its days, untouched, hidden behind a box of Ritz Crackers. You’ll make a second trip back to the ones you like, trying to put your best I’m-thinking-about-it face on. Maybe a third trip where you add a quick succession of approving nods while you scrunch thinking-about-it even deeper into your features. But by the time you’re done sampling everything you’re not hungry anymore. Without having a meal, you’ve had your fill. You’re not buying anything. But you will be back next Saturday. Thing is, that person in the white apron that doesn’t know where anything is because, “I don’t work here,” – they don’t care. You needn’t be so concerned about your acting skills. Take a handful! Hold your tiny morsel to the florescent lights as you pronounce your refusal to pay for anything found through sampling stands. Do this right in front of them before you drop the smaller-than-personal-sized piece into your gaping mouth – then grab another. They. Don’t. Care. They just hope you’ll tell someone, while putting Playstation brand eggs actually into your cart, about the amazing Cup of Clams sample you just had. Then one customer – just one – will buy one hundred dollars worth of clams. Welcome to Mobile-Mart.

I don’t believe we spent the last few decades pushing video games in a wonderful direction because of people’s willingness to try new things. I think it was stubbornness. Even if right-off-the-bat you hated a game, you’d still play the first level – probably two – maybe a disgruntled third; you were definitely going to give it a full chance. I spent 50 bucks on this. And maybe that new thing that seemed awkward at first turned out to be amazing, and a whole new branch of games sprouted and blossomed. After you’d spent money on the console, you were going to invest in games, so people made them. You bought that steering wheel assembly and damned if you weren’t going to use it! Developers had the opportunity to venture in new directions – even those with possibility of failure – because gamers were willing to try something. Mobile, however, is about mass consumption for free, or close to it, which results in players never feeling on-the-hook for anything. The console was also free – it’s your phone; you needed it anyway. It’s just not worth it for developers to try something that doesn’t come with immediate understanding and gratification because mobile games are so often abandoned in the first minute of play. A tutorial? Next! I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched a new play-tester just swipe away instructions; we’re talking two sentences! I then (while screaming on the inside) calmly ask why they did that, and invariably the response is a self-righteous “I don’t read instructions”. They look back down at the phone, whilst I imagine my forehead going through the drywall. The only way a developer can know that someone will give their creation a chance is if someone’s already successfully done it before. I’m reminded of skiing and snowboarding. Growing up, people around me who did neither were willing to try snowboarding, and most ended up loving it. But those who already skied well wouldn’t spend the day it takes to get the hang of snowboarding; you really do spend that first day on your butt. The argument was always the same: “Why would I waste a day on my behind when I could be zipping down the hill on skis?” And so, they will only ever ski and never get to enjoy, and in doing so, support, something new. Why learn the skill of a tilting mechanism when I can already rock a d-pad? This is the market that has evolved around mobile gaming. Developers won’t develop for a great piece of tech we all have because the market won’t spend a few minutes on its ass to get the hang of something new.

Mobile gaming is huge, and many that play console now play mobile as well. To think that this mindset won’t bleed into the entire industry would be as short-sighted as me thinking deleting the d-pad code was a good idea. It’s like cutting off your leg – no wait, that doesn’t work. It’s like tying a lead ball and chain around your ankle: it’s going to slow you down, you’re definitely not climbing trees anymore, and the slow lead poisoning will eventually work its way through your entire body. Yep, much better metaphor. I was listening to a game dev podcast the other day. Comedian Bret Measor of the podcast was commenting about how he feels that nothing new comes out anymore. I found these guys when they reviewed Caveman Cliff. Now I’m a regular listener. (Podcast 57 @35:20, if you’re interested – spoiler: the reviewer absolutely loved it; only complaint was figuring out how to tilt – but he spent the two minutes. Win! Then he played it for an hour and a half. I contacted him later for feedback; he said he’d continued to play it constantly until he completed everything in the game minus one Game Center achievement). I won’t attempt to quote Bret, but basically he feels it’s the same stories and the same ideas coming out over and over. He’s right. Now, we haven’t exactly stopped the growth of the industry; we’ve simply stunted it, greatly. Our behaviour pressures mobile developers to not be different. It’s hard to notice the novelty of something when it’s taken half a decade to get to it with a hundred baby steps in between. It’s hard when no one is willing to take a full step away from what is already done. Instead they be shufflin’. Everyday. They shufflin’.

So what’s the result? We get games that use psychology to keep us playing instead of fun. We get games that use the lower half of the screen to show a d-pad that looks like a familiar Nintendo controller – half the screen, on a display that’s only 3 inches by 5 inches. But don’t worry, you can customize it with a cool skin… We get Flappy Felipe and Flappy Miley. We get Cans of Clams.

We are moving towards an industry that removes deviation from its evolution. We will spend forever skiing down a never ending mountain; even fresh powder will grow tiresome at some point. Bret, poor Bret, will never find that for which he searches. Even though it’s no secret, even though we see the signs, we keep hitting the machine over and over, mashing the side mounted buttons harder and harder, hoping to get more play without needing to drop another quarter. No one has noticed that the machine doesn’t just run on money; you can spend time as well. But instead of paying one way or the other, we hit, even getting our hip into it; it will be over before the ball has even fallen between the furiously flapping paddles. The bells will stop. The lights will fade. The ever feared TILT will illuminate. We need to encourage the machine, not give it reason to shut down. We need to give mobile developers a reason to be willing to try something new, not necessarily with our coins, but at least with our attention. Without, we will be TILTing the entire industry of video games. This is mobile’s dirty little secret.