[caption id=”attachment_643” align=”alignleft” width=”64” caption=”Pegs vs Triads”]Peggle iconGTA icon[/caption]I’ve had two very different iPhone gaming experiences over the last few weeks: Peggle and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. It’s safe to say I got completely addicted to Peggle, but when it arrived I couldn’t resist the temptation of having the GTA universe in my pocket too. After shelling out the almighty sum of £5.99 on the sandbox triad-‘em-up, I discovered that there were many aspects of playing/using Peggle that make it a better fit on the iPhone than GTA. Let’s break down how these very different experiences manage the transition to a hand-held, “casual” gaming platform. What exactly does “usability” mean in this context?

1. Minimise cost of entry/exit - Instant on, instant off

If there’s one thing that most characterises the mobile gaming experience, it’s the difference in playing cycle frequency and duration. As this highly unscientific graph shows: [caption id=”attachment_664” align=”aligncenter” width=”300” caption=”Gaming intensity over an 18 hour period”]Gaming intensity over an 18 hour period[/caption]Players of a console game are much more likely to be giving the game their full attention, for potentially extended time periods. As such we expect them to give back experientially; rousing scores, scene-setting cinematics. How well do GTA’s movie stylings transfer to the 3.5” screen? Fairly well, as it turns out.

Handheld games need to be able to be picked-up and played, and similarly, put-down, in a flash. It’s just not feasible to insist on finishing a mission, returning to a safe-house etc, before the game can be safely stopped. You don’t want to lose the last few minutes progress just because you’ve arrived at your destination. Peggle has a few wrinkles here, the only times it crashed on me was after unlocking the phone to continue a game, but generally it’s perfectly paced for snatched play; each ball lasts a few seconds, and each game only a few minutes. Furthermore when resuming a game you can instantly see the number of blue and orange pegs remaining and therefore gauge game progress at a glance. Having a free-roaming city to explore is a fantastic experience, but keeping track of where you are requires more mental effort/investment.

2. Support restricted input - One-handed operation

peggle_screenshotPersonally, I get a few good hours a week of gaming time on the tube. Unfortunately most of that is while hanging from the hand-rails amongst a crowd of other commuters. This one-handed playing style is completely incompatible with GTA’s control model; the driving requires one hand for the accelerator, brake etc, and another for the directional controls. The overall pacing of the game is also important; twitch gaming doesn’t fit well with being buffeted around on the underground, but board-game style pacing is largely unaffected.

3. Degrade output gracefully - Shhhhhh!

GTA is most definitely a multi-sensory experience. The radio soundtrack that kicks in as you jump into a ‘jacked motor. The ambient sounds of the city as you stalk the sidewalks looking for unsuspecting victims to eviscerate. Peggle has its own rousing soundtrack of course, Ode to orange peg Joy, but it’s much more of an ancillary aspect of the game. You can safely turn it off and it’s not going to reduce your ability to play, or alter the play experience. The importance of this becomes apparent whilst enjoying a surreptitious few minutes of fun in, say, just for example, err, the toilets at work. Not that I would ever do that, obviously…

4. Work with device restrictions - Physicality

gta_screenshotOne of the things I found most jarring about the translation of the GTA experience to the iPhone is the very thing that makes the iPhone what it is: the touch screen. It’s just odd not having the haptic feedback on a stick, especially when you’re virtually pushing a car round a tight corner, or trying to chase someone down the street. I just felt like I needed to feel the limits of the controls. Part of the reason for this is the fact that you’re essentially controlling physical objects directly, whereas Peggle is much more abstract - albeit fundamentally based on the concrete physical behaviour of a falling ball.

…but which is best?

The answer? Who knows! The fact is they’re completely different experiences, so it depends what you’re looking for. The thing about smartphones, portable gaming devices etc, is that people use them in a vast array of different environments and in very different ways. Personally I don’t want a console replacement, but I do enjoy console-like experiences on the go every once in a while. I’m willing to change the way I use the phone - at least temporarily - to accommodate that. But I also love a game that fits perfectly with the way I already use my device; especially if it happens to be incredibly addictive, with simple but emergent game-play. These days I’m a real casual gamer, having to grab what time I can between work and the family, so having something that I can enjoy in 30 second segments on my own terms is a real pleasure.

It will be interesting to see how developers, gaming and otherwise, deal with the different usability requirements of these emerging platforms. These factors could quickly become important differentiators in a crowded market.