Critique of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic App Game
Four years ago, more than a decade after its initial release for Xbox, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released for iOS. Without WASD, arrow keys, or a joystick for panning and player movement, and a mouse for interaction, I was curious to find out how these elements would be facilitated. I found the solution Aspyr Media, Inc. came up with to be counterintuitive and frustrating, and a critique of that solution follows.
We generally navigate on our phones by swiping, and with varying intensity and speed to determine how far we scroll. At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’m going to divide the swipe into four distinct gestures: touching the screen, dragging, lifting, and, if we want to keep scrolling, returning our finger to the initial touch point and repeating. In most mobile apps, even after the lift has occurred, the camera or window continues to move because the momentum of the gesture continues.
Being a mobile app, it seems intuitive that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KOTOR, as I shall henceforth refer to it) would work similarly. However, in KOTOR, camera movement stops the moment you either lift your finger from the screen or stop moving your finger. Furthermore, the momentum of the gesture only determines how quickly the camera pivots, rather than how far it turns. In fact, gesturing more quickly generally results in the camera moving less.
Player movement uses a similar mechanism. Swiping up the screen causes your character to run away from the camera, and moving down will cause the character to run towards it. This means you can, for example, drag your finger up and to the left to simultaneously pan the camera and run in that direction. This simultaneous movement is a nice feature you can find on other gaming platforms.
However, these mechanisms combine with the mechanic for interaction to create a frustrating issue. Interacting with an object or person works how you’d assume it would- by tapping on it with your finger. You can also, however, accidentally interact with an object if you were previously touching another part of the screen, dragged your finger, and then lifted it close to the object.
This leads to moments where you finish successfully negotiating with a tribe of Sand People only to accidentally select one of the crates in their encampment (which they interpret as an act of aggression and begin trying to kill you). Or moments where you’re moving towards an enemy, lift your finger when you’re close enough, but accidentally select your nearby ally instead and automatically enter a dialogue cutscene- if only long enough to be told that you cannot enter dialogue while in combat.
The primary constraint Aspyr Media, Inc. was working with when designing these mechanics was space. To begin with, a phone screen is much smaller than a computer screen or TV, and because player input must occur on that screen (instead of through a keyboard or console), as much space as possible must be free. The screen is already rather cluttered, and it becomes even more so around interactable items.
One possible alternative would be including a keypad somewhere, but that would take up precious and limited space. Another would be requiring a definitive tap on the object itself to interact with it, rather than the nebulous mechanism right now. A final alternative would be strongly encouraging playing with a stylus, which would allow for more precision but require extra equipment in order to interact with the game.