Incorporating Controllers into Your Game

Game controllers provide new ways for players to interact with your game. When you design your game, it is up to you to decide whether a controller is appropriate and, if so, how it is used within your game. When a player has a controller, you might make it the exclusive source of input data to your game or it may be only one of many sources of input data. In the latter case, its controls are used along with data from other sensors, such as the touchscreen and motion sensors, to create an experience that builds upon the individual strengths of each input type. Therefore, to create a great user experience in your game, you should understand controllers, the kinds of input data they provide, and how a player uses the controls. Only then can you see how the controller can best be used in your game.

In this chapter, you’ll learn:

Supplying Inputs to Your Game

Interactivity is a critical and necessary part of gameplay. Players continuously interpret sensory information (graphics, audio) provided by the game. From this data, players choose which actions to take. Then, players provide input data to the game to enact their plans. This decision loop (observe, orient, decide, act) happens continuously until the game completes. In an action game, this decision loop happens very quickly because the game does not pause while players are deciding how to act. In other games, where time does not pass automatically, players may be able to act more deliberately. But in all games, players decide what to do and then try to do it.

When you design a game, it’s a good idea to assess the different ways in which a player might control your game and then choose input methods that are appropriate. A game’s controls should feel natural to players. Although a player ought to feel challenged by your game, he or she should not feel challenged or frustrated by your game’s controls. Game controllers add to the input types available to you. Besides controllers, there are other sources of input data available to your game. For example:

Touch interface. The screen of an iOS device receives touch inputs from a player’s fingers. Touch input is a natural way for players to manipulate things onscreen but can often be imprecise; a player can select a somewhat small area quickly, but cannot select a pixel-sized area accurately. Also, because there is no tactile feedback provided for the objects being touched, it is difficult to manipulate objects that aren’t being viewed directly. For example, in the past, iOS games have simulated thumbsticks by drawing a picture of a thumbstick onscreen. These virtual controls do not work as well as an actual thumbstick because a player cannot pay close attention simultaneously to the thumbstick and the other elements onscreen.

Motion. The player manipulates the entire device, and the accelerometer and gyro systems provide input data to your game. As with the touch interface, motion controls can be very intuitive. But because the screen moves with the device, the onscreen images are constantly in motion.

Mouse. A player manipulates a mouse or trackpad, causing a cursor to move. Alternatively, the mouse movement can be interpreted as deltas and used to rotate or move a camera in the game. Even though mouse-based interfaces are indirect, they can provide pixel-level precision.

Keyboard. A keyboard provides discrete key inputs that can be mapped directly to actions in a game. Keyboards provide distinct control areas and tactile feedback.

The game controllers that Apple supports provide two additional options:

Analog buttons and triggers. Buttons and triggers provide tactile controls that can be mapped to specific game actions. When a player presses a button, an action is triggered. All buttons and triggers on MFi game controllers are pressure sensitive. After a certain amount of pressure has been applied to activate the button, the button measures the amount of force that is applied to the button. Thus, your game can either determine whether a button is pressed (discrete controls) or determine how much pressure has been applied to the button (analog).

Analog thumbsticks and analog directional pads. Thumbsticks and directional pads provide two axes of motion relative to a neutral, default position. As with buttons, thumbsticks and directional pads are analog controls, measuring how far the control has been moved from the neutral position. When the player releases a thumbstick or directional pad, it snaps back to this neutral position. Any dead-zone calculations are automatically performed by the Game Controller framework, so your game does not need to do this work.

Understanding the Controllers Supported by Apple

Apple has created specifications for distinct kinds of MFi game controllers. Although specific controllers vary, many common characteristics must be implemented strictly according to the specification.

Controllers Have a Standard or an Extended Control Layout

All of the controllers use either a standard control layout or an extended control layout. The standard control layout provides the following controls:

  • Four analog face buttons arranged in a diamond on the right side of the controller (labeled A, B, X, and Y)

  • An analog directional pad on the left side of the controller

  • Two analog shoulder buttons (labeled L and R)

  • A button to pause and resume gameplay

The extended control layout is a strict superset of the standard control layout.

  • Four analog face buttons arranged in a diamond on the right side of the controller (labeled A, B, X, and Y)

  • An analog directional pad on the left side of the controller

  • Two analog thumbsticks on the left and right sides of the controller

  • Two analog shoulder buttons (labeled L1 and R1)

  • Two analog triggers (labeled L2 and R2)

  • A button to pause and resume gameplay

Controllers Are Either Standalone or Formfitting

A standalone controller is a separate device from a Mac or iOS device. When a player plays a game with a standalone controller, the controller is the only device the player can easily manipulate. Other controls are not usually accessible.

A formfitting controller is designed to work only with iOS devices (and each is typically designed to work with a specific device or range of similar devices). The iOS device is placed inside the controller always in a landscape orientation. The touchscreen and motion controls remain available to the player.

Controllers Communicate Wirelessly or Are Connected Directly

A wireless controller is not visible to the device until it has been explicitly paired with the device. Normally, the player does this by going to the Bluetooth settings and discovering the controller. However, your game can also provide this support directly; see Discovering Wireless Controllers.

Controllers that are connected directly to an iOS device using the lightning connector are discovered automatically as soon as they are connected.

Apple-Defined Controllers

Apple has defined three distinct categories of controllers: a formfitting standard controller, a formfitting extended controller, and a standalone extended controller.

Formfitting Standard iOS Controller

A formfitting standard controller supports the standard control layout. Figure 1-2 shows the control layout for a standard controller attached to an iPhone.

Figure 1-1  A formfitting standard controller

Formfitting Extended iOS Controller

A formfitting extended controller supports the extended control layout. Figure 1-2 shows the control layout for a standard controller attached to an iPhone.

Figure 1-2  A formfitting extended controller

Standalone Extended Controller

A standalone extended controller supports the extended control layout. Figure 1-3 shows a picture of such a controller.

Figure 1-3  A standalone extended game controller

Requirements for Games That Support Game Controllers

Apple has created specific requirements you must follow for any game that supports game controllers. These requirements are designed to make sure that games are always playable.

You must support a noncontroller option. Your game may not require the use of a controller. If a player does not have a controller, your game must provide a fallback interface. For example, an iOS game might use motion-based sensors, or virtual controls that appear only when a controller is not available.

iOS games that support controllers must support the standard control layout. You may not require the use of the extended control layout in an iOS game, although you may support it if it is available. When the game is played using a standard controller, you must provide some other way to access those game actions. For example, because all standard controllers are guaranteed to be formfitting, you might use the motion sensors to provide movement information.

Because Mac games do not support formfitting controllers, Mac games are not required to support the standard control layout.

Games must be playable using standalone controllers. If you support the extended controller, it is possible that the controller is not physically connected to the device. This means that the player cannot easily interact with the device and the controller simultaneously. Your primary gameplay should be completely accessible from the controller. You should also try to make other interfaces, such as menus, accessible from the controller.

You must support the pause button. All controllers include a pause button. When gameplay is active, pressing the pause button should toggle between pausing and resuming gameplay. When the game is not being played (such as when you are at a menu screen), the pause button should be ignored.

Mapping Game Actions to Controls

Part of your game design is deciding which controls are useful to your game so that you can map them to the different actions a player can take. Consider not only your game’s design but also the physical layout of controls. A player’s hands are not going to be on all of the controls simultaneously, so you need to consider how the player interacts with the controls as your game is being played. This means creating and testing your control layouts on actual hardware controllers to ensure that they work in practice.

Use the A and B Buttons for Common Actions

The A and B buttons on the diamond are easy for a player to access, so common actions should often be placed on them. By convention, the A button is used to enable or activate actions, and the B button cancels or reverses those actions. For example, to implement support for game menus, use the directional pad to select an item and the A button to perform the action associated with that item. The B button cancels the selection (or perhaps moves the focus to an earlier menu, if the player is navigating through a hierarchy of options).

Use the Trigger or Shoulder Buttons for Primary Actions

The trigger and shoulder buttons are natural controls to use for important actions, because players can activate those controls with their index fingers while using their thumbs to manipulate the thumbsticks, the directional pad, and the diamond buttons.

Use the Directional Pad or the Left Thumbstick to Control Movement

If you use the left thumbstick to control movement, a player can easily control all aspects of movement with the left thumb, while leaving other fingers available to manipulate other controls. Although the directional pad can be used to control movement, it also has a different tactile feel. On an extended controller, use the thumbstick to control movement and the directional pad to perform other actions.

Be careful when assigning actions to both axes of a thumbstick or directional pad. The actions associated with those axes should either be closely related to each other or be actions that are selected discretely. Avoid placing discrete actions on an axis if the other axis must be used simultaneously to control other actions; it makes the controls needlessly difficult. For example:

  • Do use both axes if the movement actions are related. For example, first-person games often use the vertical axis to move forward or backward, and the horizontal axis to turn left or right. Similarly, to control an airplane, the vertical axis is used to control pitch, and the horizontal axis to bank the airplane. In both cases, the same action—movement—is being performed, so the controls are easy to grasp.

  • Do use both axes of a directional pad if the axes are being used to select discrete actions. Use the cardinal directions (up, down, left, and right) to create four discrete actions. You can also combine button values from the two axes and use them to create actions on the diagonals (top-left, top-right, bottom-left, bottom-right).

  • Don’t include steering behavior on the horizontal axis and acceleration on the vertical axis, because those behaviors are so different. Instead, move acceleration and breaking to the shoulder buttons or triggers.

  • Don’t use one axis to control movement and the other axis to control discrete actions (such as jumping or crouching).

Use the Right Thumbstick for Optional Actions

The right thumbstick can be challenging to use simultaneously with the diamond buttons. For this reason, the right thumbstick should typically be connected to actions that permit the player to take a hand off the thumbstick. For example, a flight simulator might use the right thumbstick to let the player look around; if the player briefly has to use other controls, the thumbstick snaps back so that the viewer is looking straight ahead.

Don’t Overload the Player

Players cannot manipulate all of the control elements on a controller simultaneously, so design layouts that make it easy for a player to intuitively switch between the available control elements. The best way to design good control layouts is to test your control layouts with players using actual hardware. You should change your control layout if players cannot easily and intuitively control your game. Consider the following general guidelines when testing a control layout:

  • Watch how the player moves his or her fingers to manipulate the controls. Controls that must be usable simultaneously should almost always be controlled by different fingers.

  • The A, B, X, and Y buttons can be pressed in combination to create new, distinct actions. For example, you might combine A and B, X and Y, or even all four buttons at the same time. However, pressing three buttons at the same time is difficult. You can also consider combining the face buttons with one of the shoulder buttons or triggers, because those controls are usually manipulated with different fingers.

  • Pressing a shoulder button and pulling the trigger on the same side of the controller simultaneously can be difficult.

  • If your game mixes touchscreen controls with controller inputs, the player may need to move the thumb or fingers off the controller to touch the screen. Avoid sequences of actions where a player must rapidly switch between touching the screen and using the controller.

Use Control Layouts That Players Are Familiar With

Here are three standard control layouts you might consider for your game. If your game is a flight simulator, platform game, or racing game, you should adhere as closely as possible to these control layouts, because players are already familiar with them.

Table 1-2 shows the controls for a flight simulator, using the left hand to fly the aircraft and the right hand to initiate most other actions.

Table 1-1  Example control layout for a flight simulator



Left Thumbstick or Directional Pad

Flight controls

A Button


B Button

Speed Brakes

Right Trigger (R2)

Fire guns

Left Trigger (L2)

Fire missile

Table 1-2 shows the controls for a platform game.

Table 1-2  Example control layout for a platform game



Left Thumbstick or Directional Pad


A or B Button


X or Y Button

Run or use item

Left or Right Shoulder


Table 1-3 shows a typical control layout for a racing game. In this example, multiple controls are assigned to the same action, letting players choose which controls they prefer. This layout also keeps you from adding confusing controls to the vertical axis of the directional pad.

Table 1-3  Example control layout for a simple driving game



Left Thumbstick or Directional Pad (horizontal axis)


A Button


X or B Button


Right Trigger (R2) or Shoulder


Left Trigger or Shoulder


Y Button

Use item

Identifying Controls Within Your Game

As you implement controller support in your game, make sure you describe those controls to the player. A player should always be able to learn what a control is used for. For example, you might want to implement a tutorial to teach players how to play your game, or you might include a screen of content that describes the controls. Every controller has consistent labeling based on whether it supports the standard or extended control layout. Use this terminology consistently to refer to the controls so that players always see the same control names regardless of the game they are playing.

Table 1-4 provides the names for controls on a standard controller.

Table 1-4  Control names for the standard layout

Control name


A button


B button


X button


Y button


Directional pad


Left shoulder button


Right shoulder button


Table 1-5 provides the control names on an extended controller.

Table 1-5  Control names for the extended layout

Control name


A button


B button


X button


Y button


Directional pad


Left shoulder button


Right shoulder button


Left trigger


Right trigger


Left thumbstick

L thumbstick

Right thumbstick

R thumbstick

Building a Great User Experience with Controllers

When implemented well, controllers provide a great user experience because they expand on the options available to the player and leave more space on the screen to be used for gameplay, rather than for control elements. Still, you need to do some work to ensure that your game plays well with controllers. Building a great control layout is the start of this process. Consider these other guidelines and hints when polishing your game: