GTA 3 On Mobile: A Dual Stick Dilemma?
Will shoddy virtual controls torpedo the mobile version of Grand Theft Auto 3?
Millions of people have fond memories playing Grand Theft Auto 3. Rockstar's award winning open world game, first released on PlayStation 2 in 2001, went on to sell over 14 million copies and helped kick start the sandbox genre, resulting in numerous copycat titles, including the publisher's own Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV. Not only did it resonate with players seeking a means to let their inner criminal run wild, but it also served as a shining example of convergence between Hollywood and the video game industry.
Suffice it to say, Rockstar's decision to re-release this important title on iOS and Android seems like a smart idea. Not only does 2011 mark Grand Theft Auto 3's ten-year anniversary, but the big Grand Theft Auto 5 trailer debuts November 2.
Then Joystiq's Ben Gilbert went hands-on with a near finished build, and communicated our worst fears.
"What I played," said Gilbert, "was still totally Grand Theft Auto 3, flaws and all. And here's something else that won't surprise you: virtual buttons still totally suck."
But is this actually a problem for Rockstar? Will it ruin the GTA experience?
"Developing on mobile is a wholly different process than making a console game," said Corey Redlien, Studio Head for Wandake Games. "Rockstar has to be aware of what it's doing when translating a console game to a mobile device."
Classic games, most notably 3D titles originally designed to work with a traditional video game controller/mouse and keyboard, don't necessarily translate as well to a touch screen. It's something gamers have experienced before, in such titles as Duke Nukem 3D, where something inevitably gets lost in the translation, thus tarnishing the mobile edition.
"There's definite potential that Grand Theft Auto 3's controls could be too confusing, too imprecise or just ill-fitted for touch screens," warned Redlien. "And if that's the case, then it's hard to expect players to respect the GTA mobile franchise moving forward."
Consumers will definitely get that impression reading Gilbert's article.
"The moment I stepped out a car, the game became frustratingly difficult to control," he described.
Gilbert finished with perhaps the most accurate critique of all: "GTA 3 seems to suffer from the problem of never having been intended for a giant touchpad screen, and therefore doesn't translate well to the iPad."
Critics are quick to point out that touch screens will never provide a console like experience, in large part because they lack tactile feedback that comes from physically tilting sticks and pressing buttons. It's an issue that begs a solution.
"That's something we think about daily and I can guarantee you it's on the mind of pretty much all serious mobile developers," said Redlien. "The lack of tactile feedback makes virtual sticks such a challenge, but if we're going to make great games that can stand toe-to-toe with console and PC offerings, this is one area where we're going to have to get better."
Mike DeLaet, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Glu Mobile, shares this sentiment.
"We continuously work to improve the gaming experience throughout the development process. We utilize focus groups to gain insight on our games, including getting specific feedback on our control schemes," he said. "This provides us with the information we need to customize our controls within our games in a way that makes it easy and fun for all audiences."
That said, it remains to be seen whether Rockstar has taken such measures to ensure GTA 3's transition from console to mobile is a smooth one. The company did not respond to our request to comment on this story.
"They proved they can make a great GTA mobile game with Chinatown Wars, but that was designed from the ground up with touch screens in mind," noted Redlien.
Taking this into account, it appears Grand Theft Auto 3's legacy may remain undamaged, bad controls or no. In fact, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter, GTA 3 going mobile will help bring the game to an even wider audience, regardless of a less-than-perfect control scheme.
"This move is analogous to The Sims Social on Facebook," he offered. "It didn't kill the brand at all, but served to broaden its appeal."
Redlien added, "GTA 3 is so beloved by so many gamers that subpar controls on a mobile device won't do too much damage. This move is more likely to lure in new players than win back old ones, so most of the audience Rockstar is likely targeting are those who didn't play GTA 3 the first time around and are maybe curious what all the fuss is about."
If anything, Redlien feels it's the passage of time, and not the controls, that may be the real issue.
"With tons of other games refining the formula GTA 3 pioneered, it might be that the game feels archaic at this point. Yet another reason Rockstar has to nail the controls, because the core game has gotten old enough that it may not strike the same chord it once did," he said.
Pachter, meanwhile, feels the possibility of shoddy controls is much ado about nothing, taking into account the impact the majority of mobile games have had on the market.
"Individual mobile titles rarely generate even $10 million in sales, so they are largely irrelevant to financial results for the public companies I cover. Of these, only Electronic Arts has a significant mobile presence. Even if Grand Theft Auto 3 did $20 million on mobile phones, it would be around one to two percent of Take-Two's revenues, so hardly a market moving event."
At this point, we don't know the impact GTA 3 may/will have on the mobile gaming community. Either it'll blow up, reinforcing the opinion that the Grand Theft Auto franchise is as strong as ever, or merely get swallowed up by the hundreds of quality games on the App Store.
At least fans can rest knowing the publisher is committed to making quality products. Rockstar's own Dan Houser said as much.
"Our mobile strategy is not at all different from our console strategy -- in other words, we don't have one," he said. "Our focus is purely on making games that we can be confident on the quality of. We've never made something because we felt it was a business opportunity or because we thought there was some niche in the marketplace we could fill."
Regardless, the task of tweaking virtual controls in general remains a fact of development Redlien will continue to obsess over.
"I don't know specifically how we're going to eventually crack the virtual controller code, but I'm confident that someday we will and that will consequently elevate mobile gaming to new heights."
Used under license from IndustryGamers.