How Not to Make an iPad Game: Final Fantasy Tactics

First, a preface: I have been waiting for Final Fantasy Tactics on iPad for a long time. It’s hard to imagine a better platform for turn based strategies than a system in which you can scroll, zoom, spin, and touch. Originally due for fall 2011, fall came and went with nary a word.

Which probably should have been my first warning. But then, last week, it gets released! Wow, $18. But I’ve been waiting for it for so long, and I have this $25 iTunes gift card gathering dust… why not, right? So I grab it.

And it turns out, Final Fantasy Tactics is a perfect example of how not to make an iPad game.

First, obviously, is the price. $18 has got to be close to the most expensive game on the App Store. It is $3 more than the iPhone game, which is something I can’t explain. However, I can highlight how ridiculous it is that SquareEnix didn’t just make the iPhone game universal. Nope, if you want to play on both devices, it’s actually a $32 game. Ouch.

But the price is only the tip of the iceberg. The interface is where the true insult comes. It’s hard to imagine a worse, more buggy and non-intuitive and non-ergonomic interface for an iPad game. I would have to actually try to make something more terrible than what SquareEnix has done with Final Fantasy Tactics.

Well Known Platform Gestures? Not in This Game!

One of the most common things you do in Final Fantasy Tactics, and any strategy game, is to move the camera around and survey the battlefield. Panning, rotating, and zooming should all be simple, easy, and intuitive. In the original, the triggers served this function by providing rotation, a toggle zoom, and a camera tilt. Panning was controlled simply by moving the selection cursor around the map. Functional enough for the time, and easy to adapt to and use.

Luckily, the iPad has a set of multitouch conventions that make these operations both fluid and intuitive. So, surely Square Enix made use of them, right? Right?


Instead you get two ‘modes’, one for panning, one for rotation, and then you get a token effort with pinch to zoom. Which, taken as they are, work well enough. Except, there’s no reason to have rotation and panning be separate modes, one could very easily dedicate the edges of the screen to rotating, and the center area to panning. Or alternately, it could pan by default, since that’s the most common action, and then a simple short hold of a touch could switch to rotation mode. Both methods eliminate this weird concept of modes, and removes those two ugly icons from over top of the game screen.

Pinch to zoom works okay, except because it happens instantly, it is rather fidgety. The original only supported two zoom steps, so it would have made more sense to simply use the pinch gesture to change the zoom level between steps, so that it was a smoother and more polished experience. Also they could remove the terrible view percentage widget altogether.

Menus: A Strange Mix of Touch, Virtual Buttons, and Clever Concepts

Final Fantasy Tactics on iPad does one thing I will give it credit for: adding ‘scroll anywhere’ to the menus, so that you can very easily navigate and use the legacy menus. You are able to touch the screen anywhere, and if you slide your finger up and down, it will move the menu selection. This is pretty clever, and it works really well. And then you can simply tap to select your highlighted entry. It works well! Of course, that is exactly where it ends. Why? Because there’s no way to cancel a menu, except to use the ‘CANCEL’ virtual button. Which, if you look at the UI, is to the left of the OK button. So you end up with a redundant OK button which is closer to your thumb than the cancel button. On top of that, if you are holding the ipad with both hands, on the corners, the cancel button is uncomfortably low and far inwards. And I have large hands!

They could have easily allowed a touch on the opposite side of the screen to represent a cancel, and then simply removed the two awkward buttons on the lower right.

Beyond that, you can actually just tap directly on a menu item in order to select it. Which is great, if you are playing with the iPad on a table, or your lap, but again, it kind of suffers from that same issue of having to go all the way to the bottom right for that cancel button.

Will it Touch?

The most egregious violation of the iPad’s touch interface, however, is the times when the game expects you to touch something, like, say, a character, or a square on the ground. I truly wish I could capture video of my iPad screen, because I’m not sure it’s possible to understand how truly bad it is except in video. But I will try to explain.

First, the game doesn’t seem to understand where your finger touches. I’ve tested, and as often as not pressing my finger perfectly on a terrain tile will pick an adjacent, but wrong, tile. If you hold your finger down too long, you get some weird kind of virtual stick that moves your selection, only it has a really wide area (probably close to three inches across). If you press and hold on a random place on screen, you move your selection relative to the starting point of the original selection. Confused? Yeah, so am I, and I have the game sitting right here with me. It also seems like if you try and use the weird virtual stick on some parts of the screen, it has no center zone and the selection starts flying all over the place.

Sometimes selecting something by touch immediately confirms the selection, like when choosing your facing. Strangely enough, if you slide your finger as if the facing arrow is a menu, it will cycle through them. The downside? If you accidentally tap the screen, ANYWHERE, it confirms whatever facing is currently selected, with no way of correcting it afterwards.

My favorite broken part of the touch interface though has to be when you are placing your starting characters. It is so nonsensical and confusing, that it took me… much longer than I care to admit, in order to figure it out. In the end it is simple, but it is *so contrary* to modern UI design that you just don’t think to use it the way they intend.

When at that screen, touching a square moves the square highlight, but nothing else happens. Touch the square again, and the character jumps to that square. Using the arrows at the top to select a different character doesn’t appear to do anything at first. You touch a square, and still, nothing happens. You have to actually touch the same square two times to place a character. What? And then to make things even weirder, if you hold your finger down on a square, the square selection animates above your finger, and then you can scroll around to select a square. Only, this is one of the few instances where touching a square properly selects it. So why even give you that weird selection virtual stick thing?

The more natural thing, of course, would be to touch a square to drop a guy, and then be able to drag him to move him around. Touching a new square should move a selected character on the first touch, as there’s no reason to require two.

It May Have Made Sense Once, But…

If for some reason you walk away from your game, and are away long enough that the game doesn’t instantly resume when you launch it, when you come back and hit continue, you are greeted with this prompt:

I never understood these prompts originally, and they make even less sense now. Yes, please, I would like to continue where I left off. Why even ask me? If you cancel, you get dropped at your standard game load screen, which won’t actually load you where you were. If you hit okay, which seems rather ominous, you continue roughly where you were. But if I’ve been gone long enough, I don’t know what’s what, I just want to continue my game. This prompt should have been removed, and this version should have just transparently kept that save and let you open it whenever you hit continue, by default, without worrying about these prompts.

Just Because it’s a Port, Doesn’t Mean you Don’t Need a Graphic Designer

If you’ve looked at any of the screenshots here, you’ve probably thought to yourself “Boy are those ugly UI elements.” I agree. In fact, I still don’t know what the one button is. AT? AI? They really seem to have found the worst font I could possibly imagine. And the horrible blue borders and programmer art have not done their game any favors. I’ve provided a bunch of ways that most of those things could be eliminated. I think they all could be, eventually. Please, hire a graphic designer any time you are adding new UI elements. Programmer art is *never* good enough, and I say this as a programmer.

And really, what’s with the top border? For the first while I assumed it was giving me some kind of in-game time. After all, it’s in 24 hour format, and nothing on my iPad is set to use 24 hour format. Of course, the battery icon clued me in, but here’s an interesting thing. Go back up and look at the screenshots. What percentage of battery life would you say it represents? 60%? 70%? Nope. 26%. They don’t map battery life *at all* in the same way that iOS itself does. So why bother? It’s just confusing, useless, and ugly.

In the End…

At the end of the day, this game does do one truly great thing: It makes an excellent case for why the App Store should allow returns. App Store apps are wrapped in DRM, they can remotely remove them from my device, so why not give me a way to avoid this horrible buyer’s remorse? $18 could have gone to much better iOS developers, who are making new and interesting and quality games, instead of to a large company who doesn’t seem to care at all for the quality of their titles, and instead looks to profit off of decade old goodwill, based on widespread adoration of a classic title. Goodwill which, I might add, is rapidly fading.

Now, excuse me while I go write a one star review on the App Store.




One thought on “How Not to Make an iPad Game: Final Fantasy Tactics

  1. Christian

    Please review more games I may inadvertently buy. I hate playing broken released games.

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