Hands-on with GestureWorks' Gameplay virtual controller (video)

Handson with GestureWorks Gameplay virtual controller

With the exception of the Razer Edge, Windows 8 tablets are at a disadvantage when it comes to gaming -- most PC games are built with keyboard, mouse or a gamepad in mind. Although Civilization V and other select titles have special multitouch controls for the Surface Pro enthusiast, the majority of games are simply unplayable without peripherals. The solution? Find a middleman.

GestureWorks Gameplay promises to solve the tablet owner's mobile gaming woes by creating a virtual touch interface that emulates keyboard and mouse inputs. The suite allows users to create custom multitouch controllers with virtual joysticks, d-pads, buttons and even mappable swipe gestures. It's a curious proposition, particularly when one considers the efforts Android and iOS gamers go through to dodge touchscreen controls. We met up with the company to get a quick look at the program's beta.

GestureWorks CEO Jim Spadaccini greeted us with a ThinkPad Helix and his son, who was ravenously tearing through the world of Castle Crashers on his own Windows 8 device. A digital directional pad and a small collections of buttons crowded the lower edge of his tablet's screen, superimposed on the game as if they were native controls. Playing with them looked easy and fun, but Spadaccini stopped us short of jumping into a game -- first he wanted to show us how to set one up.

Gameplay's menu system is pretty straightforward, splitting its main screen between profiles available for download, and a list populated by locally stored layouts. At present, the community has about 50 profiles for download, but editing or creating a new one is a snap. Spadaccini tapped the edit icon on Castle Crashers to pull up a layout identical to the display on his son's nearby slate. From here, we were able to add, relocate or resize buttons with a few easy taps. Buttons can be mapped to any keyboard or mouse input, and a virtual joystick can be added for direct cursor control. There's also a gesture menu that allows the user to map commands to swipes, pinches or flicks, and we were told that motion control options will be added in the future, opening the door for accelerometer-based steering for driving games. Users can save the profile from here, but if they aren't satisfied, the layout can be tweaked in-game.

Handson with GestureWorks Gameplay virtual controller

After creating a profiles, users can link the layout to the program it was designed for, making it easy to launch a title simultaneously with its custom control setup. Launching Castle Crashers alongside our host's young son was easy as tapping a play button, and the game's simplistic controls worked well with the touchscreen setup. Spadaccini called simple side-scrolling games like Castle Crashers the program's "sweet spot," and indeed, they worked like a charm. Portal 2 and Borderlands 2 were a slightly different story -- while GamePad offers relatively easy access to all of the game's primary commands, managing them all with only our thumbs was a bit cumbersome. We had a little trouble with the virtual joypad as well, which emulates an occasionally jittery mouse control rather than a true analog joystick input. Despite these hiccups, we were able to solve a few of GLaDOS' maniacal tests with relative ease, and were told by GestureWorks that mouse emulation would improve before the software's final release.

Handson with GestureWorks Gameplay virtual controller

Gameplay isn't a perfect application, but it seems to at least be a good one: it fills a need, delivers on its promises and does both with a intuitive and easy to use interface. Its touchscreen gamepads will never replace a tangible one, but they do endow Windows 8 tablets with a casual gaming mobility that would otherwise be impossible without extra hardware. That said, it does have one compatibility issue -- it only works with games that use DirectX (that means no Minecraft, sorry kids!) If you have a Windows 8 tablet, a Steam backlog, and don't mind that compatibility caveat, however, GestureWorks Gameplay just might be right for you. Check out the company's website to sign up for the beta, or just sit tight: the full version launches on November 5th for $14.99.