Video games divide opinion. They get criticized for promoting violence, inactivity, and antisocial behavior. We’ve seen common media narratives of the game that pushed a terrorist over the edge, the game that’s keeping kids away from the soccer field, and the game that led to a couple’s break-up.
On the other hand, they’re praised for delivering artistic value, increasing coordination, and reducing stress. They get preserved in a shared nostalgia—Tetris, Super Mario Bros, and Tomb Raider have become markers in time, helping us to access the past and recognize their role in shaping our lives.
Mobile games are more popular than ever, and bring in more revenue than ever before. In 2016, US mobile game downloads generated 3.31 billion dollars, up from 2.03 billion dollars in 2013. If you’re looking to make it as an app developer, gaming could be a good place to start.
At Appszoom we’ve reviewed thousands of games. Many miss the mark, and only a special few get things just right to deliver a memorable mobile game experience. We’ve used our experience to create a list of ingredients for a top mobile game.
The toughness sweet spot
Pleasurable gaming experiences make you mad. At least, that’s what Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto concluded after studying addictive arcade games such as Pac-Man. He learned that players need to understand the limits of their power in the game world. If players can quickly get to grips with a control system and understand those limits, it creates a compulsive gaming experience—one that infuriates if the difficult level is set just right.
Why is an infuriating game often a pleasurable experience? Because you’re left knowing there’s a possibility of success even when you fail. Ramping up the challenge can create a compelling environment. But if it’s too hard? Players won’t make any progress and feel like the odds are stacked against them.
Flappy Bird (R.I.P.) is the best modern example of a game that hit the toughness sweet spot. Controls are simple—tap to flap a bird’s wings to keep it airborne as it flies horizontally. Limits of the gamer’s power are obvious—green pipes create barriers with small gaps through which the bird can fly. The challenge is set—tap too soon and the bird hits the upper pipe, too late and it collides with the lower one. People playing for the first time often need 10 tries before they even make it through the first gap. But progress can be made, and it’s that mix of infuriation with that faint glimmer of hope that keeps you coming back for more.
Your game doesn’t have to be a simplistic as Flappy Bird. However, simple games with recycled mechanics work well on mobile because of limitations to the platform.
Give me some space, will ya?
One such limitation is storage space. Modern games on any platform are getting bigger in size, owing to our appetite for more realistic graphics and cinematography. If you’ve watched the documentary Indie Gamer, you’ll know that games are an artistic labor of love for many developers. They hone in on the small details, ensuring that shadows shift accurately, grass bends in the breeze, and character animations are elaborate. Models, lighting, and texture all add to the weight of the game.
On mobile, the expectation for blockbuster graphics isn’t there. While nice visuals are important, that shouldn’t necessarily mean realistic, sprawling 3D worlds. Often, the best graphics are pleasing yet light on memory.
Even if you have app that’s taking little storage space, it’s worth considering how much data you’ll need to store on a user’s device. A phone takeover from one app and its endless hunger for MBs is never fun for users. The Simpsons Tapped Out is a perfect example of this. The app itself is around 45MB, while locally stored files may rack up to 500MB and beyond.
Consider this before you start developing your game, not after. Does your game concept require you to store heaps of data on the user’s device?
Gems Crush, Ice Crush, Fruit Crush, Toy Crush, Lollipop Crush, Cookie Crush, Diamond Crush…the list of imitations of popular genre-leading games is endless. Imitation, admittedly, doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. Many popular games evolve out of a long history of games with similar mechanics. Angry Birds is nothing new—it comes from a line of aim-and-fire games like this one featuring Gorillas.
The difference is that Angry Birds breathed fresh life into old mechanics. An intriguing storyline, colorful graphics, entertaining animations of stuff getting destroyed—all this contributed to a fresh perspective on a tried and tested formula. Adding a different word before “Crush” and changing the puzzle game’s icons to match that word doesn’t constitute originality.
Getting ideas for original games is hard. But it’s possible. Use experiences from everyday life, and remember that there are no barriers to gaming—genres exist but so do unexplored genres. Just how would you classify Ryan and Amy Green’s game about their son’s battle with cancer? The idea you think would never make a good video game might just be a groundbreaker.
What’s the point?
Gripping games give players a reason to come back for more. A sense of purpose can be drawn from a player in a number of ways. Many games use engaging storylines—point-and-click titles like Yesterday, Gemini Rue, and The Lost City all contain twisting plot lines that deliver mystery, suspense, and intrigue. Players return to these titles like they would a good book, urged on by a fascination for what’s coming next.
But rich storylines don’t work for every game. Some games employ a loose story, but rely on the gameplay and rewards handed out as you play. Think Cut the Rope—there’s a story, more or less, but the real draw comes from those rewards.
By rewards, we’re not just talking unlockable power-ups and levels. Rewards can also be psychological. Games that keep you hooked prompt the release of small amounts of dopamine in your brain. This is achieved by making rewards uncertain—in Cut the Rope you slash strategically and wait a few seconds for your reward (Om Nom munching the candy). Positive feedback, such as the sounding of chimes as you collect stars and the crunch of the candy as it reaches Om Nom’s mouth, adds to the feeling of being rewarded.
Other games help players feel a sense of purpose through something called “peacocking”. Farmville, for example, taps into our innate need to show how good we are at taking care of things. A well-tended garden, expansive city, or impressive theme park visually represent how dutiful and responsible we are. A competitive drive to “look” better than others keeps us coming back for more.
Ease of use
Players won’t hang around if your game is full of bugs or difficult to get to grips with.
Sort out any bugs through user testing. When the app’s in beta, have a simple way to report bugs through the app’s interface, the app store, or your website. There’s nothing worse than a frozen screen, or a game that completely crashes, losing all progress.
Ease of use isn’t the same as difficulty level. It essentially asks the question: “how easy is it for a new player to understand the mechanics of the game?” A big part of this comes down to onboarding—how the player is introduced to the game. Is there a tutorial? Do dialogue boxes appear, drawing attention to something? Do you first present the player with the simplest puzzle possible?
This is down to you. Again, Cut the Rope is a good example of effective onboarding. Watch the first minute of this video. You’ll see that the player is launched straight into the gameplay, faced with the simplest puzzle possible and very little text to interrupt the flow of the game.
Develop for yourself
Miyamoto said that he always created games that he himself would enjoy. Don’t make the mistake of looking at the top-rated games in the app store and copying them because you think most people will enjoy yet another version of Candy Crush. Develop something that you’d download.
Make it challenging but not impossible, light on memory, easy to get to grips with, bug-free, original—and give people a reason to come back for more. With these ingredients, you might just be on your way to a great mobile game.