The question of what makes a good mobile game has been on my mind a lot lately… Mostly because I’ve been trying to make a mobile game of my own and release it on the app store. What qualities make a mobile game worthwhile to download? What qualities make it enjoyable to play, and keep playing? For this blog post, I wanted to dive in for a deeper look at some mobile game design considerations.
A few important notes: This post isn’t intended to be some kind of formula for making a wildly popular and/or financially successful game. Rather, this whole thing is just an exercise in exploring my own preferences and design philosophies when it comes to mobile games… What I personally appreciate when playing them, and the directions I hope to go with any I eventually release myself.
So! With no further ado, here is my list of important mobile game qualities, in no particular order:
Play session length
In my experience, firing up a mobile game is a different beast than firing up a traditional console or PC game. There’s almost never any expectation of giving it a solid chunk of dedicated, uninterrupted time. Rather, it’s something that happens in short bursts throughout the day… Something to engage in for the few minutes of downtime you get during a train or bus commute, or a lunch break, or while waiting for an appointment.
In that situation, it’s important to be able to open it up, get started quickly, and make some kind of meaningful progress in under 5 minutes or so. Ideally shorter, with good pausing and autosaving functionality… Because I know going in there’s a high chance of interruptions from texts / emails / other app notifications, or from “real life” wherever I happen to be playing. If you need to get to some kind of “save point” or else lose progress, it’s way less likely that I’ll even start it up to begin with.
But on the flip side: I also don’t appreciate it when games have artificially-imposed limits on play session length. (This seems really common in the “free to play” model, where you get a small amount of lives or energy or whatever to start out, and then once you’ve used it, you need to either wait a few minutes / hours for it to refill, or make some kind of in-app purchase with real money.)
So I guess what I’m really getting at with this section is that I value flexible play session length in mobile games. Making the minimum as small as possible… But also having the ability to string together as many of those as you want into a longer session.
Controls & Screen Orientation
I always appreciate it when a mobile game is designed to be played in portrait mode. To me, turning the phone sideways is just less physically comfortable… And it can also feel socially awkward in certain contexts. There are times and places where it’s totally normal to be reading emails or scrolling through social media, but a little weird and conspicuous to be messing with a game. (Or anything else you might be doing with the phone turned sideways.)
Then there’s the matter of the controls themselves. Personally I’ve always found the “virtual buttons” or “virtual control pad” overlaid on the screen to be a pain to try to use. It’s so much easier when you can just accomplish everything directly, with simple gestures like tapping or swiping. Though I can understand how this may be more difficult to implement… Especially for mobile games that are also releasing on other platforms.
But anyway, all of this is why when working on my own stuff, I’ve been starting with the assumption of the gameplay being 100% in portrait mode from day one… With the possibility of adding a landscape option later in a polishing phase, rather than the other way around. And I’ve been trying very hard to make full use of different kinds of touchscreen gestures (which is thankfully a breeze in SpriteKit!) rather than relying on on-screen controls.
Reasonable Monetization Systems
I understand (better now than ever) the amount of work that goes into even the simplest of games. So I don’t have any expectation that they should be completely free. Personally, I find it a bit silly that people expect to get mobile games for nothing or next to nothing (like under $5) when $10-$20 might be considered a perfectly reasonable price for a PC version of the exact same game.
So when I say “reasonable”, I don’t necessarily mean any specific dollar amount. All I want is for there to be a finite amount of money I can expect to pay in order to get the full game experience… Whether that’s an up-front purchase price, or an in-app purchase to unlock more content, or something similar. And I’d like to know this price going in, so I can decide whether the game is worth my time to begin with.
Instead, many mobile games are designed around the concept of a “premium” in-app currency that you could potentially spend an unlimited amount of money on. The game mechanics are purposely unbalanced so that you need to spend a little in order to keep progressing. It’s only a small amount of money… $0.99 here, $1.99 there… But it all adds up, and there’s no end to it, until you eventually lose interest and quit the game.
It’s understandable why this happens: If most people are willing to pay nothing for their mobile games… Then the few players who are willing to spend need to be enticed into spending as much as possible for as long as possible. It seems to be just the unfortunate reality of the mobile landscape these days.
Granted, as a purely hobbyist developer, I’m not under any pressure to maximize profits or pay employees or anything else. I have the the luxury of dabbling in mobile games for fun rather trying to make a living off of them. So I don’t really have much ground to criticize those game developers who do play by the rules of the free-to-play, pay-to-win mobile marketplace out of necessity.
But as a player? I find these systems to be miserable poison that just completely ruin otherwise fun games.
This one is harder to quantify, but has to do with how good it feels to interact with the game. What are you actually doing while playing it? What are the actual moment-to-moment interactions like? In my opinion, there are three qualities that are particularly important on mobile:
- Requires some degree of problem solving. It’s not just a matter of tapping the same button over and over. There are multiple possible courses of action, and you need to try and choose the best one.
- …But allows for quick decision making. Assuming you’re familiar with the mechanics, it shouldn’t take more than a second or two to make your move.
- Aesthetically pleasing. High-quality artwork, smooth animations, and responsive controls all contribute to this.
The popular “Match 3” style of puzzle games tend to do a good job hitting these key points. They do require a little thinking and strategy… But no single turn takes an excessive amount of time or mental effort. And the visuals usually involve shiny, colorful jewels or candies with juicy little animations when you match them.
Overall, it makes sense that these kinds of games are a good fit for mobile. And while the game I’m working on isn’t going to be a Match 3 game, these are the kinds of considerations I’ve been keeping in mind while working on the mechanics.
Sense of progression
I really like it when a game I’m playing has some kind of visible progression system. On mobile, there are lots of games where you make your way down a path by completing a series of levels… And I do prefer something like this over just having a high score to try to beat.
But even in those games, I usually find myself wishing for something more. Some kind of overarching narrative that holds the gameplay together. A solid story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Admittedly, this seems to be sort of rare on mobile… Especially so among games that satisfy the other 4 major areas of my wish list. And it could be that it doesn’t actually work that well in practice. Maybe shorter play sessions and more “casual” on-the-go mechanics don’t lend themselves that well to this kind of thing.
But it seems like it could have a lot of potential. And it’s definitely something I plan to experiment with in the games I’m working on.
So there you have it! A brief overview of some of my thoughts and opinions when it comes to mobile games. I think it’ll be interesting to have this post to look back on down the road, when (or if) I eventually release a real mobile game… Just to see how well I was able to live up to my own design preferences and philosophies.
Speaking of which, I’ve been continuing to plug away on my little iOS game project since the last update. Progress is happening slowly and steadily… Though the original timeline of 2-3 months is looking a tad optimistic now that it’s past the 10-week mark. But all of that will be the planned subject for the next post on this little dev blog.
In the meantime, anyone who’d like to follow along with my adventures in game development can feel free to follow on Twitter, subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed, or sign up for the email mailing list for further updates. Thanks for reading!