More on designing games for mobile devices

I have for a long time been pre-occupied with the idea that the key to game design can be represented via a simple formula. Or at the very least a simple rule.
It is of course nonsense. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. I for one love the painfully addictive experience of Angry Birds. Others will hate it.

I once read a short article by John Romero where he considered that as gamers we all seek to tidy. Citing such classics as PacMan and Space Invaders it seemed quite plausable that there was some truth in it. But I was struggling with the idea. Initially I couldn’t think of anything to counter the argument but then it came to me – Grand Theft Auto.

In GTA you not only seek to cause pure chaos you are rewarded heavily for it. Admittedly you  could argue that assassinating rival gang lords is a form of cleansing or tidying but ultimately the game is much more than that. I lost count of the amount of times I’d deliberately angered the FBI to get up to the maximum number of stars (wanted status).
Simply executing innocent people and piling up vehicles in the street was pure entertainment. Wrong, of course, but pure joy.

Angry Birds is another example. You don’t so much tidy anything as destroy the entire scene.

But I didn’t want to lose sight of the original argument – that we as gamers seek to tidy.

The hedonics of gaming fascinate me. Where is the fun ? What do we call entertaining and pleasurable in a game ?

Naturally the way we interact with a game dictates a huge amount of where we derive our pleasure from.
On modern smart devices such as iPad we are limited to touch. Touch is of course the ultimate in feedback since it is a direct interaction with the source. Yes you are touching glass but ultimately you are able to do something so natural it feels as though you are at one with the device. In terms of pleasure this has to score highly.

The Android powered HTC Desire smartphone takes it a step further. Touch input is often rewarded with a gentle buzz. Not only is this pleasurable as a reward it is also informing us of something. An action. An immediate response to something quite positive that we just did.

But what action on screen most accurately rewards the physical action of touching glass ?

I suppose to touch a balloon and watch it pop would be satisfying. As would swiping a hammer across the screen and seeing several glass bottles shatter to nothing.
Would it be satisfying to touch the screen and leave a trail of debris behind you ? Perhaps you touch a number of tanks that each hold a liquid. When you press them they unload their contents and fill the screen. Is that as satisfying as removing the contents of the tanks ?

I suspect that the process of touching the screen best lends itself to the theory of removing content. By whatever means. Be it destruction or a simple “pop” and you’re gone approach.

I think another  starting point for where we find fun in mobile games has to be the timeframes that we allow for playing them. Although many of us play our mobile games sat in comfort at home or at work for many there is probably an urge to “have a go” on the train or bus in to the office. I generally assume that a gamer’s allotted time for playing a mobile game is somewhere around 10 – 15 minutes.

Certainly by that time the player would want to have achieved something and been rewarded in spades for his efforts.
Once you set yourself up to play a mobile game your mindset is one of “quick thrills” –  I’ll just have a dip in to this and see how great I can be.

Classic arcade games got this spot on.
When you drop your coin in to Defender you know you’re in for one hell of a ride. It may be nothing more than a 2 or 3 minute ride but in that time you got everything – action, destruction, pace, thrills and of course a score.
My love for arcade gaming is epitomised by Defender. The feedback to the player is immense.

Step 1 – drop the coin: player greeted to electronic acknowledgement sound
Step 2 – hit start: player greeted to electronic wind up sound
Step 3 – speed left and right: player hurled straight in to combat at high speed
Step 4 – hit lasers: player sees stream of lasers thrash out across the screen (never bettered in 30 years)
Step 5 – destroy things (even the things you’re not supposed to): player witnesses firework display as everything he blasts turns to a multicolour scattering of pixels

So much in that game came at you through your controls and the use of sound.

DOOM is a similar experience. Just launch it and go through the main menu. Every item is met with a satisfying clunk. And the Shotgun. Oh the shotgun. The sound the shotgun made was so beautiful I edited the WAD to have the chaingun use the exact same sound. Glorious.
Everything in DOOM was designed to hit you square in the face. It was immediate and could easily have been an arcade game. When you trawl the DOOM archives and see what the game could so easily have been you have to thank the game’s designers for changing direction. So much of DOOM is the way it is because it has the egos of its key designers all over it. These guys live and sweat arcade thrills and so much of their personality is on show in DOOM.

So much that was created for the arcades has its place on a short timeframe game. The hurdle to overcome is the controls.
In the arcades (certainly the older ones) the controls were two-handed. One for the stick the other for the fire button. Later of course we had alternate fire buttons.
I overcame the issue with fire buttons in HyperGunner (mobile version) with auto-fire. I instantly removed the need to hit fire and turned the game in to more of a game of avoidance. This is not uncommon.

But there’s a growing trend in mobile and casual gaming to present what I suppose used to be termed female friendly games. That is, more puzzle oriented games. We’ve all seen them. A wall of gems and shapes that you click on to remove based on how they match their neighbours. It’s mindless and repetitive and there’s not much wrong with that. But I also think it’s lazy game design. There’s so much more that we can do as designers to present a puzzle or challenge.

I have scoured the web for interviews with arcade game designers. I was lucky enough to share a couple of emails with Eugene Jarvis (creator of Defender). A couple more with Chris Crawford (legendary Atari designer) and John Romero (DOOM). These guys know exactly how to throw the right switches at the right time in a game. They push the boundaries and challenge you far beyond matching 4 orange diamonds in a row. For Chris and Eugene in particular it was about pushing the immature technology to achieve the desired results. Not to take anything away from id who of course were ground-breaking in their own way, but for John (who of course had the incomparable John Carmack at his side) it was I suspect more about working a layer above the technology to provide the best thrills and challenges. It’s all about balance and whether it’s a team or the lone developer striking balance in a game’s design is an art form and not something that comes overnight.

I am convinced that the future of mobile gaming is a large step back. But as a designer you have to be brave. I don’t for one minute mean that we should all be playing Asteroids and PacMan on our phones. More that we should observe the tricks that arcade game designers and notable designers of recent times employed to pack as much in to a short game time as possible and what’s more made you want to come back for more.

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  • Cody  On December 17, 2010 at 3:45 am

    I agree with your comment about mobile gaming being a step back, but it’s a healthy step back. I think something important was lost along the way and now, perhaps we have a chance to rediscover that and make modern gamers aware of those classic design sensibilities.

    Also, I like the point you make about the display of egos in older games. Most of today’s games are designed by a committee. I say, bring back the smaller development teams and allow personalities to shine through like they used to.

    I remember reading somewhere about our desire to organize (and clean up) as a basis for games as well. It stands to reason that the opposite end of the spectrum is true with the examples you’ve cited. The kinds of game design decisions that promote chaos and destruction definitely fuels my creativity.

    Thanks for posting this article. Very insightful.

  • markw1970  On December 17, 2010 at 9:48 am

    There’s a ton of material here. The arcades of my youth were hugely inspirational to me and highly relevant in designing modern “short” game experiences.

    I hope I get the point across that it’s not about remaking arcade classics more the need to learn from, as you rightly point out, those classic design sensibilities.


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