As a game designer, one of things I try to avoid is creating disposable experiences. As any creative, if you’re making it for an audience, you don’t want it to be forgotten shortly after it’s introduction. Designing for longevity can be taken in two ways:

  1. You’re design is centered around story, atmosphere, characters, with less focus on mechanics. Mechanics are simply a vessel to get through an experience you’ve authored.
  2. You’ve designed the mechanics that can be seen in their fullest from minute one, and are deep and relevant enough to have replay value in and of themselves even in hour 300 of the game.

Neither is inherently wrong or right for mobile games, and both have their challenges. Getting longevity out of #1 puts you on the “content treadmill”. The amount of time you put into making a longer game vastly outweighs the length in which someone will experience it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because if you’ve got the time and money, you can make some really awesome content. This problem of ‘length’ is more immediately solvable because the solution is throwing more content into the game (more levels, puzzles, characters, chapters, etc). Getting longevity out of #2 is an interesting prospect. Relatively, it can be dirt cheap to get a lot of fun playing hours out of a mechanically driven game based on a very clever premise that has depth to it. The gameplay itself becomes the content rather than the window dressing around the gameplay. Now the problem here is cost can be extremely high or almost zero, and it’s hard to judge which way it’ll fall. Approach #2 tends to have a very hit-or-miss R&D phase. You can spend days, weeks, or months trying to hone in on a deep new gameplay experience, but it could lead to a lot of dead ends. The costs of creating a new, interesting, and long-lasting game mechanic is very front-loaded and success isn’t guaranteed. But if you hit success, you’ll end up with a game that has a longevity that dwarfs any content-based game. That said, there are a lot of low-hanging fruits in the mobile space for mechanically simple but deep or satisfying games. As an aside, approach #1 is far easier to schedule for, while trying to schedule things in approach #2 tends to be an exercise in futility, at least in my experience.

The content-based approach I tend to see in a lot of  modern single player PC/console experiences. Mechanics aren’t king in this arena, but story, aesthetic, atmosphere generally are. Depending on your audience and environment people will play in, one approach can only get you only so far vs another in terms of player engagement vs development dollars spent. In the mobile space, atmosphere is hard to come by when you have to take into account that several of your players will not be playing in an ‘intimate’ setting with your game. They’ll be outside, half paying attention due to kids running around, waiting at a store/dentist/office/meeting, or even worse, playing your game on mute (talk about an atmosphere killer!). You can create a game oozing with story and atmosphere, but I feel it will be lost on these players.

That’s not to say a mobile game can’t be centered on story and atmosphere, but that niche (hah, I strangely regard it as a niche in the mobile space) is something you have to target and work hard to bring that message across when marketing your game. Having an audience and following that is detached from the top X charts I think is rather important in succeeding in this approach. On the other side of the coin, if you’re designing a mobile game with an engaging and simple mechanic, no player can ignore that. It’s fundamental to the experience of the game regardless of time, place, and whether or not their device is muted.

My personal preference, when designing mobile games, has always been to favor #2 above all else. Story, atmosphere, and aesthetic I almost relegate to the point of ‘polish’. How much polish you put in a game is limited by time and money. Game mechanics don’t really follow the same cost curve when it comes to production values, and that’s extremely important for any indie that’s on a budget to realize. With that said, favoring the 2nd approach definitely colors which kind of games I generally focus on designing. A lot of them end up in the arcade/action genre, some strategy, others some wonky mix or something new. Very few of them are designed to be level-based, character-centric, plot driven, or even puzzle oriented. I recognize some designers take a very character, level, or plot driven approach. Just one look at the games that came out of Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight illustrates that diversity in approaches. But I’d make the argument that the more atmospheric/experiential ones, while they may be applauded by the press will have an uphill battle on the mobile space, but that’s another argument for another day :).