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 :).

 

 

We’re still balancing Outwitters gameplay. When thinking about changing, removing, or adding gameplay I try to keep two aspects in mind, choices and unpredictability. I’ll speak to the choices aspect today, as I’m still trying to grapple with that whole unpredictability thing in a turn-based perfect-knowledge setting. When we set out to create Outwitters, we wanted to make a simplified strategy game. One where players can easily pick it up much in the same way they pick up an iOS arcade game. The reality of the situation is this has become extremely difficult to achieve. I have a strong hunch it’s harder to do in our game due to the context in which our players are using strategy. It is essentially a “war” game. Players do battle with each other over vivid, colorful venues with fun-looking characters. The overall goal is simple: Destroy the opponent’s base. But the way in which you achieve this goal can be complex. If we make the choices too few and too simple (ie, with the arcade game mentality) the game itself becomes uninteresting very quickly even with a human component on the other side. Just about every “enhancement” to the gameplay we think of adds complexity to the game rules or mechanics. It adds “potential” fun to the initiated, but raises the barrier to the uninitiated. I feel there could be a strategy game idea out there that isn’t centered around battles/violence that could exhibit arcade-style ease-of-play but still have an interesting depth to it.

The Scrambler overtakes enemy units and makes them change to your team

An example of making player choices too simplified can be found in an earlier build of Outwitters. In Outwitters each player has a team of characters to choose from. Each team shares 5 of the same units (just different looks), but 1 unique unit to that particular team. Each turn a player has the choice to move, attack, or add a new unit to the game board based on points the player can spend per turn. In an effort to simplify the game, we made the cost of adding a unit to the board the same for each unit. Every unit cost the same, even the unique ones. We thought removing the barrier to learn how much each unit costs helped make the game rules easier to digest, and also focused more on what units you chose to spawn (strategy) rather than trying to manage your points. We found a couple of issues with this approach.

Firstly, this limited the effectiveness of any particular unit. We couldn’t make any unit be greatly powered in one particular aspect, especially the unique units, because they would instantly become the dominant strategy. Since every unit “cost” the same to acquire, the units had to be somewhat similar in damage and range capabilities. Secondly, because no unit had no obvious advantage over another, newer players floundered in picking the “correct” unit to add to the game board for a particular strategic situation. When players became experienced with the game, they understood the nuances of each unit and started using them more effectively to gain that little edge they needed to get the jump on another experienced player. The problem with this? You had to become “experienced” to have a decent understanding of the unit choices.

Bombshell is able to do splash damage to several tiles at once

So we decided  to change a couple of things. Our original idea for Outwitters was for players to choose their favorite teams not just on aesthetic choices, but strategic ones as well. The current state of the game was heavily in the ‘aesthetic’ camp for team choices. We made the unique unit for each team cost twice as much, and also made them much more powerful. This had a positive effect in that it made unit choices much clearer and focused for newer players. This extended even beyond the unit choice screen and into the overall playing strategy of the game. Before this change, I’d see new players just do random moves because they really can’t see how their actions would effect the game beyond a couple of moves. Introducing, for simplicity’s sake, a “hero” unit, players began to focus their strategies around that unit’s strength. It’s what we wanted to begin with! Players clung to their hero units because:

  • It cost a lot. The loss of a “hero” unit was painful.
  • That hero unit’s actions clearly implied how it’d effect the game. If a hero unit could do 2-3 times as much damage, or transport waves of units across an entire map, or take over enemy armies *easily*, the player can easily make the connection and think, “hey, this is an easy way to attack the enemy’s base and win”. Before this change I felt like the answer to attack an opponent’s base was far less clear for inexperienced players.
Giving players that super strong unit gave them a focal point. Sometimes it may not be the most ideal strategic focus, but it’s a start for newer players. The downside? I feel that we  gave up some elegance in the game rules in favor of depth. The very thing I cited earlier where just adding more rules generally makes a strategy game more “interesting”. But on the up side, the choices a player makes is now clearer. It’s been a difficult task to try to simultaneously minimize the number of choices a player can make,  make those choices relevant and clear, and to maintain strategic depth to the game.

Mobi can "launch" units towards the enemy base by sucking them in and spitting them out

Keep in mind, a lot of the rambling below is in the context of me being neck-deep in working on Outwitters, which is a strategy board game. I’m constantly thinking of ways to present games, their systems, and their objectives to people. Notice I said people, not gamers, or casual gamers. Sometimes I even look around my own environment and question “why the designer wrote that message the way they did”. Sometimes it’s obvious they gave little thought to the message and scribbled it on some printer paper for all to see on their store front. Sometimes it’s spot on and even clever. Other times, I question their decisions:

I’m constantly always surprised by how confusing traffics symbols can be. When your speeding down a new stretch of highway at 70mph you don’t really have a “2nd try” at figuring out what a sign means. Sure, the locals all know that this exit sign is mis-labeled or too close to the actual exit to realistically act upon it, but I’d argue those signs should be made with an emphasis on new people to the area.

The Mistaken Non-Gamer

In any case, I think about this habitually, but sometimes I wonder if it’s even making a difference to a certain segment of the potential audience. I can really only speak from personal anecdotes, but I’m starting to think reaching out to the “non-gamer” crowd is less about how well your UI is designed and more about how socially engaging it is. I will use my mother’s gaming habits, for lack of a better example.

She will not play a new game on her own accord. She does not seek them out, and the usual ‘marketing venues’ one would use to garner an audience for an iOS game completely bypass her and her demographic. I can hand her a game, but she will ‘demand’ that I tell and show her how to play it. If I walk away, she’ll lose interest. If I stay, she won’t bother with tutorials or help menus and simply ask what to do next. For her, games are social experiences and she has to be ‘introduced’ to a game by another physical person who already knows the rules. But once she does understand the game, she’s no less engaged or competitive than a ‘typical’ gamer. Am I crazy in thinking there’s a large segment of the audience like this that is incorrectly labelled as a ‘non-gamer’?

No amount of well though-out UI design, tutorials, or marketing will capture this kind of person. Is this why Nintendo struck gold with the Wii since the vast majority of their mega hits were multiplayer-centric wii games? Were they able to tap the “non-gamer” market by selling an experience that was championed by the gaming enthusiasts who brought home these devices to their curious “non-gaming” family members?

The “Gamer”

Then there’s the typical, mainstream view of a gamer. He/She isn’t afraid of new systems or paradigms. In fact, they seem to be curious and love trying out novel ideas, and don’t require another person to introduce them into the game. When something confuses them, they don’t throw up their controller in frustration, or look to a friend to get an answer immediately. They fiddle with the controls, dig through the menus, and sometimes even go online to find an answer. To them, a well designed UI means something and there’s a tangible benefit in reducing the friction to learning how to play the game.

I imagine they have their limits though, present them with a genre they feel they don’t care for and with a ruleset that takes a little more than a minute to understand and they’ll probably walk away from an experience that might’ve actually been pretty fun. Or, hell, get a console gamer to try to install, setup, and play a PC game and you’ll see what I mean, all before they even get to run the game.

Then there are hardcore gamers who just love the idea of solving problems. Games in themselves largely revolve around this fact, and anything inside or outside the game’s fiction is a problem waiting to be solved. This sometimes borderlines on ‘geekiness’.  Picture the guy that will tinker with his computer for hours to get a game to work. No amount of rules, or depth will deter them from at least trying to get involved in a game they see as potentially enjoyable.

These kind of gamers can introduce games to “non-gamers”, and the great social experience that results is better for it.

Now Back To Design…

For the iOS platform, who do you design for? It seems trying to come up with clever ways to engage the mistaken non-gamers through tutorials and UI won’t help them directly as they depend on social interactions to guide them through a game. Think of new players playing a board game for the first time with family or friends and how that interaction ensues. This is where they get most of their information. Yet, if you design with the ‘non-gamer’ in mind, you’re helping the actual gaming crowd gain easier access to your game, which hopefully will result in them being the person that introduces this game to their friends and families. In a weird way, you’re designing systems and interactions to help someone become a living tutorial for your game.

Does this mean if you wish to target the “main stream”, and as a result, the widest audience, that you should be designing games with social interactions being the core of the experience? It seems a good number of the recent iOS successes are building off of this idea. Given the pressure in most gaming enthusiast circles to always have some sort of solo experience built in, do you even bother with it knowing that most of your “non-gaming” audience doesn’t even care for it? For example, is a single-player mode for Monopoly really necessary? I could never envision my family or friends playing on their own, but put them in a room together and it’s usually a great time.

It’s all interesting stuff to think about as I look at how Outwitters is shaping up to be versus how we originally envisioned it so many months ago. The social experience I think is absolute key in making a game like this widely approachable.

 

 

I’ve started holding a particular mindset in regards to game design a little while after I started working on iPhone games, but I could never really articulate what I was feeling without sounding like a lazy game developer or religious nut. Danc’s article over at lostgarden reflects a lot of what I think about games as a medium, and what they can do, and where they are heading (good or bad). I’ve had this strange aversion to creating a gameplay ‘space’ where the amount of time spent playing a game almost directly correlates to the exact number of levels the game has.

Of course, any outsider looking in would probably see the flawed logic in that when you have the poster children of mobile games being heavily content driven. Danc argues that content heavy games aren’t the way to go and are inefficient game design. But just looking at the iPhone market, what he’s saying seems at odds with what is garnering consumer attention.  But then again, games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope may simply be outliers. A glance at the top of the charts reveals Fruit Ninja, Bejeweled 2 (most likely due to Bejeweled 3’s release), and the ever present Doodle Jump. All of these games very light on ‘content’ and steeped deep in core mechanics. So maybe hope isn’t lost :).

The reason I was feeling a bit of concern is there seems to be an influx of games trying to replicate the Angry Birds formula. Tons of levels, quick to go through, and a simple mechanic to play with. This may be playing a dangerous game, especially if you’re an indie. An indie’s time is extremely limited, and getting on that ‘endless treadmill’ to churn out levels is definitely not something you want to find yourself in if you wish to move on from a game and pursue something new.

There is something to be said for content-driven games created by indies though. They can work, but the path is extremely long and grueling. And in the end, you’re creating an experience that borders more on a book, or movie, rather than a game. I loved Braid and Limbo to death as they were amazing experiences and I’m glad they exist. But in all honesty, it’ll be a very long time before I ever revisit either. Their memory is more like a movie in my mind, not a game. I recall scenes, imagery, atmosphere, and mood. Oddly, I barely recall the puzzles in either and the platforming mechanics are forgettable. The very things that differentiate them as games versus other mediums are the things I recall the least about them.

Despite thinking ‘static levels’ are bad, the market can and will reward a game that has a decently fun mechanic and just pumps out content for it, very much like a season on a TV show. So as an indie, the market won’t punish you for it. Although you may soon find you’re punishing yourself :). Another way to look at it is a meter of progress. Some players prefers games with discrete levels because it gives them a sense of progress and direction. High score games have little direction in their minds because the ‘end goal’ is to get #1 on the leaderboards, which in most cases is impossible so the game loses value and becomes more of a toy. It’s purely a mindset and expectation those players enter the game with and something a less ‘content’ driven game has to deal with.

Disposable Games

One of the lines in the article that hit home the hardest for me was:

“As a designer, I feel like I’m wasting my life when I create a disposable game.”

What’s interesting is that above thought is far less pronounced in my mind when I think about developing for say…The DS, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, etc. In the App Store there are literally thousands of games that can probably qualify as ‘disposable games’. I’ve played plenty of them, my friends have played plenty. And it’s not that they are bad games by any means, as we tend to get enjoyment out of them. It’s just that the amount of time we enjoy them is for but a fleeting second and then we move on. Gone are the months of hard work that designer/developer has put into that experience. Is it worth it? Why does this feel more relevant in the App Store? Is it because it’s harder to swallow that a $60 dollar game is disposable? Do those other platforms promote ‘deeper’ gameplay in general vs the more diverse App Store?

It’s not lost on me the context in which these games are played. Most are played a couple of minutes at a time, often times while the player is outside their home. So any long term investment needs to come from several play sessions over a very long time period as opposed to a more traditional game where investment usually comes in blocks of hours. Just because you’ll only have a few spare moments to entertain the player when they open the game doesn’t mean they also have to be the last. Words with Friends is an amazing example of this very concept, but I don’t think asynchronous play is the only answer to this, and beyond turn-based games isn’t a very good one.

Games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope thrive on that concept by creating “tons” of static content that is consumable in very small time periods. Guess what? Once the player is done with all the levels, there’s little incentive to come back beyond the pure ‘fun’ of the mechanics. The question is, would players play the same puzzle again knowing the solution just for the sake of playing it? They seem to be in the content business now, which I guess isn’t a bad thing when business is good.

Some of the warmest comments I’ve received about Tilt to Live have been from players that begin their e-mails saying they’ve been playing this game since release. That’s 10 months and counting. If people are still playing it today, maybe we’ve created a game that isn’t disposable? I think Danc said it best about creating a deep game versus a content heavy game:

At a certain level of depth, a game transcends being a disposable blip and turns into a life-long hobby

That’s definitely a goal to keep in mind when I’m trying to create a meaningful game.

With December quickly approaching we’re finishing up our next major update to Tilt to Live. We just finished putting in the new achievements and I figured I’d share with you some of the guidelines I try to follow more or less. Maybe you’ll find some good ideas for achievements for your own game if you happen to be working on one, or maybe re-think some of them.

Bad Idea

Don’t make the player grind (actively)

This might be fine in a hardcore RPG (I don’t think it is personally, and just a sign of an outdated design philosophy), but in the mobile games arena time is of the essence. Most games have a very short life span in regards to how long a player will play it before moving on. Using your achievements to artificially pad out the time spent on a game doesn’t not improve the quality of the game. I’m referring to achievements where players have to simply spend  X amount of time doing Y and there is zero challenge to doing Y other than overcoming boredom.

I put the ‘actively’ qualifier because there are certainly some achievements that could be considered ‘grinding’ in Tilt to Live, yet I feel they are still fun to have. But I tend to think of those as passive achievements. There is one, for example, for traversing a few hundred thousand pixels (the pixels equivalent of a quarter mile or something). Players don’t actively go into a game trying to get that achievement. They simply accumulate that from playing the game normally and enjoying it. It’s comes as a surprise, a nice milestone, and interesting fact all rolled into one!

Don’t reward the player for things that are inheritant to the game.

Beat level 3? Achievement! Bah! It kind of annoys me that a lot of Xbox console games do this, but I’m not sure if it’s from sort of political pressure to make the 1k gamer points easily attainable or just lack of interest. I haven’t seen this much in mobile games yet, but in case you were considering it….don’t. The few exceptions I would grant this case would be in tutorials. And the reason would be to not only reward the player for learning some skill set for how to play the game, but also introduce them to the concept of ‘achievements’ overall so they are familiar with the system and sequence of events.

Don’t make achievements for the ‘hardcore’ only

Keep an eye out for the less experienced players out there. Don’t make the difficulty curve for your achievements flat and high. This one is definitely hard to gauge on your own and will probably require some user testing. Despite what you may think, if you’re making the game you are an expert player. We recently ran into this when assessing our new achievements and had to introduce some new ones and tweak the current ones to get a more varied difficulty curve. Having developed the game for so long it’s hard to really judge what is easy and hard now.

Good Idea

Think outside the normal play mechanics

What is a fun thing to do in your game but doesn’t necessarily make the player get any closer to finishing the game? Encouraging exploration with the game mechanics and tools at hand I think is usually a good thing. If the player loves the game enough they’ll take to these achievements and have fun with them, and feel like  the game acknowledges their dedication and curiousity. If another player simply wants to blaze through your game, there isn’t anything lost here. Any example of this is in the picture above for one of the Tilt to Live achievements. Putting an artificial constraint the player has to enforce in his or her head makes the game play at a slightly more deliberate pace, but still frantic and fun regardless.

Softening the blow

We recently added one that falls in this theme to the new Tilt to Live update. We made it hard enough where most players will have to consciously achieve some ‘massive’ goal and in hilarious fashion lose it all. Acknowledging the player just royally screwed up can help lighten the situation and reduce the frustration. This is probably a hard one to fit in most contexts, but I think can be fun in the right places.

Badges of Honor

I like to think of these as just more of the old-school ‘OMG I R 1337’ achievements. They are so hard that only the truly dedicated will have the skills to earn the achievement.

Outside the Box

What about achievements that are accomplished not in-game but inside the menu systems themselves? Or externally somewhere (with mobile devices and location API’s this could get really fun). Here’s one: Hey! You just played Game X at 400 MPH!!! (assuming the player is playing the game on an airplane)

Meta Achievements

There seems to be huge potential here for some fun achievements involving not the game itself, but some sort of factor influenced by the game. This would really put the ‘social’ in social gaming platforms. A straight forward example is having some aggregate number of enemies killed between all players who own the game and once that number is reached everyone unlocks that achievement as a community. They are pretty much community milestone markers. Noby Noby Boy has a similar meta game. With iPhones being constantly connected it seems this could be a really good fit for this market.