Mobile Game Design 101

Mobile Game Design 101
Will Luton

By Will Luton

February 27th 2012 at 9:30AM

Will Luton provides advice on how you can avoid some common development mistakes

This month I’m writing about mobile design, for two entirely selfish reasons.

Firstly, to prove that I am a creative and not just some money-hungry suit (which the regular reader may think).

Secondly, I want to help a specific type of start-up: The talent that comes out of a shuttered console studio.

These new teams make the development community a more exciting place to be. Welcome, my friends.

However, sometimes, teams come out laden with ego and peacocking around the press, huffing and puffing words about ‘console pedigree’ that translate as: ‘amateur hour is over, move aside shit munchers’.

This will not win you friends. But, more importantly, these teams release rubbish games.

Wanting to help, I called my buddy Andrew Smith of Spilt Milk Studio, and we came up with a big list of design mistakes we’ve made and the ones we see others making constantly.

YOU CANNOT CORE-IFY THE CASUAL

The thinking is like this: core gaming is inherently better than casual and you can transfer new casual players to the joys of core with some half-way house or by dressing one up as the other. Don’t do it.

Forget casual, forget core, but instead focus on the restrictions and the new opportunities in mobile. The way things always were are not the future.

SIMPLICITY

Players play mobile games in very short blasts and they pay very little money for them. Think minutes and minutes for 69p (or nothing at all), not hours and hours for £40.

Players aren’t invested from the start, so they will ditch, negative rate and move on in an instant. Choose one simple core mechanic and make it great from the first minute.

LONGEVITY

Making a simple game is easy. Making a simple game that is fun beyond the first hour is tough.

Either your base mechanic throws up continued nuance, complexity or dexterity requirements, or you build lots of content which produces it.

If you decide to go down the content route, make sure you present it in such a manner that shows an obvious route through the game, clear goals and where there is replay opportunity. Study how the hits have accomplished it.

Players will not search for your content, so sign post everything you’ve made for them. Especially if they can’t get access to it yet.

FORGET STICKS, BUTTONS AND PADS

Flick, tap, tilt; not click, push, yank. Touch screen is not better or worse than a controller, it’s just different way of doing things. D-pads on touch screens are square pegs in round holes.

Plus, don’t forget the rest of the toolbox: Location, microphones, cameras, gyroscopes, compasses, proximity sensors, multi-touch, bluetooth and multiple screens.

Ask yourself: Is there another way to do this better? The answer is yes, even if you don’t know how yet.

DON’T FORGET PUBLISHERS

Self-publishing on mobile is a dream, yet the freedom can blind you. The constraints and advantages of having a publisher needs to be in your mind.

Make something that would be hard, but not impossible to get funded. Your investment is low and your risk is less, so your game should reflect it. It needs something exciting but not excluding.

Replicate publisher reviews by using the public. The public give the most honest feedback because they don’t owe you shit. Run a closed Beta before launch and listen to – but not bend to – every comment.

If you stay in a vacuum you will end up releasing crap.

DON’T FIRE AND FORGET

Even more honest than the voice of the public is the actions of the public. Analytics is a big topic; half art, half science.

Every single design choice you make can be validated or otherwise with the data you gather.

You don’t need a sequel, react with an update. Keep improving and giving more until your game is dead or a hit.

WHAT VIRAL MARKETING IS NOT

Putting a Facebook or Twitter share link next to a top score is not making your game viral. People do not share arbitrary numbers with their friends.People share the cool, the incredible, the weird and funny, in both the real world and online.

TO CONCLUDE

In the two days in which I have taken to write this piece, two console studios have shuttered and others have trimmed staff in the UK alone. As sad as this i­s, it’s forcing a huge, brilliant change.

Mobile – and social too – is a new world and it requires new thinking. You can probably find exceptions to all of the truisms I’ve written here, so what I hope you will take away is a set of thinking.

Forget forcing similarities in order to apply your advantage. The real benefit is found in looking for what is different, what has changed ­and what you don’t know. There you can flourish and go on to make great mobile games.

If you think the trials of making console games equips you for mobile, history will repeat itself.