Keep it Simple. Make it Easy to Play, but Hard to Win. That’s the recipe for just about everything that successfully earns a large market. Since a large portion of mobile apps are games… We will spend some time talking about games. Games, Games and More Games!
What sets a great pinball player apart from a good one? The ability to “bump” the machine, to somehow influence the pinball’s bounce when the flipper can’t reach it. TILT! Yes, there’s the danger of bumping the machine too hard. Sometimes though, it is like getting an EXTRA PLAY! Most players focus solely on the plunger to launch the ball in the first place and then the Left and Right Flippers. Pinball is intrinsically simple. It requires skill and timing, but a player that knows how to bump the machine will typically do better than one who doesn’t. Simple, but a step above average.
Much the same goes for the mobile spin-offs of iconic arcade games like Space Invaders, Pacman, Tetris, etc. Shoot and avoid getting shot. Eat and avoid being eaten. Angry Birds is a little more complex, but still easy with a clear objective for each level. Gameplay for other mobile games as variants of Panzer General, Warlords, Might and Magic, Diablo, Wolftenstein and RTS like Settlers or Command & Conquer all have corresponding simplicity. We can add in MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft, along with classics like Monopoly, the Game of Life, Scrabble and Yatzee.
All of these games are easy to play. Most start with 2 or 3 things that you can do — or compete on one thing. New features are introduced via interlude screens or are selected when “leveling up”. Gradually, the games get more complex, more difficult. By then, players generally know what they are doing… or resort to mashing buttons. Some rely upon chance and luck of the draw, nevertheless the simple feel remains the same.
Comparing Mobile to PC to Board Games might seem like a stretch, but not really. The underlying dynamics are the same. There are lots and lots of games that have not done very well – for many different reasons, mostly owing to complexity. Some games will never achieve mass market appeal because of their sheer complexity. There are PC games like Gary Grigsby’s “War in the East” with a manual nearly 400 pages long!
Too many bugs, or even one bad bug, can kill a game straight away. All of the basics of a game tend to be reasonably well tested. Special features and abilities? These are used less, tested less and typically result in more bugs.
For mobile devices, you have a much smaller screen to work with, adding slightly more complexity to your task of making your game easy to play. This is where games like Diablo have done far better on mobile than the button intensive WOW. Taking a similar approach to game design for mobile apps requires making an active effort to simplify. That means fewer, but stronger abilities or abilities with 2 or more effects. The other factor that plays in is letting the player make some choice. Let the player decide what one or two of their core interface buttons or hot keys can do.
There are many types of games, styles of play for different genres and interests. There is a lot of competition to be the most popular game to “pass the time”. While it likely would not work for a mobile device, there are markets for games with manuals nearly 400 pages long. There’s probably a market for developers able to condense them down to say… 10 pages.