Mobile Game Design Tips
Here I maintain a list of tips for desiging, creating, and selling mobile games. These tips are posted daily on my Twitter account and will be collected here, sometimes with some additional explanation. Each of the tips also got a category indication for easier reference. Newest tips are at the bottom.
1. (General) Look at other games. Don't be a copycat, but you can learn a lot from existing games. Why are they a success?You can learn a lot from successful games. So download/buy the top games and look what they did in terms of graphics style, level design, learning curve. etc.
2. (Visuals) Your game looks as good as the worst screen. So spend time to design all menu, help, and credit screens perfectly.You might think that the options screen or credit screen is not very important. But people will look at these screen and notice if the games is not completely polished in a uniform style.
3. (Visuals) Use vibrant colors. Many people will play your game in bright day light on a small screen. Make it stand out.In PC and console games dark, scary environments can be very effective, but not so much on mobile devices.
4. (Visuals) Design for a 960x640 display. You can then easily extend for iPad and scale down for devices with lower resolution.The iPad has a resolution of 1024x768, so it is only a little bit larger. Normally you can fill this with some nice border or by giving the player a slightly larger view on the game world.
5. (Visuals) Don't use too much visual detail. It will not be visible on the small screen and becomes blurred when scaling.The screens for smartphone are really small, even though they have a high resolution. So when you use a lot of detail it will be difficult to see. And on older devices you typically scale the graphics, in which case detail tends to disappear in a blur.
6. (Visuals) Create a mock-up of the visuals and put an image of them on your iPhone or Android, to check them out.If you cannot test directly on the device, this is an easy way to still see the result
7. (General) Read the Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. My favorite game design book.You can find more information about this book at www.artofgamedesign.com.
8. (Visuals) Don't use 3D. It will take a lot more development time and cost, and it will not make your game more popular.Check out the popular mobile games and see how many are 3D. Almost none. So think twice before going on this track.
9. (Visuals) It is almost impossible to create immersion on small screens. So stick to core game play as the main attraction.In particular, it is difficult to create immersive first-person games.
10. (Visuals) Don't use complicated 3D worlds: It is often already difficult enough to see what is going on in 2D.It is easy to lose your way in 3D worlds. On a small screen this happens even more often. I tried playing Settlers on a small screen. You just have no idea anymore what is happening in the world.
11. (Story) Create a cute character. Give the player motivation to help, feed, guide or rescue it. Compassion works great.A good character makes a game so much better. Think about the character in Cut the Rope. You just want to keep feeding him.
12. (Story) Tell your story in just a few images. No need for an expensive animation. People want to jump right into the game.Some simple animation in the images of course helps to draw attention to them.
13. (Story) You can create a separate movie telling the story of the game and put it on YouTube. It made Angry Birds popular.You can also see this as a marketing tip.
14. (Story) Design a game whose story, mechanics and goals can be explained in 20 seconds. Complicated games don't work well.People want to start playing the game, not watch a movie or some lengthy explanations. If necessary, try to tell the story while playing.
15. (General) A play or level should take just a few minutes to finish. People want to play in short bursts on these devices.Some people even say that 1 minute is the maximum for forced continous play.
16. (General) If a game takes longer, it should be very easy to stop it and continue later, without having to remember anything.For example, games like Sudoko can easily be interupted and continued later, but it does not work in my Super Snake HD game.
17. (General) Most people will play your game less than an hour. So don't save all the good stuff till the end.Unfortunately, also reviewers tend to spend little time on your game. So if they don't see too much exciting stuff in the first 10 minutes they will probably give you a negative review. (This happened with Super Snake HD. Many reviewers said that it was just Snake. While in the second, third, and fourth world there a lots of original elements. But they probably never got that far. So I will change this in the update.)
18. (General) Make sure people get hooked on your game very fast. If they don't like the first 5 minutes they will stop playing.The fact that games are so cheap means that people have no problem in throwing it away quickly. This is even worse for free games.
19. (General) Don't use much text in your game. (Although I heard that female players actually like a lot of text in games.)Men don't like to read. They just want to learn by playing. Women tend to want to know a lot more about the background of the game world and the characters.
20. (Learning) The controls and goals should be so natural that people still remember them if they did not play for weeks.Cause that is how people play games on mobile devices. Things have to be simple to understand, but hard enough to execute.
21. (Learning) If your game needs a separate tutorial, think again. People want to play and should be able to learn while playing.That says it all I guess.
22. (Controls) When designing controls, think about how players hold the device. A tablet is e.g. difficult to hold in one hand.Different people hold devices in different ways. And it of course also depends on the size and weight of the device.
23. (Controls) A portrait view works great on a phone when the player must click or swipe. But it works poorly on tablets.That is because for tapping and swiping all over the screen, you need to hold the device in one hand.
24. (Controls) Don't force the player to hold a tablet in portrait mode with two hands at the bottom. It is tiring for the hands.Try it for an hour!
25. (Controls) Scrolling manually around on a small screen is cumbersome. So preferably avoid scrolling or do it automatically.The problem is that you do not really have a control mechanism for this. Normally tapping with fingers on the screen will influence the game. And when you use virtual buttons for the game, the player does not want to move his fingers away from them.
26. (Controls) People love swiping. So try to design an interaction mechanic that uses this.Of course not everybody loves swiping. But in general people like to play games that exploit the special possibilities of these devices. So just having virtual buttons on your screen is a bit boring.
27. (Controls) People should play with the controls, not against it. If the game reacts differently than they intend, they will blame the game.Of course this is not true when the controls themselves are supposed to be the challenge of the game. But make sure the player understands this.
28. (Controls) Tilt can be a fun way to steer a game. But often it is harder and more frustrating than tapping. So use with care.Of course there are games where tilt is very natural, like the games in which you must move a ball between holes.
29. (Controls) When allowing different control mechanisms (like tilt and buttons and swipe) try to make them equally difficult.This is in particular true when different devices support other mechanisms, while you have joint online leaderboards or when you can play against other players.
30. (Controls) Don't think people will understand how the controls work. Many don't and will then complain about the game.It is surprising to see how often people complain in reviews about the controls. And often the controls are fine but different from what the player expects and, hence, the player is confused and blames it on the game.
31. (General) When a player loses a life, make the game slightly easier, and not harder by e.g. taking away all power-ups.This one will probably cause quite some debate, because many games don't follow this rule. E.g. in a scrolling shooter you got some nice power-ups, but when you die you lose them. Now you are up against all these enemies and your weapons are even weaker. So you most often very quickly lose all your lives. But that is not fun. What would actually be better is: keep the weapons but let the current wave of enemies disappear. Give the player some breathing space.
32. (General) Make sure the player understands the scoring system. Why do they get a high or low score? Make it visually clear.If the player does not understand what he/she should do to get a high score, that part of the challenge disappears. In quite some games I am puzzled about the score system and it is not explained at all.
33. (General) The task of a game designer is to balance the challenges with the abilities of the player. Try to make it adaptive.If you fix the difficultly curve for a game some players will find it too easy and others too hard. Having a setting to choose Easy, Normal, or Hard mode only partially helps. Most people will pick a setting that is too easy. Also, a player can be good in some aspects of the games and bad in others. Adaptivity will work better but is hard to achieve in many games because you can no longer fully script the actions.
34. (General) Keep the player in the flow. This is achieved when he/she can just manage the difficulty of the game. But only just.This is sometimes referred to as pleasurable frustration.
35. (General) From time to time add some breathing space for the player by making the game temporarily a bit easier.You should zig-zag within the flow bandwidth.
36. (Learning) Don't put too many features in your game. People like simple games that are easy to grasp and quick to play.When there are too many features, there is too much to remember for the player, which is difficult when you play a game irregularly. It is also costly to have many features, in terms of development time.
37. (General) When the player dies he should always have the feeling that it was his own mistake, and not bad luck.This one should be obvious, but strangely enough is often not achieved in games. Players often feel that the controls were not responsive enough or that they were treated unfairly because suddenly too many enemies showed up, or that there was too little ammunition or health to be found.
38. (Design) Out of ideas? Design a game about something unusual: a pencil, a pair of glasses, a desk, grass, dust, hair, ...There are so many possibilities. A good game design should always look around and spot things he/she could use in a game.
39. (Tools) Use GameMaker: HTML5 to develop your games. I guess you saw that one coming.The new GameMaker: HTML5 is available from the www.yoyogames.com. Using HTML5 means that your game runs on any device that has a modern webbrowser.
40. (Controls) Think about the placement of buttons. The important ones should be easy to reach when holding the device.Unfortunately this is different depending the size of a device. People tend to hold larger tablets with two hands, while they hold smaller phones with one hand. So e.g. for a tablet buttons are better located near the sides such that they can easily be pressed.
41. (Controls) Players will use controls in unexpected ways. They will e.g. slide between buttons rather than tap them.When you design the controls for your game you have a certain way of using them in mind. But players can do it rather different, which might lead to problems. For example, you might think that when you have a button to move left and one to move right, players will tab them when they want to change direction. But they might hold their finger on the button and slide to the other button. If you are not careful, your game might not correctly deal with this and the player will be frustrated.
42. (Game Play) Be careful about your choice of rewards. Points, gold, lives, items, fame, etc., all have different effects.You can reward a player in many ways and designing a careful reward structure can make or break a game. Points for example primarily work to boost the ego of the player and to let him/het show-off on online highscore lists. Items are a much more interesting reward because they can be used in the game, but they might destroy the balance because good player are rewarded, making the game easier for them, reducing the challenge.
43. (Marketing) Design for marketing. If a game cannot be popularized there is little point in designing it, if you are commercial.Obviously, this only apply if you are making a game to make money. If it is clear that a game has a very small potential audience or that there is no way for you to reach the intended audience, you are probably wasting your time and better design a different game.
44. (Design) If you are male, ask yourself the question: Will my wife or girlfriend or sister like to play my game? Why not?Many game designers make games they like to play themselves. But you might very well not be the default player. You might want to think about designing games for the opposite sex. Women form the majority of the players of casual games.
45. (Design) If you are young, ask yourself the question: Will my parents or grandparents like to play my game? Why not?Different age groups like different games. Why not try to design a game that your parents would like to play on their mobile devices. They might have more money to spend on games. For example, social games are played most by people above 35.
46. (Design) Out of ideas? Think of weird game challenges, like getting NPC's to laugh, spinning around, sleeping, writing, ...Most games are about shooting or solving puzzles. Why not make a game with a rather different challenge.
47. (Story) Let the main character follow a Character Arc, e.g. from weak to strong, or from a follower to a leader.Character arcs are important for creating emotion in stories. You might want to take a look at the book Creating Emotion in Games by David Freeman to get more insight in the topic.
48. (Game Play) Infinite games will give more replay value, but finite games with a clear goal give more motivation.Infinite games are games you can play forever (until you die and then you start again). For example Tetris. The goal often just becomes to beat the high score. Finite games, like many adventure or RPG games have a final goal. Once you reach it, the game is over. It gives great satisfaction though. (Some RPG's let you continue explore the world after finishing the main quest but the motivation is then often gone.
49. (Game Play) Avoid random rewards. Add structure to the rewards that the player understands, leading to additional satisfaction.If the player does not understand why and when he/she gets certain (large) rewards, he/she loses the possibility to hunt for big rewards, reducing the fun in the game. For example, if special combo's lead to addition scores, better make this visually very clear.
50. (Game Play) Never reduce rewards throughout the game. Just make them have less influence.For example, in the first level you might want to give the player some extra health everytime he/she kills an opponent. In the second level you feel this is no longer apprpriate because the player should now know to defend. Still, if you would remove this feature the player will be upset. Instead, increase the total health in the second level and let the opponents do more damage. Now the player still gets his extra health but it will have much less influence.