This article is a follow-up/companion to our ‘4 Tips to Get in the App Store Top 200‘. The previous article focused mainly on marketing, pricing and the business side of the App Store, whereas this article is all about getting the game design right.
I’ve been a full-time self-employed independent game developer for more than 15 years now. My brother and I started Ezone.com in 1994 making web games for the major Hollywood studios: Disney, Universal, Nickelodeon, Sony, Fox, MTV, and publishing games to major web game portals like Shockwave, Miniclip, Kongregate, Newgrounds and a ton of other sites (probably a lot of which are out of business now).
In July 2008 (when Apple opened the iPhone App Store) we moved from web games to iPhone apps and have been making a living exclusively from apps since then. We have created more than 50 different apps ranging from novelties like Crazy Lighter and Crazy Disco to digital puppets like Crazy Mouth and Crazy Face, to games like Galactic Gunner and Turkey Blast. But by far our biggest success has been Crazy Snowboard, which has now had over 5 million downloads of the free and paid versions.
Crazy Snowboard is a casual snowboarding game. It was never well received by critics or game review sites (often referred to as that ‘other’ snowboarding game), its never received a major feature in iTunes, but it has continually been a steady earner for us and is consistently in the US iPhone Games Top 200. It also made it into Apple’s recent list of the top all-time paid iPhone (#164) and iPad (#22) games in the US.
So, what makes it different from our other games, and why has it been successful? We’ve taken a long hard look at it, and many of the other successful games in the top 200 and narrowed it down to these ‘4 Golden Rules of iPhone Game Design’:
- Simple and Fun
- Lots of Short Levels
Simple and Fun
At the core of your game you need a simple, fun game mechanic. And I stress simple. In this A.D.D. world if you don’t grab players in the first 10 seconds, you’ve probably lost them. Unlike a console game they haven’t invested $50 (in all likelihood it’s $0.99 or nothing), so they have not made a big commitment to your game. If they don’t get it in the first 10 seconds, then they are going to hit the home button and launch something else.
For example, at the core of Crazy Snowboard is tilt left and right. If you can tilt an iPhone you can cruise down the slope, go off jumps, through slalom gates, and have fun.
And you can forget about having 10 pages of instructions before people start playing. Once again, you’ll lose them (and probably never see them again). At most you want one clear screen as you introduce each new control mechanism (or game play rule). Be sure to only introduce one new skill at a time – don’t overwhelm players.
The other test of your simple game mechanic is can a 3 year old (yes, a 3 year old) play your game and have fun. The ultimate test is can they play the first level when you just hand them the iPhone without telling them what to do.
On the other end of the scale what we call ‘The Ma & Pa Test’. Same thing, but this time you want to see how the older generation of non-gamers handle it. And be sure to resist the urge to tell or show them what to do – you can learn a lot by just watching and seeing how new players naturally interact with your game.
Lots of Short Levels
Remember that you are designing for a mobile platform and people playing your game will most likely be doing it in short bursts, like waiting for a bus or as a distraction for the kids. This means you want to design lots of short bite-sized levels. When Angry Birds first came out it only had a few levels (not the 10,000 or whatever it is now). It wasn’t until they started adding more levels that it really took off.
You also need to give players an incentive to replay levels – we suggest adding a 3-star performance rating, and also coins (or points) that they can collect to unlock more content. Again, this comes down to presenting players with something they know, and we can all thank Angry Birds for educating millions of casual game players.
People love getting value for money, and they love unlocking stuff. In Crazy Snowboard we have 13 different riders that can be unlocked using in-game points that are earned by completing levels. There are also 13 matching boards and 16 in-air grabs.
We also have two in-app purchases in Crazy Snowboard and they are both related to additional content: 500K Coins, and the Expansion Pack.
Having this unlockable content also increases the player’s incentive to replay levels, and hence better value for money.
OK, it’s great having a simple, fun core game mechanic, but if there is no depth to the game then players will get bored and leave. Players want to be challenged, learn new skills, and then master these skills.
In Crazy Snowboard once you have mastered the tilt to steer we pace the introduction of advanced jumps, in-air grabs, spins and flips, grinding, and jump multipliers. Each of these new skills is slowly introduced so we don’t overwhelm the player, but by the time they have master these skills they will be racking up huge scores and 10x multipliers.
Angry Birds does a great job of this, they slowly pace the introduction of new birds/powerups. Cut the Rope is another good example, and at the pinnacle is Plants vs Zombies, which builds from very simple to an extremely complex game.
If you can get the pacing right you will keep players challenged and interested while also minimizing frustration and on the other end of the scale, boredom.
Our Next Game – Diversion
So, as you’re designing your next game make sure you keep these golden rules in mind. I know we are. Here’s a breakdown of our upcoming release ‘Diversion’ and how we are going at applying these rules:
So, if you follow these Golden Rules (and have a bit of luck) you might just be the next big hit game designer – well, that’s what we are hoping with ‘Diversion’ anyway! Time will tell… while you are waiting, why not check out the Diversion teaser trailer: