Flappy Bird has definitely showed us that games are not dead and this market is still flourishing; making $50,000 a day, with a single game, it’s not an experience that most of us can share. What we wonder is if there is a key behind games or if there is a pattern to make a game more addictive than another. Although building games was something considered complex, given the graphics behind it and the complexity of developing on a console, with the introduction of mobile platforms, their development has become much easier.
Smartphones have given us the possibility to develop our own games and to address them to a different market. While consoles, such as the PlayStation or the XBOX, have been used by a “keen” niche market, smartphones are everywhere. This means that even my 81 years old grandfather can play a game I have developed without the need to buy a console, but just by downloading it in a matter of seconds.
The question we are trying to answer is what makes a game addictive and successful. If I start wasting my time by playing a game, as I have done in the past with Flappy Bird, it means the game is or has the potential to be successful. The key here is to create addiction, whether I am waiting for the bus, in a lecture theatre or even (and worse) dating someone.
In the past years, a trend has emerged that has made games successful, infinity. This seems silly, but when you build a game without an end, people keep playing just to improve their score and do better than their friends. A first example of this simple principle was Doodle Jump, where the only purpose of the game was to stay alive and improve the score. That game was simple, we did have to touch the screen a couple of times, just for shooting, and we had to move the phone in order to jump and move forward.
Simplicity and infinity are two constant patterns that we always find in mobile games. People use them when they need a distraction, which means that they can’t get much involved in the game, from a complexity point of view, but they are willing to play it. If we look at Flappy Bird, we had these two patterns. Tapping the screen to make the bird fly is the most basic movement on a smartphone, which also means another thing, the game can be played by everyone. Flappy Bird wasn’t targeting a range of people, that game was for everyone who wanted to have a daily challenge.
Another game that is using these two patterns, which now has more than 5 million downloads on Google Play, is Dots. This game comes from John Borthwick‘s betaworks labs. There is another big factor that makes this game successful, a part from infinity and simplicity, it’s the design. By using minimalism, the designer has created the perfect mix that brings addiction, not because the game is great, but because it’s beautiful to look at. There are certain games that opt for complexity, but Dots is an example of those which chose another path and succeeded.
On the other side of the river, there are successful games that don’t respect this pattern, such as Angry Birds and Cut The Rope. The first one was the 52nd game developed by a company after 8 years. This game doesn’t respect any pattern, but even though we need to use our fingers more than once, it’s simple to play and intuitive. People don’t have to think, they see huge green pigs and they just want to smash them. Simplicity can also be found in this game, what we don’t find is infinity.
Angry Birds has an end, as most of the games do, so why was it so addictive? Even though, we have to calculate the trajectory, think about how many points we might achieve and move to the next levels, all the “thinking” is on a minimal level. Further the score gives you a chance to keep improving till you reach three stars on each level. This mix hasn’t given Rovio the chance to build just a game, but an entire brand that has grown in different sectors.
In the same way Cut The Rope is one of those games with an end, but they have more than 50M downloads on Google Play. Why? The intuitive way of showing you a level and the minimal thinking that it requires make the whole experience funny and addictive. People don’t have to think neither too much or too little. There is a margin between an high level of complexity, from a thinking point of view, and a low level, which has been found both by Angry Birds and Cut the Rope.
The keys to build a successful mobile game are the simplicity of the game itself, in terms of gestures we have to perform, and the thinking brought to a minimal level. Whether if we make the game endless or not is irrelevant, as long as we make sure we have got the first two keys. Although an infinite game doesn’t need to be expanded and can create more user engagement both from a gaming point of view and a social one, in terms of sharing the achievements with friends and colleagues.