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April 18, 2012

Play to win! How to make a kick ass mobile game

It’s 1994. Netscape is the world’s leading browser, Pulp Fiction is proving Quentin Tarantino’s no flash in the pan and Danish company Hagenuk launches a cell phone, which includes the world’s first mobile game, a pre-installed form of Tetris. Fast forward eighteen years and 70-80% of all mobile downloads are games. But what makes the difference between a dire dud and a kick ass success? 

via Stefan Kloo

To find out we spoke to one of the world’s only Professors of Gaming. Aki Järvinen, Creative Director at Digital Chocolate and a man who’s spent the last decade developing kick ass games for various platforms. Here’s his magic formula.

1. Make the theme and gameplay concept instantly accessible

This is easier said than done, but in order to create a mass market hit, the game needs to have an attractive, instantly recognizable or eye-catching setting, and the player needs to understand the gameplay concepts on the very first try. The slingshot game mechanic of Angry Birds is a good example, as everyone is familiar with it, and therefore it is very accessible, both conceptually and in how it’s controlled with the swipe gesture on touch screens.

 2. Make the game social

Well, everything is social nowadays, right, and your kick ass game needs to be, too. It’s not only about game mechanics that support social interaction between players, such as competing or helping each other, though. Social is also about the device itself, and how easy it is to show a cool game to your friend from your phone – this is a form of viral spread that game developers dream about. The recent massive success of Draw Something is a fitting example here. It’s brilliance lies in its execution of social mechanics where according to the familiar Pictionary mechanic, you not only try to guess what your friend is drawing, but you see their brain ticking while they try to solve your drawing. Those social ‘Heureka’ moments contribute to social emotions that make the game very ‘sticky’, while leaderboards and challenging other players to compete evoke the sphere of social emotions that fuel player interactions.

3. Make sure the game is frequently updated

Mobile games are becoming a service rather than a static shelf product. Therefore sustaining success means the game needs to be updated with new content frequently. This not only gives the players more to chew, but updates also remind players of the game’s existence – with the abundance of apps available to people, even a good game might be forgotten as new ones are so easy to download and try out.

4. Make it free to play, bite-sized 

The so-called free-to-play model has rapidly gained prominence within the mobile game space. This means that players can download the app for free, which obviously helps to spread it, and then they are offered additional content, virtual goods that help in progressing in the game, etc via micro-transactions. There are repercussions for gameplay with this, as one cannot expect mobile gamers to spend hours with the game on one sitting, so the game needs to support frequent, bite-sized play sessions which still give the player tons of fun, and a sense of progress.

5. Make it a easy to learn, hard to master

This principle is another holy grail of game design that can help developers strike gold in the marketplace and engage players. It is really a continuation of the first point mentioned here (instant accessibility), but for a game company it can also be a strategic decision of whether to aim for high number of players, or with a less mainstream game, for a more niche audience which is even more dedicated to the game. For them, the game needs to grow into a hobby rather than being a disposable time-waster. In the free-to-play model this translates into more players who actually pay for your game. Both directions – mass audience vs viable niche – can be considered a success, depending on the goal of the product.

There you have it, the crucial ingredients needed to make a game a kick ass success. Anything surprise you? If so, let us know in the comments below or @Nokia_Connects.