AppBoard Tuesday – The Recipe For Making Highly Addictive Mobile Games

By | June 7, 2016
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For a couple of days last week, the internet connection at our office was – let’s put it this way – rather shaky. Things were slow, and whenever the net was taking one of its (frustratingly frequent!) breathers, most of our in-house developers and testers got busy with their phones – catching up with the next level of jelly-blasting games, or word-search, or endless running games, and the like. That’s when it occurred to us – how about using this week’s AppBoard Tuesday (ABT) to highlight some tips and pointers for making really addictive mobile games? Here are the things we consider to be the most important:

  1. Keep the gameplay simple – The good ol’ KISS principle. Going back to our office example again – we were playing games only during intermittent periods, when we could not work. Similarly, most people love to use gaming apps to ‘spend’ the time (not ‘waste’ the time, mind you!) during short journeys, while they are idle, or some such relatively small time-spans. A nicely designed, easy-to-play game would fit this bill nicely. A highly complicated game has every chance of being viewed as ‘too tough’, and hence, abandoned.
  2. Go for an intuitive gameplay – An extension of the previous point. Yes, all popular iPhone and Android game apps have a dedicated ‘Instructions’/ ‘How To Play’ screens – but let’s be honest here, do we ever really bother to read through what’s written on those screens? It would be a folly to assume that general people (whose attention span is already low when it comes to interacting with their mobile devices) would take time out to ‘learn’ how to play your game first. The gameplay needs to be intuitive – one glance at the game screen should be self-explanatory.
  3. Include a ‘hook’ in your game – To be addictive, a mobile game has to get its audience hooked. iOS and Android game developers can increase the chances for this, by making their apps relatable to the actual users, in one way or the other. Triggering an emotional response – excitement or stress or frustration – is a great way of having smartphone-users try the same game over and over again.
  4. The player should always be in control – This an absolute must. It’s built into our human psyche that we love to be in charge of whatever we do – and this extends to playing mobile games as well. In fact, this is one of the reasons behind the huge popularity of first-person shooter games (“I see. I shoot. I win.”). Game-makers have to include as much personalization options as possible in their software. The more ‘free’ a person will feel while playing a game, the more (s)he will get attached to it.
  5. Consider device compatibility – The conventional top-down approach (idea first, device-considerations later) of mobile app development does not work well, when it comes to making games. Instead, developers need to first consider the devices a new game would be compatible with, and how the latter will be able to use the hardware resources of the handset optimally (the camera, the keyboard, wi-fi connectivity, GPS, etc.). It’s important to give customers a ‘unique’ experience – and it has to be remembered that a mobile game should never be just an extension of a desktop game.

Note: iOS game developers have an advantage here over their Android counterparts. They need to consider only the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch (yes, backward compatibility of iOS versions is a factor). Android developers, on the other hand, have to test their games on thousands of devices from different vendors.

  1. Increase the difficulty. But gradually. – Start things off with ridiculously easy levels/modes in your games. Make sure that no one – not even a kid – has any difficulty in understanding what the game is all about. And then, as players become familiar with your game – start making each level slightly trickier than the previous one (never bump up the game difficulty too much at one go…that will cause many users to lose interest). The gradually increasing difficulty would be viewed as an enjoyable challenge.
  2. Get those competitive juices flowing – Forget mobile games – people play any game for one purpose…to win. As a game developer working on the iOS/Android platform, the onus is on you to challenge the users at every step. Make them play against a countdown timer, towards a ‘not-that-easy’ deadline and/or give them a limited number of tries/moves (Candy Crush Saga is a game that does this brilliantly). Make people want to win…that’s the only way they will keep coming back to your game.

Note: This also boosts up the ‘replay value’ of a mobile game. Without it, users might just grow disinterested after a while.

  1. Give rewards – Not monetary ones, obviously. However, there should be the option of ‘earning’ extra coins, stars, points, lives – and stuff like these – for players who manage to register good performances on your game. Many games have their higher levels locked to start with – and players can unlock them only by accumulating rewards from the lower levels. That there is a reward waiting at the end of a game level should always be at the back of a player’s mind. It works as a great source of ‘positive feedback’ and an incentive for ‘doing it again’.
  2. Stability and reliability – Something that every good mobile app, and not just games, should have. Take a tour through the many unsuccessful mobile games in iTunes, and more importantly, at the Google Play Store. You will see a similar problem – they are either laggy and/or crash often, and/or has other usability problems. Imagine the chagrin of a kid playing, say, Subway Surfers, having collected a million points – and then, poof! The app crashes, and the hard-earned progress is lost. Not a nice feeling, right? (that’s precisely why reports of crashes in Subway Surfers are practically unheard of). Test your games well before releasing, and make sure that players can save their progress on the game at any time easily. In case a user changes his handset or the game app gets deleted accidentally – there should be no problems in recovering it either.
  3. Repetitive is good. Notifications are important – Successful mobile games are, more often than not, repetitive. They compel users do the same tasks/gestures/actions over and over again (consider 2048 and its many variants, for example) – and while looking to catch up on a quick break with their smartphones, people tend to look for precisely such simple, repetitive games. Experts from the field of Android and iPhone game development also advise the inclusion of a proper notifications system in mobile gaming software. This helps in reminding people about the game (numerous apps jostle for space on an average user’s smartphone) – and prompt repeat visits. Avoid making the notifications annoying/too frequent though. You do not want to end up disturbing the users!
  4. Remember the splash screen – A book should not be judged by its cover and a mobile game should not be judged by its splash screen – but even so, this factor is vital. After all, the splash screen is the first point of interaction between the user and your game…and it needs to leave a favourable impression on him/her. The splash screens should not hang around for too long (a maximum of ten seconds maybe), and app developers often add a subtle dynamic touch to it (e.g., adding a ‘Loading’ progress bar). The initial onboarding should be smooth, prompt and likeable. Otherwise, even a great game can suffer.
  5. Provide a ‘social’ experience – A mobile game should ideally have powerful social integration features. This is all the more important for Android/iOS multiplayer games. People should have the option to invite their friends on Facebook to the game, challenge them, and enjoy the social gaming fun. What’s more, seamless FB and Twitter connectivity also allows players to share their high scores and achievements in mobile games. How many times have you seen updates from your friends on Facebook, about how they are progressing on Criminal Case?
  6. Never force in-app purchases on users – It would be absolutely great if your audience actually spends money to buy stuff (coins, characters, boosts, etc) via in-app purchases – but you should never force them on users. Many shady mobile app companies make certain levels/stages of their games practically unsolvable without taking the help of in-app purchases. That, in turn, has the counter-effect of gradually alienating people from the concerned games. In-app purchases (IAP) are, of course, one of the best ways of monetizing free games and apps…just make sure that they do not HAVE TO BE USED by gamers.

Note: Worry not, hardcore gamers will naturally purchase stuff from your game (iPhone users are more likely to spend money on apps). You do not have to be overly pushy about it.

        14. Include patterns in the gameplay – Remember what we said about the importance of a good mobile game being, in essence, repetitive? In addition to that, games should also include a definite pattern in them (take the example of the many ‘connect the dots’ games). The challenge of identifying and following patterns naturally excites the human brain. Ask yourself: ain’t the prospect of arranging a haphazardly laid out jigsaw puzzle board appealing?

More than anything else, mobile game developers have to ensure that the fun-element associated with playing their gaming apps is considerable. Whenever possible, players should be able to show off their creative side. For strategy games in particular, the game environment, characters and assets should be fairly life-like. With excellent game engines like Unity3D and Unreal Engine, this is hardly difficult. Making addictive games is no rocket science – all that app makers have to do is follow these simple tips.

This then brings us to the end of yet another addition of AppBoard Tuesday. Do write in to us about your opinions on addictive games. Also, let us know which mobile game you find to be the most enjoyable.

Another interesting topic related to app development will be waiting for you in the next ABT. Till that time…love thy apps!

Hussain Fakhruddin
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Hussain Fakhruddin

Hussain Fakhruddin is the founder/CEO of Teknowledge mobile apps company. He heads a large team of app developers, and has overseen the creation of nearly 600 applications. Apart from app development, his interests include reading, traveling and online blogging.
Hussain Fakhruddin
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