Despite Jamil’s unwillingness to take the bait on my last article on Designing for the Social Platform, I’m gonna go ahead and talk about mobile. I’m of the mind that these are fundamentally different opportunities, and that early successes in porting between these platforms are unlikely to be sustained into the future. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good business today, but I’ll be a bit surprised if that’s the case in 3 years.
Why? Because the platforms are extraordinarily different in nature. It seems to me that platforms with different elements would breed different forms of game.
The Unique Aspects of Mobile
Three major ones: mobility, real estate and input. Mobility is pretty clear – this is the first gaming system you’re REQUIRED to carry with you everywhere. Real estate addresses the size of the screen a player has to work with and input refers to touch, the somewhat unique means information is delivered from user to device. Both of these are important and active constraints on design, and one ignores them at their own peril.
I love mobility, it’s a total game changer. Before a game developer was forced to accept that only a small portion of a person’s waking hours could be reasonably dedicated to games. Mobility changes all of that. Since the game is present with the person at all times, the opportunity to game is always there. Now, it comes at a tradeoff. It’s very hard to demand prolonged interaction with the game because the use case calls for sporadic spurts throughout the day. That has implications for game design (sessions will probably need to be short and permit ingress and egress without repercussion), but that’s a small price to pay for accessibility. Games that accept the standard use case and build around it have a huge opportunity.
Real estate is a major issue when it comes to mobile games. I often think that folks aspiring to mobile/social cross-pollination should begin by designing for the mobile devices because of the economy of form it forces upon the developer. One cannot waste buttons on the mobile side, there simply isn’t enough space to present more than a few options on any particular screen. A 4-inch screen is very different from the 17-inch PC monitor social games or the 50-inch television console games are typically played upon. One would expect differences to develop as a result.
Touch is where it’s at. This is really unexplored as an opportunity in games. Sure, all games on the mobile side incorporate touch, but there’s very little diversity in the interaction. Most games settle for taps, a few games will get a little fancier with things like swipes (yay Fruit Ninja!), but there isn’t a whole lot of exploration from there. A good example of a possible evolution are things like the sophisticated swipes used in Infinity Blade for spells. My view is that touch is far more dynamic than arrow keys just as a PC keyboard is far more dynamic than a mobile keyboard. In seems nonsensical to me that these attributes would not spawn radically different games.
Beyond these primary considerations, there are secondary traits to consider when designing for mobile. It’s well established fact that I’m a die-hard fan of location-based games, and it bears repeating that leveraging the location of a person can be a very interesting opportunity. There are also things like the accelerometer, platform proximity (things like Bump) and voice input to consider as well. Each of these traits have no clear analog on the other platforms (except perhaps the Kinect on the Xbox 360). All of them are currently not used to substantial effect in games.
So why aren’t mobile games taking advantage of these things?
The Training Wheels
I view these early years of a platform as a training period for both the developer and the user. Developers simply haven’t had enough time to assimilate all of these additional variables into their design, and there aren’t enough successful games making competent use of these elements to merit follow-ons. In the rare cases where such games have broken through, they rapidly spawn mini-genres around them. I look at Angry Birds’ success and I’m not particularly surprised that simple touch mechanics became a major force on the mobile side (Fruit Ninja, Tiny Wings, etc.). Design is an iterative process, and revolutionary games are often viewed with a bit of suspicion by developers, critics and gamers alike.
Also, games on the mobile side simply don’t require specialization on the mobile-specific mechanics to be successful. I also suspect that the users may not even be ready for greater sophistication on this front. Different styles of play take some getting used to, and cramming too much in all at once results in user confusion. It may be odd for a player to use a series of complex swipes while shouting voice commands in a location-aware battleground today, but probably not tomorrow. It took us 20 years to go from joystick and one button to 2 joysticks, 2 d-pads and 8 buttons. Baby steps.
Into the Future
I’m gonna go ahead and say that popular games today will look very little like popular games 5 years from now. As the platforms continue to iterate so to shall the developers. Successful mechanics leveraging the unique aspects of mobile will be discovered and built upon. Games like Infinity Blade are the harbinger of things to come. As games grow more specialized for the mobile platform, so too shall we begin to see greater differentiation between the platforms. Mark my words, it’ll happen.
JM: Haha! You do of course realize that this means war. Monday, my friend. Smiley emoticon.
SF: Hey Jamil…what’s that over there? On the ground? It appears SOMEONE THREW DOWN THIS GAUNTLET.