GDC Mobile 2008: Embracing Mobile Constraints
"Most conversations about mobile game development happen in a bar," began Jeferson Valadares, Creative Director at EA Mobile. It wasn't because mobile developers are alcoholics, but because bars are the ideal place to lament the low motivation you may have by working in such a frustrating industry.
Opening with some quotes from Peter Molyneux ("I chose these quotes because he was famous.") where he stated some common complaints about mobile gaming ("these clicky buttons are useless for playing games...)
But Valadares felt that there were many instant positives to working on the mobile platform. Despite some discussions to the contrary, he said, in many cases development for the mobile platform is a return to the "garage days" with smaller teams and more freedom.
"My argument is we should embrace the problems, because by their very nature they will never go away. But we can make the most of them," he said, quoting the example of Metal Gear for MSX: "Metal Gear was born out of the fact that they wanted to make an action game, but the hardware wasn't good enough, so they made a stealth game. That was a design created from working with constraints."
Valadares explained that constraints can be worked around (and with) by sticking to some basic tenants of usability to make your mobile games More efficient to use, easier to learn and more fun to use.
Keep it Simple
Valadares noted one of the quickest tests if your game was usable: People's "game face" -- if it's a frown within five seconds, "that's a good example."
When it comes to controls, which kind are your players using and how good are they? "There was an artist I used to work with me and he used to grab a random phone from our phone shelf and test our titles, and with certain phones he'd find that they'd hurt his hand after playing for a while. So this is something you need to keep in mind."
Another question to consider is where are they going to be used? Does your game require two hands? "Players might want to play standing on a bus, holding onto a handle with one hand!"
To decrease the number of buttons you can ask yourself, "What's the most interesting thing for the player to be doing?"
"What actions would the player like to be doing?" Valadares asked, "For example, in a driving game where you expect a player will always be accelerating, why ask them to press that button?"
One button might be all you need, Valadares hypothesised, but with a stark warning: "You don't want too many, but you don't want too few." Quoting his work on Rollercoaster Rush, they found that it would actually be better to have both an accelerate and break button.
Usability doesn't just mean during gameplay. "I think menus are a bit of an unloved part of the game, people tend to do them last, but from a consumer point of view they are one part of the game, often the first thing they see," said Valadares, "you need to think of them as part of the experience and plan them from the very beginning."
Easy To Learn
To make your game easy to learn, Valadares asked developers to use real life metaphors, and obvious graphical metaphors, such as stop signs to make things clear to the player.
Icons (or pictograms) can be intuitive, and have the bonus of being easier to localize - but you have to be careful: "In Finland a V means wrong while X means right - so if you use a check mark and a cross for yes/no in Finland, people will get it wrong."
On screen information during play, such as the HUD, should similarly be kept simple. Scoring, and the reason why players are gaining points, should be obvious. "Giving clear visual feedback when anything happens is important," Valadares argued.
In particular with scoring, they should come within a framework so players can judge how good their score is - for example, in Burnout a score includes a star rating so they know how good the score is - but developers have to be careful to not let beginning players think they "suck" and want to give up before they have a chance to become good.
How much time do players have? Some people play for minutes waiting for a bus and some people play for hours at a time. "You have to cater for all the needs," said Valadares.
"One thing is that important is giving frequent achievements - and I don't mean in terms of gamerscore. To reward them for choosing to play the game you have be able to offer small fun in three minute increments. Challenge the player and then reward them. Plan it thinking in terms of the three minute rule . Even just visual rewards, like seeing cars explode in burnout, can be an adequate reward, but use both."
Valadares concluded: "Visuals are important. Every part counts."