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[What can you learn about game design from working on mobile titles? Cellphone game design veteran Ventrice (Guitar Hero Mobile), now working with iPhone developer Smule (Ocarina/Leaf Trombone) on music games, discusses the key conceptual layers of game building that are common to all titles.]
A salesperson might understand the importance of a compelling brand but have no concept of game mechanics. An engineer might understand a compelling game mechanic but not understand the methods of teaching it to the user.
Creating a successful game requires critical cross-discipline coordination, yet all too often team members only understand the facets of the design that face their own specializations.
It is the responsibility of the game designer to bring these specialized perspectives together in a comprehensive design. If the designer fails, different groups in the team will waste time and effort working towards unrelated goals.
But bringing together aspects as disparate as the marketing face of a game and its user interface may seem to be an undertaking in the abstract. What is needed is a framework for understanding the interconnectedness of a design; a way to visualize the trickle-down (or up) impact of design decisions made at any level.
Mobile phone games may not be as immersive or as intense as their console and PC counterparts, but their simplicity provides an ideal starting point to an inquiry into the structure of game design. The mobile platform is unique for two reasons: reduced depth and increased breadth.
Reduced Depth. You've probably heard that a design is perfect once everything that can be removed has been. The mobile platform puts this adage to the test. Even today, in the dawning age of the iPhone, mobile developers still have to deal with phones that allow as little as 128k of space; that's 128k for art, code, game data, sound and anything else.
These limitations nearly prevent any kind of gameplay from existing at all, but games do survive; very simple games. In these stripped down games, the underlying design structure is highly refined and clearly visible.
Increased Breadth. Over the course of a relatively compacted span of time, a mobile designer works on dozens of titles, spanning nearly every conceivable genre.
Designing three or four different games at a time, you have two options: learn to understand all games by a common set of terms, or go crazy trying to keep track of everything individually.
What follows is a summary of lessons learned in the field of mobile design.
Every game design can be understood through four distinct perspectives. These perspectives stack nicely, so it is convenient to label them as the four layers of a design:
As an example, let's take a quick look at the perennial mobile favorite, Tetris, in Figure 1:
Paradigms may seem abstract at first, but they are an essential perspective to understand.
Every game can be defined by these four layers. Let's take a more detailed look at each individually.