An introduction to designing mobile arcade games

Before I start to present some thumbnail views of potential mobile game designs I just want to recap a few thoughts on the control system and a rough structure for the design of each game.

So much in designing games for mobile (be it an app or a mobile web game) is dictated by the control system. The lack of buttons to press is both a blessing and a hinderance. Far too often with console games I’m left put off and baffled by the spaghetti-fingered controls so I find the relative immaturity of the touch screen interface refreshing.
But of course the moment you want your mobile on-screen character to walk, run, jump and shoot you have an issue.
As I’ve blogged many times before I never overlay a joystick and buttons.

I have several games that sit on my developer’s shelf just now that never made it beyond concept phase. In many cases this is due to continuing to scratch my head about the controls. Automating certain actions is the obvious way forward (player movment, auto-firing weapons…) and balancing this with giving the player something to control that relies on developing a skill is where the mobile game designer spends a good deal of his time.

Generally speaking I centre my games around a single “gimmick”. Something a bit quirky such as the pseudo-3D effect in Distant Orbit or the scrolling trench in Crossfire. For me it goes hand in hand with the formation of the central challenge.
Recently in Super Jet Boy I hit on the idea of controlling a character with thrust alone. As a boy I’d played Dropzone to death and wanted to emulate the way the spaceman rotates on the x-axis. This formed the core of the game for me.

Dropzone screenshot

Dropzone

In my design documents I always start with a small section called Gimmick :-)
I then expand on this to identify and develop the core challenge and any sub-challenges. The one thing that (if I got the design right) is never a challenge is the control itself.

So with my designs I will initially try to present a rough genre, style, visual style and high concept. I will then expand to explore what it is I want the player to actually achieve in the game and of course identify what it is that stands in his way. From this I expect a bunch of challenges to fall out and this is where the game starts to come to life. Exploring where the real fun of the game can be found should be fairly organic.

All questions welcome and of course if you have your own thoughts on mine or your own designs feel free to share them.

Galactians 2 – a new HTML5 arcade game with aliens that “splat”

It’s really quite simple – I always wanted to make a game where the aliens come diving at you and you pump some lasers at them such that they “splat” in glorious fashion all over the screen.

So that’s what I did and since it takes its lead from my Galactians game I call it Galactians 2.

The premise is very retro and very simple. It’s also fast becoming my signature style of game. Aliens line up in rows above you and you sit beneath them with a ship / tank of some kind blasting them all to kingdom come.
I should add that when writing down a high concept for this game I considered the following 3 things: Galaxians, Starship Troopers and the classic 8-bit Defender clone Dropzone.
Galaxians for its format, Starship Troopers for its relentless bug invasion and super splatting and finally Dropzone for its visual style.

Here’s how it currently looks.

Galactians 2

Galactians 2

To create the moonbase I took a long look at Dropzone and got a feel for how the developer used just 3 or 4 colours to create the effect. It’s far from finished but let me tell you there’s quite a thrill for an aging Atari nerd such as myself to have Photoshop and Wacom open in one window and an Atari emulator running the aforementioned game in another.

I would quite like to blog the creation of the moonbase at some point in the future. I haven’t kept each stage of the drawing on file but I could probably get around that by starting a new, smaller graphic and employing the same principles.

It’s a real thrill to be making good old arcade games again. I know I’m not always very adventurous with my games but who cares. It’s great fun :-)

Incidentally the game will work on desktop and mobile. Depending on how you start the game (mouse click, fire button, touch screen) determines how the game is controlled.
Naturally iPhone 4 users will struggle since it’s Apple’s decision not to currently give their paying customers any flexibility with browser / JavaScript applications. Let’s hope that the new OS due any day now goes some way to addressing this.

 

Atari800XL Dropzone

Dropzone screenshotWhen inspiration dries up I turn to the games of my youth. There’s something quite thrilling and romantic about delving back nearly 30 years to play some of the games that defined my desire to become a game designer.

As a 14 year old boy I was mesmerised by Dropzone. I’d quite a collection of games by this point and played them all. But Dropzone seemed quite different to the other games. It actually felt like an arcade game, not just a simple home computer game.

It did of course emulate in many respects the daddy of all arcade games – Defender. Where Defender had action, lasers, explosions and pace Dropzone doubled it up with style.

Dropzone screenshot

I think it was the artistic style of Dropzone that did it for me. The simple yet highly illustrative graphics worked and worked well. The title screen has great balance with its chunky 3D title graphic and text/sprite display laid out beneath.
In game the graphics were split beautifully. The scrolling terrain and detailed scanner occupied around 1/3 the whole screen and the rest was taken up by pure action.

Like Defender Dropzone was a tricky, fiddly affair. Often you’d find yourself frantically spunking lasers across the screen but to no avail. The alien probes seem perfect at dodging your stream. But once you achieve the necessary fine-tuned control skills and actually enjoy swinging your jetpack guy around the screen there’s some real thrills to be had. Is there another game out there where the firing of lasers is so satisfying ?

I could write forever about the action / rewards at play in Dropzone. The game epitomises for me what perfect balance in arcade game design is all about.

If you have an emulator grab yourself the Dropzone ROM and see for yourself what I’m talking about.
If you need an emulator try Atari800WinPlus.

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