Building your own mobile web gaming portal – the games

I think that it probably goes without saying  that your games are your primary asset. They are the key to the success of your portal. Treating your games as such is a pretty good step toward achieving your goal of becoming a reasonably sized independent arcade.

It doesn’t take an astro-physicist to calculate that you stand a greater chance of repeat plays in your arcade if you have something worthwhile to offer.

Making sure you have enough quality in your games to keep a player engaged, challenged, entertained and ultimately rewarded enough to come back for more is of course a challenge in itself.
I have 15 games available. Some work well. Generally the older style shooting games. Some don’t work so well. For those that don’t work so well I am analysing the performance statistics to see if there’s anything I can do to improve the experience.

I think it’s probably worth exploring the world of mobile gaming in general and not just focusing on the burgeoning mobile web market. With a little investigation of the mobile gaming world at large we can probably get a good feel for what gamers will want and expect from a gaming portal.

Here’s a few key points.

Design with replayability in mind

Something that the arcade game designers of yesteryear proved to be very good at was designing enough to challenge and entertain the gamer whilst leaving enough behind to warrant another “go”.

This is of course linked to the need for a very visible and realistic target. In the arcades this target was ultimately a high score and the bragging rights that accompany having your name or initials flashing the brightest in the high score table.
But a good arcade game was split in to smaller more bite-sized chunks.

Scramble

Scramble arcade game

Consider Scramble. A tricky game and one that took most gamers a good amount of coins to master. The premise was simple: shoot, dodge, swoop and navigate your way through a deep scrolling maze. The game would throw more and more at you until your were hit or collided with a rock or a wall. It was intense and hugely challenging.

The ultimate goal was to take that top score. This was, in the early 1980s, very much a cultural thing. Gamers in those days would spend play times in school bragging about their scores. Although perhaps that has become less of a draw to modern gamers it is still very relevant to pitch your skills against your buddies.

Yet despite all of this I do believe that as gamers we invest an incredible amount on a personal level when we play. To that end I love the idea of designing stages within a game that must be conquered. On a personal level the gamer must go just one step beyond where they were in the previous “go”. Once this is achieved their attention turns back to the score.

“Right I beat that little challenge now what score do I get as a reward?”

So with that in mind I always try and design games that break down in to stages and also offer a wide range of points values for accomplishments therein.

In a later post I’ll go in to some detail of how I get data in and out of the games and in to a database.

Offering a niche

When I first set out to make mobile web games I knew that I wanted to make arcade games. Specifically the style of game that I grew up playing. They still to this day hold the most appeal.
As a result every game that I have in my arcade is an old-school style arcade game.

Just to ram the point home I even called the portal the PlayStar Arcade. I want gamers to identify with the portal as a source of arcade games. In my next post I’ll talk in some depth about the importance of branding your site.

So when a gamer comes to my arcade to play an arcade game they know roughly what they’re about to experience. The action is brief, repetetive and very much a throw back to the games of 25 years ago. This may not always be a good thing but I think on balance the decision to aim for this niche was a good one. I am engaging a certain type of player and my audience figures and play stats appear to show an increasing audience with a greater willingness to replay.

Something’s working!

I’m always reading about the importance of variety in a game designer’s portfolio. This is probably sound advice but it must be in line with your goals. It isn’t my goal to become a freelancing game designer. I just want to manage and administer my own niche arcade. I applaud those who are able to adapt to changes in the market and stay one step ahead. But it’s not for me. I guess you have to decide what is right for you and what your goals for your portal and your design ambitions are.

Rewards, rewards, rewards

This is a short and sweet one. Make the gamer feel good about playing your game. Reward everything that she does both visually and audibly (where possible). Don’t just display a “well done”. Shower the screen with tiny stars and let the little on-screen character do a little dance. Your gamers will remember it and come craving that feel-good experience in the future.

Screenshots, blurb, action and a challenge

This is a big one. I’m willing to bet that the primary reason for somebody clicking to play your game when it’s sat amongst a sea of games is the screenshot that is used to advertise it. In fact whether it’s a screenshot or an icon make damn sure that what you’re showing is the game’s key selling point.

If your game is a driving game don’t just show a stock image of a steering wheel with the name of your game over it. Show an in-game shot (or an adapted version of it) of a vehicle on the road in an interesting setting.

This of course links back to how you design your games. Designing with a screenshot in mind is no bad thing. When you construct your games try to visualise how it’s going to look sat alongside all of the other games in your arcade.

Those old enough to remember the glory days of arcade gaming will remember the artwork on the cabinets. The image of electro-invaders on the side of the Space Invaders cabinet or the bright yellow Pac-Man set against the largely blue hue of the maze that was in the masthead; both instantly identifiable and designed to pull the gamer in.

Similarly think about how you “talk” to the gamer. You want him to click and play. Give him something to fire his imagination. Calling a game Shoot the bridges is possibly not going to inspire a young boy’s imagination in the same way that River Raid does.

River raider

River Raider HTML5 arcade game

In my own game River Raider I wrote a small introductory paragraph which read:

Fly fast and low and blast everything to pieces. Your mission: destroy ALL bridges along the mighty river and neutralise the enemy threat. But watch your fuel and steer clear of the rocks. If you’re good there’s rank and glory to play for.

I worked hard to try and capture a young boy’s imagination and give him some motivation to jump in and play. I’d hoped that with just a few words somebody might pick up that gauntlet and take up the challenge of destroying bridges and blasting “everything to pieces”.
It also serves as a neat way to present at a glance what the player can expect when they press the start button.

So that’s it. A few starters based upon my own experiences designing games and attracting gamers in to play them.
In future posts I’ll go in to a little more detail about branding your portal and acquiring traffic. I’ll also discuss the tricky problem of converting casual visitors in to loyal gamers.

Designing a maze game – stealth, action and 30 year old classics

As somebody who has never really got along with Pac-Man I have to say that I’m developing a new found admiration for it. The games that I make much like the games that I typically enjoy are full on in-your-face affairs that generally involve shooting the bad guys, plenty of explosions and reasonable amounts of screen action.
Pac-Man, with its strong focus on avoidance, never really floated my boat.

With my new game being set in a maze with a strong emphasis on collecting objects and dodging monsters I should probably be quite daft not to have spent some time analysing the most famous of maze games.
Much like Namco’s 32 year old classic a lot of my game focuses on navigating your way through a maze, collecting gems and goodies whilst strategically dodging the guardians of the maze until such a time as you get the upper hand. The upper hand in the case of Pac-Man was of course the power pill. Once you have this you are no longer the hunted but the hunter and if you can catch them you can “eat” the ghosts. In my game this game changing item is not yet defined. Largely because I’m currently building a game of magic, wizadry and medieval castles but am becoming very tempted to set the whole thing in a Nazi castle a la Castle Wolfenstein.

 

Castle wolfenstein screenshot

Castle Wolfenstein

Castle Wolfenstein first appeared 30 years ago and was very much a game of stealth in which the player crept through a dark and dingy castle in search of secrets armed with a gun and the sole intention of escaping with the Nazi plans. Although I never actually played this game I know all about it thanks to id software’s 3D remake of the game 10 years later. This and Pac-Man are currently strong reference material.

Another game that I have played a lot and really enjoyed is Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There’s a sequence in there that sees the young Link stealthily sneaking his way past some castle guards. You can see it at this link on YouTube. Just skip to about 07:00 and you’ll see what I’m referring to.

zelda screenshot

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

I really like the way that Link is forced to creep around to avoid being seen. It was a fantastic feature of the game and something that has just the right amount of suspense and anticipation to be appealing as a challenge to casual gamers.

I’d very much like for my game to strike a balance between the stealth of the guard stage in Zelda, the arcade action of  Pac-Man and the overall challenge of Castle Wolfenstein.

So with my game (which I continue to call Castle Adventure) I am looking on playing with these game dynamics of stealth and occasional attack.
My character currently has the ability to take objects and will ultimately have the ability to use objects. I’m thinking along the lines of collecting a bomb, for example, (which then appears as a graphical button / icon that the player taps to active) and using it to defeat bad guys and unblock passageways.
I also want to add the classic find the key – open the door mechanic which is a useful way of having the player walk around the map without the “locked” item to find the key. In many cases the locked item may be a bomb or other object that hands the advantage to the player. Gun, ammunition, health… you get the picture.

The ultimate goal will be to leave the castle after completing a set number of (possibly randomly generated) levels in which the sub-goal if you like is to steal something or things. This is a direct link to Castle Wolfenstein and something that I think is an excellent motivation for the player.

I figure if I can appeal to the player in this way I’m probably getting something right.

More to follow.

Castle Adventure early screenshot

I’ve spent quite a lot of time this last few evenings figuring out the movement code and collision for a new maze game. I call it Castle Adventure just now in honour of one of my first JavaScript games of the same name ( link ).
There was always so much I wanted to achieve with that game and now, thanks to Canvas and related technologies, I can think about bringing the game to life in the way that I’d imagined 5 years ago.

The original game was always intended to be a kind of strange cross between Pac-Man, Gauntlet and an old Dragon 32 game called Touchstone which I played to death as a kid. I guess in reality it was more of a Pac-Man wizard game with magic powers :)
Anyway the newer game is very much a mobile focused game and uses touchscreen swipes to direct the wizard around the maze. As more of the game takes shape I will post more details and screens.

castle adventure screen

Castle Adventure - very early screen

Touch control in a maze game ? Pac-Man has the answers.

I’ve been looking around the AppStore for games that implement the kind of touch control that I’m after for my maze game. There’s a thousand and one maze games on offer which is fantastic so I downloaded a few free trial versions to test them.

In many cases the controls felt OK but not great. The more I thought about it the more I liked the idea of a simple swipe gesture to change the direction of the player’s sprite.

Pac-Man has it all.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised. With the Pac-Man trial version you can set which style of control you prefer. So I picked swipe.

Pac-Man screen shot

The effect really is quite something. Your little Pac-Man chomps his way around the maze and you make your turns with elegant swipes. It just feels lovely. I really want this smooth feeling of control and am actually pretty much there.

I do have issues with the testdirection flag being unset after just one try but I will figure that out. Once I’m happy with the implementation I’ll write it up in a little more detail since I think it’s a useful thing to share to JavaScript game devs.

Talking of which here’s an interesting article called Analog thumb sticks for iOS using HTML5 from the creators of Onslaught! Arena which you may find interesting / useful.

Game Design Theory – Goals, Consistency and Controls

I love this article on Game Design Theory written several years ago for the book Atari Graphics and Arcade Game Design. Everything about it I find compelling and valuable in terms of considering the player and his requirements as a gamer. It goes in to detail about the benefits of well defined and above all fun challenges. It even touches on the player’s ego and its relevance to the broader game experience.

Naturally it was written at a time when arcades were king and home computing was still very much on the back foot. In fact the whole point of the article is how we as designers can capture the thrills of the arcade for the home gaming audience. It really is a perfect chapter for someone like me with a retro fascination in arcade gaming and a future that is very much about designing arcade thrills for mobile phones.

I’ve written about this several times before but I do believe there is a link between designing for the arcades of 25 – 30 years ago and designing for today’s casual mobile experience.
So let me pull just a couple of sections out of the article and try to make sense of them.

For a game to be considered challenging, it should have a goal where the outcome is uncertain. If the player is certain to reach the goal or certain not to reach it, the game is unlikely to present a challenge, and the player will lose interest. It is very easy to introduce randomness into the game either by hiding important information or by introducing random variables that draw the player toward disaster. Be careful not to overdo this, since a totally random game lacks a skill factor. Players quickly discover that they have no control over the outcome.

How many times have you played a game and quickly lost interest because you are just not challenged ? I see evidence of this quite a lot and have myself fallen foul of it. ( My Dragons game needs a better challenge, for example. It’s something that I aim to address at some point. )
The point about randomness is of course totally valid. As designers we probably rely on the randomisation of events a little too much.

A clear structure to your game with a well defined but out of reach goal is a great starting point for any design. Look at PacMan as an example. A maze full of dots and an animated mouth is a very clear instruction to the player of what she should achieve but is still quite clearly a) a big task and b) tricky.

 

pacman

Pac-Man

One of the more important design elements in any game is a logical set of rules. The rules can be extremely simple or utterly complex, but they must make sense. Since the game must follow its theme, any rules or variations should stem directly from that theme. It is pointless to throw in game elements that simply don’t belong just because you think that confusing the player would make the game more difficult. For instance, Donkey Kong, one of the best jumping, climbing arcade games, doesn’t require the player to shoot everything in sight, just avoid obstacles to reach the goal. Similarly, a tough, shoot-’em-up game like Galaxian keeps its fluid alien attack uncluttered by distracting game elements.

 

Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong

I suppose this is straight forward.
Whatever you define as your challenge for the player to overcome it should make logical sense. You really cannot afford to switch the rules of controlling the game, for example, just to add complexity. It doesn’t do that at all it just confuses and irritates the player.I have myself learned this lesson the hard way.
That said a game’s design that I was always proud of was Wizard Wars. It was consistent in its execution and extremely simple to pick up. Just tap the screen to move the Wizard and collect the shiny things whilst avoiding the nasty things.

The ideal arcade game should foster the illusion of winnability at all levels of play. One important factor is a clean and simple game design. Too much detail or too many rules may intimidate the player. If a player believes that his failure was caused by a flaw in an overly complex game or by the controls, he will consider the game unfair and quit. On the other hand, if a player perceives failure to be attributed to correctable errors on his part, then he believes the game to be winnable and will play repeatedly to master the game. It’s as if the player teases himself to play one more time.

In modern gaming this is epitomised by the game Angry Birds. Love it or hate it it is an immediately accessible game and one that we all feel that we can conquer with just one more “go”.  I mean what could be more simple than pulling the elastic on a catapult and aiming your bird to arc its way in to a fragile structure.

 

Angry Birds screenshot

Angry Birds

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the controls are so simple that the player won’t ever attribute his failure to a problem with complex controls he will always assume that his aim or power was incorrect. Ludicrously simple to learn and yet extremely difficult to master. At least in one sitting.

These are just three of the numerous things that jumped out at me from the chapter.
There is a lot to take in within the chapter and I implore anyone with an interest in arcade game design to study it.

So what have I learned ? Here is just a short summary.

  • Define your goals well and make sure they are clearly visible to the player. Consider Pac-Man and how visible and obvious its challenges and goals are.
  • Be consistent. Be logical. Again consider Pac-Man and its very obvious and visible rules and restrictions. There can be no confusion. Your avatar is a chomping mouth. The maze is littered with dots to eat. The ghosts are coming for you. Surely that’s not fair ? What do the flashing dots do … ?
  • Make your controls simple and fool proof such that the player won’t ever confuse them with his inability to conquer the challenge. Consider Angry Birds. Simplicity is key. I’m sure there is further scope for analysing the balance between minimal input from the player in return for maximum chaos on the screen. A truly masterful game experience.

I really don’t wish to sound like someone who is obsessed with a formulaic approach to something that should be really quite natural. But I do believe that as designers we do well to learn from the experiences of the masters of arcade game design. These guys had nothing compared to modern gaming environments. Sometimes having very little forces some great innovation.

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