As posted on ButtonMasher.
Inspired by a Masher discussion this week on the forums I thought I’d take a crack at short-burst mobile games and Australian developer Halfbrick. From Fruit Ninja to Jetpack Joyride Halfbrick’s games ooze with slick and polish, and have found quite the audience. But with rounds that last an average of a minute*, and one button controls, are these games treating us like idiots with short attention spans?
With the success of the iTunes App Store we’ve been treated to games of all sorts and sizes – far too many to keep track of. Price is the one thing that remains the most consistent. Most of Halfbrick’s games for the iPhone currently sell for $1.29 NZD. Much controversy has taken place surrounding the ever common price point. Only with the most popular games can developers withstand selling at that price. As our Aaron from Little Geek might attest, this doesn’t work for everyone. Not everyone can be an Angry Birds. And it makes development for the iOS platforms very difficult when there’s little return. It’s something Halfbrick doesn’t have to worry about. Their games are simple and immediately accessible. Of course having a big marketing budget doesn’t hurt either.
Fruit Ninja was very successful on the iPhone and ended up spawning the first downloadable Kinect title for Xbox 360. Simply swipe the fruit on screen and avoid the bombs. A short but addictive exercise, much like the other casual experiences Halfbrick is selling.
Monster Dash was an obvious riff on the then popular-at-the-time Canabalt and other 2D running games of its ilk. Originally conceived in a game design competition Canabalt utilizes one touch controls to make your dude jump along rooftops avoiding obstacles until he inevitably dies. That’s it. One tap of the screen.
Monster Dash adds one new button to the mix; firepower. As well as chucking in enemies, and health. At the time I played Monster Dash off and on for a good few weeks. And then I never touched it again. For a game that boasts replayability, there’s just not enough reason to go back again. Monster Dash does feature Awards and Achievements, but as I mentioned in my review at the time, the awards are essentially hidden from view.
Jetpack Joyride, released this month, is a sort of follow up to Monster Dash. It takes the machinegun jetpack from Monster Dash and creates a whole game around it. Now although Jetpack Joyride’s controls are simpler, in many ways its a more complex game. There’s a progression system and a store. Of course most of it is superficial icing, but the side missions do change up the way you play.
In the forums Accidental suggested that these short burst games are immediately addictive and perfect as a simple time filler.
And why not? The iPhone is the perfect device to carry around in your pocket. As much as DS’ and PSPs’ try to occupy our hands, their size is just inconvenient. That’s one point to Apple. In a queue? On the loo? Waiting for something to download? In less than ten seconds you can have a game up and running on your device. And for a game such as Fruit Ninja there’s no loading of saves or jogging your memory. It’s a fresh start every time. It’s the fastest and easiest way to snack down on a game. Not every game has to be a full sized meal.
To counter, Newsboy and Captain X suggested that these games with “simple game mechanics” are just too shallow and boring.
Why play something that’s over in a minute and have your progress reset back to square one? When instead you could be playing something that lets you progress and move forward? Many mobile games are level-based, and sometimes even follow a story. As much as I hate to bring up Angry Birds again, it does have clear progression from level to level. The gameplay of these “simple” Halfbrick games is pretty much the same from level to randomly generated level. As Raph Koster wrote in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, fun is really about learning and mastering patterns. Without new patterns to learn, are we still having fun?
As much as high scores and leaderboards are pushed in these kinds of games, it doesn’t change the fact that after playing a few dozen times you’ve pretty much finished the game. The competitive streak in me just isn’t enough to keep me going. That’s not why I play games. I came last in a Halo: Reach tournament for a reason! Although sometimes I do try to jump up a leaderboard, it’s often short lived. Here’s a common scenario: My friend’s score sits mockingly above my own. At first I’m enthusiastic. I start the game. In the first 30 seconds I screw up, die, and quit the App in frustration.
So what’s the verdict?
While I did pick on Halfbrick for this article, they aren’t the only ones making these kind of games. Tiny Wings, Robot Unicorn, Doodle Jump — these all rely on simple controls and in you devoting an average of 60 seconds of your time*. It’s not a bad thing that these games exist. While they won’t always make us rush to our iPhones, iPads, Androids and other gizmos, they do help fill in the time. Whether that time feels well spent is really up to the individual player. No game design book will change this fact.
* I pulled this number out of my ass. Your mileage may vary.