Mobile games have a reputation for using some awful mechanics. Here’s my opinions on some of the worst, and how to make them better.
Why I Think Mobile Games Suck
It probably makes sense to start with the reasons that I have issues with mobile games. Because not every mobile game is bad – and not every mobile game suffers from the things I’m going to talk about here – but a lot of them do. And some offer very little actual content compared to the truly egregious monetisation methods that so many developers insist on adding to them. Let’s kick off.
an Arbitrary lives system
The concept of a limited lives system started in the arcades over 40 years ago. It was an easy way to get players to keep shovelling coins into a machine. It was a trend that continued into computer and console games for years afterwards, but has thankfully started to become less common in newer games. Here’s why it sucks.
It punishes you for playing the game.
Here’s what developers think will happen:
Player: [runs out of lives]
Player: [buys more lives]
But here’s what actually happens:
Player: [runs out of lives]
Player: [plays a different game until their lives restore]
Because you have to remember that you’re not the only game in town. There are literally thousands of games out there that will offer a similar experience for free. So by creating a barrier for players, you’re actually encouraging them to stop playing your game and play someone else’s.
And yes, there are some people (the wealthy, the lazy or the stupid) who will pay money for more lives. But how long is that going to be a viable business option? And don’t you feel guilty for exploiting people like that? Because you should. This is especially bad if your game also includes adverts that players have to sit through, because you shouldn’t need that many revenue sources. Pick one and stick with it.
an over Reliance on Randomness
Randomness (or RNG) can be a really useful system for increasing play time without having to endlessly create new content by hand. And anyone who knows my love for The Binding of Isaac or Hades or Nuclear Throne (or many others) will understand that RNG done well can be amazing. But it isn’t right for every game.
I’ve played multiple levels of Candy Crush (and similar match-3 games) where I needed certain blocks to appear to reach the level goal. Maybe shielded blocks or certain colours need to be taken out specifically.
But they didn’t spawn.
I was unable to complete the level through no fault of mine. Those blocks just didn’t appear in the right place for me to use them. It wasn’t lack of skill (which I’ll always admit to), it was RNG that screwed me. You can’t do that. You can’t ask me to blow up certain blocks and then not spawn any bombs to do it. That’s ridiculous.
If you’re going to use RNG in your game, you need to finesse it so that the game provides the resources players need to beat the challenges that you set. This is doubly true if you’re also going to limit the number of attempts that players get to do it.
There are some games that I want to like, but can’t do it, purely down to the fact that they rely on endlessly repeating the same few tasks over and over. Raid: Shadow Legends was particularly bad for this (and a ridiculous number of currencies). The game was actually good. The RPG elements were engaging and fun to play. There’s a good range of characters. But in order to beat some of the later levels, I was forced to go back and play easier ones over and over. Levels that provided no challenge and I could do in my sleep. That’s not fun and was the main reason I quit.
Quality of Life Improvements
There are some things that I think should be added to almost every mobile game to improve quality of life and the player experience.
- Separate music and sound effect volume controls
Since most people use their mobiles to play music, the ability to turn off the game music but retain the sound effects is one of the features I love to see – and wish was standard in every game.
- Portrait orientation
I don’t like holding my phone with both hands. On public transport (where I play mobile games most) if you don’t get a seat, you need to hold onto something. That means landscape orientation is basically unplayable. It might mean more scrolling – and it wouldn’t work for every game – but at least allowing a portrait orientation option would be amazing.
- Offline play
I don’t know if you know this, but the London Underground network is underground. Not all of it, but a huge amount of it is 100 feet under the ground. That means you don’t get a mobile signal. So any mobile game that doesn’t allow offline play is useless. I get it, you want your adverts and your option of buying more lives, but at least let me use the lives I’ve already got. Or cache a couple of adverts and play them at appropriate times.
Games that get it right
This is probably going to be an evolving list, but I’ll start it now.
Microsoft Solitaire Collection
It’s a card game, it has daily challenges, it has an option to play free with ads or buy outright. But if you don’t have a mobile signal you can still play. It’s in portrait mode.
Anything by Zach Gage
Zach Gage has a history of making good mobile games and – from my experience – most of them are pretty fair with advertising and payment options. SpellTower, TypeShift and Good Sudoku especially.
If you have a mobile game that you think meets these requirements and you’d like me to play, please let me know on Twitter. I’m open to almost anything!