The Elements of Great Mobile Gaming

How to Do Mobile Gaming Right

Image from TOAST USA

From a cursory glance, mobile games look to be a thriving industry. Hitch a ride on public transportation, and you’d be hard-pressed to find faces not glued to their screens playing Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. Sadly, thats just the sight of Eden of the games that made it. In a cruel twist of reality, most mobile games are actually uninspired, low-budget, and cheap disguises for money leeches. From the mind numbing amount of copycat clones to the almost universal clunky interaction, the mobile game market can more or less be renamed “Pick your own Skinner Box. P.S: They’re all the same.”

Image Credits to Jim Foley and David G. Myers

This is shameful. Not just for the countless numbers of people and man hours that have to suffer to both create and play it, but because it’s destroying an entire industry that could’ve been so much more. With the mindless releases of the same old cheap game under different colors, the real gems become so much harder to find. Give it a few more years, and only companies like Clash of Clans’s Supercell can offer the TV ads needed to bring themselves above the noise, whilst truly innovative but independent studios either shut down shop or get bought out by the big boys.

It doesn’t have to be like this, but game studios already know that. The nature of the market is so fast-paced and feels so random, that it is much more profitable to adopt a short-term model that churns out 20 games in a year and just bets on one or two sticking well enough to make up for the other 90% that fail. In order to do that, they’ve got to design the games themselves to be as money hungry as possible, a way to virtually suck up every single cent in your wallet.

That’s why all we’re left with are Skinner Boxes. Pay just a little bit and get a little dopamine hit when we finish our building’s upgrade a little quicker. Pay a couple bucks and look, you’ve got that bow that levels your archers. Pay just 3 dollars and you’ve got that fancy hat that’s available only for the next 24 hours. But don’t pay? Don’t even bother playing, you will never be competitive. Worse yet, if the game has any semblance of a social element, be prepared to be rendered into complete desolation as paying users show you the reality of a very real virtual class warfare.

But as some older studios show, that train ends. If studios don’t switch gears and focus onto higher quality titles, people get bored of the same Skinner Box. If you get in while the new dopamine trigger mechanic is new, maybe 10% of your games will stick. But after a few months, it’ll go to 3%, then 1%, and then finally 0% as people tire of it. Your studio suffers from a drought, and all that awaits it is a slow death in debt and bankruptcy due to the lack of innovation and a brand that’s been dragged through mud and gouged with pitchforks.

A Wind of Hope

Enter a game that I never expected to love as much as I did. A game that I picked up out of pure boredom and expected to spend only about 5 hours playing, but ended up making me set alarms for 3am to optimize and compete. A game that felt so generous and obviously took so much studio investment, that I decided consciously to purchase from them even though they provided free in-game alternatives to getting the premium currency. To put that into perspective, this is from a guy who had to play League of Legends for 3 years before he caved in and finally bought his first in-game purchase. How? It was mainly through 3 mechanics that just. made. me. feel. GREAT.

Realistic Alternatives

If I play a game, I intend to be able to… well…. play it. If there’s no chance for me to progress above a certain point due to the sole reason that it’s impossible without a certain premium feature no matter how much time I put in, how much strategy I plan, how much energy I expend; I’m done. In fact, I’m angry and I’d like to burn down all of the game’s imaginary 16-bit towns and its boxy NPCs with it. Games that are sold with the foreknowledge that they are impossible to beat without additional help are fraud, pure and simple. They are lies created to steal your time, money, and emotional investment. This is such a sore issue of mine that I actually have a mental list of studios I will never touch again because they’ve done this time to time in their games.

But Crusaders Quest just aces this component. With a weekly tournament, they allow players to get their in-game currency (in very generous and fair amounts) depending on how they place. Of course older players place higher due to being stronger from longer playtime, but virtually everyone gets something and new players can quickly catch up if they put in the time and concoct a strategy. The tournament runs on tickets that refresh over time, but can also be bought from an in-game NPC that sells it for regular game currency.

In addition, though the game has premium units, there is a strong emphasis by game design to ensure that free units remain competitive. The entire game can be cleared just with the free units, and the only reason you’d need premium units would be to unlock certain skills (that you don’t need), try out new team combinations, or just to be a completionist.

Blizzard knows this, which is why they’ve allowed Hearthstone currency the ability to unlock all content but the cosmetic. This is the same for Riot Games’ League of Legends and so is it for Valve’s Defense of the Ancients 2.

Unique Content

Why am I playing your game? If there are already 5 other versions of your game and the only differences are in player base and art style, I immediately have a haunting suspicion that you’re also just another copycat. To be fair, all successful mobile games will suffer from clones created to compete with them, but if they’re truly unique and focused on innovation, they’ll still be able to keep their heads above the water and confer an experience that only their title can provide.

Crusaders Quest accomplishes this through a very new and fun battle system that combines luck with strategy. Blocks are periodically generated that are used to attack, and can be used on a single basis. But string them together in 2s or 3s and you can make some amazing things happen with certain unit passives. There are entire team compositions created that prioritize combo’ing boxes or attack orders that gives the game an unbelievable amount of depth.

This doesn’t even mention all the other things that the game has brought to its players. New content is released every couple of months, and units are constantly being tweaked or changed in order to keep all of them viable. There’s a real sense that the studio has put a lot of love into their game and not a single player would question whether or not the game is just “another cash cow that’ll be squeezed dry and then left to die.”

Tender Loving Care, AKA Cheapskates Need Love Too

People who pay more should get more. We all understand that. All things the same, if someone paid an extra $10 for the same thing I got, I’d assume he got that same thing but with more. He’d get “Thing Plus,” and I’m perfectly fine with that. In gaming, this is the same. No one is complaining about paying users getting benefits from paying, we complain because we get different games completely. Gamers are smart. We don’t appreciate being recruited just to be lambs for paying players to slaughter.

Some studios look down on free players since they’re not revenue sources, but that’s short-sighted. These users pay with their time and energy, acting as content for other users and even being referrers. Designers who ignore their users, paying or not, have no place in any product.

In Crusaders Quest, free players know that they aren’t being overlooked. There are so many random gifts of gems and premium rolls that it feels like every other week is Christmas. On a random login, I once got 10 gems as an apology for a longer than expected maintenance, a gift that translates to $6USD. It’s perfectly possible to not spend a single cent and still rack up over $150 dollars worth of gems, more than enough to unlock most premium units (which once again, aren’t necessary for completion).

But feeling love from the game doesn’t just mean getting free stuff. It means the release of new content that is both free and accessible without needing to pay. It means that whatever comes out can be enjoyed by both demographics of the game in a similar manner, and that the utility of the new content doesn’t change depending on how much money is thrown at it.

Crusaders Quest gives this to us in terms of content that is challenging, whether your units are premium or not. My favorite dungeons in Crusaders Quest are not the holiday specials or gold givers, they are the ones that incorporate special mechanisms that require further strategy and unique gameplay.

An example that every player will know (though some might have mixed feelings towards it) is the Dungeon of Souls that has multiple levels, in ascending stages of difficulty. The unique point of the dungeon is that units can only enter the dungeon once per 24 hours, no matter which stage. A paying user can navigate around this, but the rewards wouldn’t be worth the number of gems needed for the endeavor, nor would it guarantee it to succeed. Instead, players must be smart and strategize which units to use for which stage, saving their bests for as late a stage as possible.

This is content that engages all players equally, challenging nonpaying players just as much as paying ones. In it, I will never think “If I just pay 5 bucks, I can beat this easy.” Instead, I can continue my happy struggle with the knowledge that this is a universal hurdle every player has to face. We are equal.

What Needs to be Remembered

What Crusaders Quest figured out how to do was 2-fold. The first was how to put a real game into a mobile size; something that they achieved through letting themselves take advantage of the mobile interface rather than being limited by it, as well as a healthy dose of real content and innovation. The second was a deep focus on their users rather than on profit and monetization.

Though it may be hard and risky to do the first, studios have no excuse to forget or neglect the second. Rather than focus on monetization, mobile game studios should look back to their older brethren and learn about the user focus that console and PC studios have long held. Games are the most user-facing products that can exist, because they serve no other reason than to create joy for their users. Food has additional measurements like health benefits to gauge its success beyond taste. But games are different. A game that is not fun will fail no matter what, whereas the world’s most disgusting entree may still garner a line if it promises to lower cholesterol.

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