Common traits of successful casual mobile games

By | October 27, 2014

There is no formula to create a successful game, but you will find that the majority of the casual games dominating the mobile charts have a great deal in common. It’s not unusual to see the gameplay of a successful title quickly replicated by a series of competitors, but today we’re going to look at some of the wider concepts and mechanics that appear to be prerequisites for Android or iOS fame.

Simplicity is vital

The gameplay doesn’t have to be simple for a mobile game to be successful, though it often is, but when it comes to aesthetic design and the game concept, simplicity is vital.

All of the top casual games from Angry Birds to Candy Crush Saga have a simple aesthetic. The games with a really wide appeal are often colorful, bright, and use a cartoon-style to exaggerate the action and make it easy to interpret. The menus are concise and easy to navigate.

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It’s also vital that the game idea can be grasped easily. No one wants to read a rule book before they play. Games have to jump out at you from a sea of competitors. The first thing that catches the eye is the artwork, screenshots or video, and it should be enough to give an immediate sense of what the game is actually about.

Accessibility and a gentle learning curve

If you can’t pick up and play a mobile game with minimal hand-holding, then it’s not going to have a wide appeal. If the game does have complex ideas, a wide variety of unit types, special power-ups, or environmental hazards, then you introduce them slowly one or two at a time.

You want the game to be instantly accessible so people can start enjoying on their first play, but you won’t keep them coming back without changing things up as they progress. A lot of the fun or satisfaction we get from playing games actually comes from learning and the challenge of mastering something new. Make the learning curve too steep and you risk frustrating the player, but if you don’t ramp it up at all they’ll get bored.

Look at the way Where’s My Water? and Cut The Rope introduce new mechanisms and traps to the environments as you progress and expand the size and complexity to keep things challenging.

Easy controls to master

Touchscreens are well suited to very simple controls, but it’s incredibly tough to create a control scheme for complex titles. Even after dumbing down and simplifying the gameplay of a first-person shooter for mobile the controls are a very obvious weak spot.

One of the original endless runners, Canabalt, had a single tap control for jump. It doesn’t get any easier than that. Look at the way Temple Run uses a series of simple swipe gestures to build up exciting gameplay as the pace increases.

Complex actions are simply too difficult to pull off on a touchscreen and you’re masking the action with your fingers. When the tactile feedback matches the gameplay, like with Fruit Ninja, it can really boost the satisfaction and fun.

Bite-sized chunks of gameplay

Mobile games are ideally played in short bursts. We take out our smartphones while we wait for a bus, or to kill five minutes here and there. The games we play have to work in the short term. Long gaming sessions tend to drain the battery and produce a lot of heat.

A great example of this is Clash of Clans. It borrows classic strategy mechanics, but simplifies them and offers gameplay in very short bursts. You can play at your own pace in the building screen, but there’s never more than a few seconds worth of stuff to do. The raids offer 30 seconds of planning followed by a maximum of 3 minutes of action.

The common mechanic of limited lives followed by a cool down period, that you’ll find in all sorts of games, like Frozen: Free Fall, for example, is actually designed to try and tempt you to splash the cash on in-app purchases, but it can work as an effective timer to keep your individual game sessions short.

Keep them coming back

Two popular ways to keep players returning again and again are to offer up lots of rewards and to randomize the map. The pursuit of achievements, whether it’s a trophy, or a three star rating on every map, gives a game real longevity. By procedurally generating environments, randomizing specific elements,  or just having a lot of variation, you can make sure the experience isn’t the same day after day.

This is just a brief taste of some common traits you’ll find in successful casual mobile games, but they’re important concepts to bear in mind for your game development.

Category: Mobile and video games trends Web and software development Tags: , ,

About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced freelance technology journalist covering mobile technology, software, and videogames for a wide variety of clients in print and online. He regularly contributes to Digital Trends, Tech Radar, and Android Authority, and he ghostwrites for CEOs in the technology space. After completing a Masters in Scottish History at Edinburgh University, he began his career as a games tester, progressing to lead tester, game designer, and finally producer, before leaving the industry to write full time. He is passionate about the potential for good software and hardware to improve our lives, and strongly believes that thorough testing is a vital prerequisite for greatness.