Thursday, April 15, 2021

9 Ways to Stress Test your Mobile Game

So many games (and apps) seem like they are developed in a perfect environment: the best hardware, the best lighting, and with the best accessories like stands and headphones. Unfortunately, most of us don't use the games in anything close to those environments, so in order to address that, I have made a list of ways to stress test a mobile game, for developers to follow and make their games more usable to more people.


1) Play on the couch, while eating a bag of chips. 

Take the iPad you are testing on out of the stand and go sit on the couch holding it. Put a bag of chips next to you on the couch. If you hold the iPad with one hand, can you reach all the game controls with the other? Ie, do you need to have a two handed grip because there are buttons on each bottom corner in landscape mode? Check for constraints like that. Maybe your game can't be played with one hand. But then it also can't be played while eating chips, which is a serious trade-off!

Now try laying down on the couch and playing it. Go ahead, just do it.

A screen shot from Gravity Rider on the iPad. Notice the controls are on the bottom left and right. You need two hands to play this. No eating chips and playing this one! (Also the pause is in the upper left... you will probably crash your bike often trying to get up there in time!)





2) Play it on the tiniest screen you can find. 

I know you can play it on phone or tablet and it is the same game, but  go try it on the phone for a long time and realize you might need an interface there that is different because it is so much smaller. 

A fingertip sized button (and buttons shouldn't be much smaller than that!) takes up so much more room on a phone than a tablet.


3) Turn off the sound and play it! 

Many people play with the sound turned off or very low, because they might be in a group setting or it is night or something. Are all the things the player needs to be notified of (especially in a real time game) clear enough without sound? Do you need to make the animations bigger or more central when something happens? Do you need to pause the game with a pop-up dialog?


4) Listen to the music of your game... for 3 hours. 

Did it drive you crazy with its repetition? Because most in-game music does that to me, and I shut it off after the initial play or two. If your game lasts a long time your music should ideally keep up. Maybe you need a dynamic soundscape or computer generated music.


5) Listen to the sound effects at a medium volume, not on headphones!

Are they annoying? To you or anyone nearby? Ask yourself for real. The same goes for the voice acting. Bad voice acting ruins everything. I played Smallworld 2 on the iPad, but the voice-over they had for the die roll win and loss was SOOOO gratingly bad, I had to turn off all sounds. (Partly because there was no option to just turn off the bad voice acting.)

Ok, not this old!

6) Play it on an older tablet or phone. 

Many people hold onto their old hardware until they are forced to upgrade. Does your game take that large audience into account? How did your game function on that older tablet? Was it slow? Did it crash randomly? Did it work at all? Maybe you can't make it work there, but maybe you can. It is something to think about.



7) Give it to someone who doesn't work with you and who you don't know. 

Watch them play it, and don't tell them anything about it. What are they not understanding? What are they not doing? If they are frustrated and acting stupid, that's probably your fault as the designer, not theirs.

I like to playtest a game with people that don't play games much, because it gives me a certain kind of feedback that is more useful and different than from people who play games a lot and have ingrained ideas and preferences.


8) Play your "tutorial" 10 times, and see if you hate the world after, or anytime during it. 

Do you really need that "click here, click here, click here" thing you are calling a tutorial? Because most people know how to play a mobile game. And if your interface is too complex to figure out, maybe you need to have a better interface rather than a boring tutorial that people click to get through and don't learn too much from anyway.

I have quit an enormous number of games due to these type of tutorials. I like if I am given an option to try the tutorial, or just start the game, and I really prefer the term "how to play" to "tutorial".


9) And as I usually recommend, play that game for 100 hours at least. 

And another couple hundred hours after that. More or less, depending on how complicated your game is. Notice anything that becomes tedious in the mechanics of the game, or in the use of the interface, and revise them! Try weird strategies, do random things while playing. 

Games are a dynamic medium and have many pathways through them. This is what makes them unique and interesting compared to other media. But it also means you have to put in more time traveling those pathways in order to make a good game.

If you like board games and this post, go read 7 Ways to Stress Test you Board Game.

Or read more about Digital Games and Design.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

"Focus" in Game Design

Focus: a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding.

Focus is one of the tools you have for managing complexity successfully.

When a player has ten disparate things to do, they are less focused than when they have one thing to do.

When a player has one thing to do with with five relevant sub goals or parts, they are more focused than when they have six unrelated things to do. Hierarchies of information help focus because a player can focus on the level they need to and ignore more fine detail.

When a five player game says the way to play it with less players is to have some players play more than one character, that version of the game is less focused. It also makes it less immersive often because the focus is gone and you don't identify with the characters the same way. You switch your attention between being two characters, instead of always feeling like, "this is me."

When a game has nine phases to go through a turn, it would be easier to focus if they were grouped together in some turn sequence hierarchy, such as Income, Main and Clean up. And do you really need those nine phases?

Eliminating extra detail increases focus. Are those extra stats on your hero worth the loss in focus? Is that one action that is only taken rarely worth the loss of focus?

When something is less focused, it takes more concentration to pay attention to. This can be good or bad, depending on what type of game you are making, but there are still limits despite the type of game. For example, a board game with 200 independent pieces per side would probably turn off all but the most extreme players.

When something is less focused, it is harder to come back to later and remember what was happening, or how it works. Think of an overly complex rule set for a game, and what it is like picking up the game to play a year after your last play: check this, check that, how does that go again, and so forth. Think of a game that you haven't played in a year that you can remember how to play: oh right, that's how this goes, and you can do this, and you win by X.

There are other factors, of course, and there are trade-offs between complexity/depth and rememberability/focus. The important thing is to know and decide where your game fits along the spectrum of focus and why it is there.

Also, different players prefer different levels of focus, and the same players might prefer different levels at different moments.

I think a general rule of game design ought to be: err on the side of simpler and more focused. Especially if you can't explain why you are not doing that.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

What Does My Kitchen Have to Do With Game Design?

I have this experience every time I go into my kitchen because I hear a series of beeps:

What's that beeping?

Was the fridge left open? Because that beeps when it happens. Let me check, nope.

Is the microwave beeping for some unknown reason? Someone else's food is done? Someone left the door open. All communicated with a beep that sounds like all the other beeps. Nope, the microwave is fine.

Is it the oven? Did someone press a button on it? Is it preheated? All told via beeps!

Does the clock on something need setting? Is a battery low somewhere? They beep at you!

The only thing that seems to have a distinctive alert sound is our dishwasher. When it is done, it plays a tri-tone melodic beep-like tone. I have learned to recognize it means the dishwasher is done, but my sweetheart hasn't. So, it's better than the plain beeps, but could be better still.

And the kitchen is only one area where there is bad design...

I have dreams where I am flipping a light-switch back and forth, and each time it does something different, and I can't figure out what it is doing.

I ALSO have several real-world appliances that have one button on them that does different things each press! It's like a user interface nightmare. Maybe it is easier to construct, but it is much more of a pain to use.

There's my bike light that you have to cycle through all the modes before it goes off. How many was that again? Oops, I pressed too many times! Got to do it again. Where was the bright light setting? And one of the settings is a flashing light. So you pull into the drive way, start a strobe light for a second, then the light goes out. It draws a lot of attention to yourself.

And there is another light I think that cycles through settings, but also has a weird setting that flashes SOS, which I activated by accident once and couldn't find again. Was it a long press on the on/off switch? Maybe. There was only one button. And it did all that!


How does this apply to game design? The basic lessons are:

1) feedback from a system or device needs to be clear and understandable. Oh, that noise, flashing blip, word, or whatever, means X and nothing else. Different subsystems need different names for their parts, and different, unique ways of telling a player that something happens. 

So, for example, if you have a real-time game, the sound for a unit is ready and the sound for a building is ready need to be identifiably different. In a physical game with cards that represent different things, the layout for each class of things should be different. Items go sideways, people go upright, legendary items have special outlines around the picture. Maybe different cards need to be different sizes to help emphasize their function or theme.

(an example from Star Realms by White Wizard Games. Bases go sideways and ships go upright, in order to help remind players of their different functions.)

2) controls (ways to interact with a system or device) need to be understandable and easy to remember. Not as simple as physically possible, but as simple as possible to avoid confusion by having too many controls or few controls which have overloaded functions. 

Long-presses in a game or app on iOS are terrible. Reminder text and/or icons on cards in physical games is very helpful if you have room.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Majesty review many decades later

A few times a year, someone contacts me about Majesty, the computer game I designed a couple of decades ago. It gratifying to know that something I created has impact and meaning for people, even after so much time.

This time, someone wanted to interview me about the game. Here is a link to that interview:

Majesty, the Fantasy Kingdom Sim – one King to rule them all (2000)

Monday, August 24, 2020

Mistakes in Card Layout - Mixing symbols and text

You've seen those cards. You've tried to read them before the rulebook. You've been mid-game and stuttered over them.

They look like this:

Take 1 @ to activate & as long as you have the %.

An you go, "Uh, take one, um, round thingie, a coin maybe? to activate a squiggle as long as you have something that looks like a slash. Maybe zap power or something?" And no one gets it!

Mixing symbols inline in text is a bad idea, because visual symbols are more ambiguous than text and they are harder to draw definitely. It actually slows down comprehension, and reading, and elegance. The more symbols you have in the game, the worse it is if you mix text and symbols.

Having symbols on a separate line, or a sidebar alongside the text is fine, because the words help define the symbols, and when they are clearly defined in people's mind from play then they can use the symbols as a shorthand, possibly.

Having symbols count as their own thing outside a sentence is fine.

Also naming something is part of creating a feeling and theme in your game and when people don't know the name, and go around calling it "thingie" or "zap power", it undermines the hard work you did to make the game how you want it.

I noticed while doing the research for this, that is a mistake that most professionals are not making, but many beginners are making.

Good examples of text and symbols together:
From Terraforming Mars. Separate lines for symbols and text. Well done. The text defines precisely what those symbols above it mean. After a while of playing the game, you will be able to read the symbols.
Examples of bad mixing text and symbols:
If you have a wound, +2, um, manhole covers? bottlecaps? I'm not sure. If it is a disease, also take 1 something totally undefinable. There are a lot of other mistakes on this card besides the mixing text and symbols. From Thunderstone Quest.
From Runebound third edition. There are too many weird symbols mixed in the text. I can guess some of the meaning, but would like it to be clearer. They could have put a box around the costs (2 zappies) to separate it visually, and that part would be fixed. Good things they did: title at the top, left aligned text in the reading area, and a border to the whole card.

Previous posts in this series about mistakes in card layout:
Centered Text
Titles Not at the Top

Monday, July 27, 2020

Meaningful Choices in Games

Something which sets games apart from other mediums is dynamism, ie, the ability to travel through a game by a different path when you play a different time. And that ability to go by different paths requires choices to be made by a player. But not all choices are created equal! The best choices are ones that are meaningful, and by that I mean choices which are understandable and affect the dynamic environment in response to having been chosen.

There can be apparent choices when there are actually none, which is the poorest kind of dynamism in a game. For example, in this iPad game, Soda Dungeon 2 (also available on Steam and for Mac), I have been playing lately, every time your party of adventurers defeats a boss, you get to pick a treasure!

And yet, there isn't really a choice, because you have no information to use to help you make a choice. They could have just given you a random treasure and the effect would be the same. There is not actually a choice here. What they could have done to make that a more meaningful choice is to label one chest as "gold", one as "equipment" and one as "mystery". That's not perfect but it lets you think about what you need in the game a little, and if you want to take a risk, you can pick "mystery".

Also, every once in a while on your adventure in Soda Dungeon 2, you get to pick an alternative path:

While this is slightly better, since one of the choices is labeled (yet locked, so again, not a choice a lot of the time), the other two choices are complete mysteries, and since they give you no information about anything which might happen if you choose one over the other, there again is not actually a choice.

Now maybe there is something clever in their code that says the right most choice is always more dangerous or something, and you could learn that over time, but that alone isn't enough. There has to be more information presented to the player to make an informed choice with. In this example, maybe they could label the two mystery choices "risky yet rewarding" and "safe but less rewarding" and it would at least let a player pick a play style at the moment.

The bad side of including these types of non-choices in your game are two: 1) they sort of paralyze the player for a second while they try to figure out with no information which thing to pick, and 2) they add in extra clicks, which I am a fan of eliminating. Why not just pop up the found treasure? Over time, less clicks, less time wasted. Also, making choices meaningful makes a game more strategic, more replayable, and more dynamic.

Soda Dungeon 2 is a fun and silly game, despite these spots where it could be made better. You hire heroes and send them through a simple dungeon to collect loot and defeat bad guys.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Mistakes in Digital Games - Show the Numbers!

I've played a lot of Gravity Rider, an iPad game, lately, and it made me think of some user interface feedback for digital games.

Gravity Rider is a motorcycle racing game with a futuristic twist. Racing the bikes around the track is pretty fun. Everything that surrounds racing the bike is pretty tedious. Upgrade, get chests, lots of gamification and pay to play stuff, which never help a game play well.

The item to discuss today is the garage. You can flip through and see the different bikes you own and their stats... I mean you can sort of see their stats. Because the stats are just shown as bars! And you don't really have a sense of what those mean, and you definitely can't precisely compare the stat of one bike to another. I mean, sometimes you can say that THAT bike is definitely faster, and THIS one has a higher rotation stat (whatever that means, a different UI problem). And if the bars are even vaguely similar in length for a stat on different bikes, you just can't tell what is what.

The main way to fix this is SHOW THE NUMBERS!

Say, "this one has a speed of 5. This other one has a speed of 4." Put the actual number near the bar. Very helpful. In a real-time game, you might even say this one moves 3 feet per second, and this other one moves 4.5 feet per second. Even more helpful. Then people can evaluate the game better. Like, they might then say, "Oh, this one is 1 lower speed, but 2 higher acceleration. There are a lot of stops and starts on the upcoming race track, so maybe that is a good trade off." Otherwise it is more like, "Maybe I'll just try this one."

Let a player know what the numbers are, so they can make precise choices instead of approximate guesses.

Imagine your game was a board or card game. Without the numbers, it literally wouldn't be functional. So not showing the numbers in your digital game and letting the computer just use them makes the interface non-functional, even if the game runs fine with those hidden numbers.

Maybe you want to have a sense of mystery. Fine, don't show the numbers if that is what your game is all about. Otherwise, SHOW THE NUMBERS! They help a player understand and make meaningful choices in your game.

Images above are from Gravity Rider. Notice they do have a number, which is a conglomerate of all the stats. Possibly. But we don't know for sure. It is mostly a useless number to base a decision on. Except to say, overall this bike is better.

Here is the link to Gravity Rider. Give it a try. It is actually fun to ride the bikes around, yet could be a much better game overall.