Avoiding phone game pitfalls

For my very first post, I wrote an article critiquing common design shortfalls of phone games. For this article I want to talk about how I plan to avoid each of the mistakes I listed there while making Hint. Before we get too far into this article, however, consider yourself warned that there might be some light game spoilers. In a few of the sections I’ll be discussing some of the game’s mechanics, so if you want to play the game with a completely blank slate, stop reading now!

Taking money out of the equation

Companies must make money to survive. Employees need to get paid. Balancing the ability to make a profit and make a fun game is an especially important part of game development. If you are a big company with shareholders, this is even more critical as you must constantly strive to make the maximum profit. I believe this last bit is what is driving many game studios to move to the free to play model. They have seen that they can make more money this way. As a small studio just getting started, we are in an incredibly unique position: this game does not have to make any money to be successful. That means I’m going to take money out of the equation as much as I can. There will be no in-game advertisements and the game will cost nothing. There will, however, be two options to donate to the company ($1 and $5) but these donations will not unlock anything in the game. They are completely optional for those who want to show their support. Can a game make money this way? I am honestly curious to find out.

Keeping the player immersed

Immersion is a big deal to me as a gamer. What exactly constitutes and defines immersion is a good topic all on its own, but I will say showing adds and having real money purchases constantly thrown in your face is definitely not immersive. Since I am rejecting both of those monetization models for this game, I get to avoid these distractions automatically.

Tutorials are also a great example of where many games will break immersion. It can be very hard to explain how to play a game without breaking the fourth wall, but it is possible. Dark Souls is a great example of a game that teaches you how to play with gameplay instead of onscreen instructions. For Hint, I’ll be taking the same approach. The first few levels are designed to teach the player the concepts of the game. The hints that are available in the first few levels even go so far as directly telling how to solve the puzzle.

Asking players to leave a review is another way phone games are guilty of disengaging the player from the game. These reviews are really important and do help games acquire new players, but often they will ask right in the middle of playing to stop and go leave a review. For Hint, we won’t ask players to give a review until they have beaten the game. Not only does this avoid breaking immersion, they won’t feel like they got bait and switched after leaving the review.

Buttons designed optimally for fingers

Playing on a phone already has its input limitations, games shouldn’t exacerbate this with bad UI decisions. For this game, all buttons will be easy to activate with sufficient spacing to prevent accidentally pushing multiple buttons. Making a button easy to push on a phone is straightforward, simply make it big enough! Well OK, maybe that’s a little vague. Surely someone has solved this problem already? Why yes, someone has. In fact, there is an entire industry around this. We need look no further than keyboards. Your game buttons should ideally be no smaller than a standard letter key on a computer keyboard. While the button itself can maybe be a little smaller than this, you should at least give this much non-interactable space around each button. If you don’t have sufficient room on the screen for buttons to be about this size, you have too many buttons and it’s time to revisit your UI design!

Your finger never hides the action

Phone games can be quite bad about blocking the game view with the user’s own finger. In Hint, there are two different ways I avoided this issue. First, the “control” buttons are placed in dedicated areas where there is no game action taking place. These UI sections are reserved purely for menu or control interactions. Second, when the user is taking action on the screen, the effects of that action are always visible outside the radius of their finger. For example, there is a flashlight and eraser effect the player can use. The radius of those effects is large enough so that the player can see the results in an area bigger than what their finger is covering.

The game is designed purely for phones

Phones are not controllers. If you want your game to play great without frustrations, don’t try to emulate a console controller. I kept this principle in mind from the very beginning of the game’s development. This game is designed entirely for phones. In fact, it cannot be played with a controller and cannot be played on a computer. It requires not only touch input, but also multiple touch inputs. This will limit its total market audience, but that sacrifice will create a better, more targeted experience for playing on your phone.

Translating to other languages

I’m honestly really torn on bad translations. On one hand, it often means I can play a game I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to play. On the other hand, it can really take away from my enjoyment of the game. There are a few games that I have outright stopped playing because the translations were so bad. Hint will have a lot of voice acting and it is very unlikely that those voice lines will get redone in other languages, but I might translate the game text. In order for this to happen, however, I will need to see sufficient demand for that region to justify paying for a professional translation.

No internet access required

Phone games that require network access make me so sad! They are the bane of my commute gaming! To address this, Hint will not require internet access outside of downloading and updating the game. To paraphrase the great Tenacious D, it’s that simple. Next issue!

Does this guarantee Hint will be amazing?

Avoiding bad design does not ensure that your game will be a critical masterpiece or even just fun. There is a lot more work that goes into making a good game. Is your game thematically consistent? Is the core gameplay loop fun? Are the characters well written? Is the start and end of the game memorable and satisfying? As I get closer to finishing up the initial development of the levels, we’ll be focusing on all these issues. If you have interest in being a beta tester and contributing towards making this game amazing, jump on our discord channel and let us know!