I hope you've all been enjoying Pokemon Go this week. I know I have. I'll be writing an analysis of the game next week, but I was curious about what your first impressions were. My gut reaction sent me into an overwhelming flurry of joy, but, as the dust settles, I'm honestly feeling a hint of disappointment. I think my expectations were simply too high. It feels shallow without a definitive goal, outside of just catching them all, and because the gyms change hands so often, they seem pointless. Maybe once the initial rush calms down they'll be more interesting. That's not to discount my current Pokemon Go addiction.
Like I mentioned earlier, I'll have a full analysis next week, but I'd love to hear your initial thoughts!
See you guys next week,
Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get very different responses when asking, “Is Flappy Bird a good game?” From a monetization standpoint, it is an excellent game. Last I heard, the guy who made it was making 50K a day. From a game design perspective, I’ve heard a lot of, “It’s not fun. It just makes me want to pull my hair out.” Today we are going to explore why so many designers hate Flappy Bird. Additionally, we’ll try to figure out where the fun lies.
“I hate Flappy Bird.”
These words I’ve heard countless times. But when asked why, I usually get the response “It’s just not fun”. Well why isn’t it fun?
For the three of you who have never played Flappy Bird, let me elaborate on how the game works. The player taps the screen to accelerate their bird upward quickly in a short burst. After the burst from tapping is completed, gravity begins to take its toll and drags the bird down. This results in the player tapping the screen over and over again to attempt to keep the bird airborne. The player gains points via successfully navigating between pipes. Every pair of pipes cleared nets them a point. The pipes appear at various heights. If the bird touches any of the pipes on the screen, it falls to its doom and the game ends. Players earn medals based on how many points they earn.
· Bronze = 10 pts
· Silver = 20 pts
· Gold = 30 pts
· Platinum = 40 pts
At the ‘Game Over’ screen, the player can view their game ranking on a leaderboard or play again.
And that’s Flappy Bird.
So why do designers hate it? My guess is lack of depth. The game doesn’t really change as time goes on. It doesn’t ramp up and never increases in difficulty. No upgrades. No progression. It doesn’t speed up. There are no strategies. Just take deep breaths and focus. Really, there’s not much of anything. It’s incredibly shallow. Arcade games from the 70s have more depth. It’s not fun to them because there is no variety. There is no challenge.
Side note: I'm not speaking for all designers when I say this. Just most of the ones who I have spoken to about this topic typically state their dislike for the game.
No challenge? The hell are you talking about this game is tough!
I’m sorry, that was poor wording. Let me explain. While the game in itself is difficult, there is very little reward. In something like Final Fantasy, the players will be rewarded by the feeling of power, seeing more of the story, and beautiful cinemas to watch as they progress through the game. They will defeat more powerful enemies and solve puzzles. But here, there is no reason to continue playing aside from beating your score. (Or your friend’s score) Within maybe ten seconds, players have already seen all that the game has to offer. This leaves no reason to continue playing. This brings us to the genius of Flappy Bird.
It’s fair. Because there are no surprises or variables which could change, aside from the pipe height (And even then the player can see it well in advance), there is no situation where the player could say, “Well that’s not my fault, the game cheated!” This helps to push the player to play again. They begin to think “Well, I made it through the first five. I’m pretty sure I can make it through one more.” So they decide to try again. When this concept is combined with the game’s simplicity and ease of getting back into the game, it makes it easy for the player to try just one more time. The player literally just needs to tap the play button from the game over screen.
Side note: The just one more try phenomenon is something hardcore gamers know oh too well. As well as the just one more level, and just five more minutes. But thanks to mobile gaming, a broader more causal audience can experience it too.
But this still doesn’t answer the question: Where’s the fun?
This brings us to the bigger question. Where is the fun in Flappy Bird? Before we get into that, let’s talk about fun. What is fun? This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. That’s because the concept of fun is completely subjective. Take Destiny for an example. There are various points of fun. The players can chase loot, explore the world, chase achievements, become the best in Crucible, outsmart the A.I. and defeat all PvE challenges, complete the grimoire, etc. In a game like Angry Birds, the player’s fun comes from figuring out each level’s puzzle and progressing through the game. Maybe even scoring higher than their friends. But you get the idea.
Side note: My personal fun in Destiny comes from exploring the world and spending time doing challenging activities with my friends.
Every single person gets something different out of every single game. This is where knowing your audience comes into play. When people have a common view of what fun is they can be grouped into an audience. When designing a racing game for the Forza audience, the developers are not going to put in Mario Kart physics and controls because their audience wouldn’t enjoy it.
So where is the fun in Flappy Bird?
My gut reaction is the difficulty. The game is insanely hard, and some people might enjoy the challenge. Unfortunately, the fun is short lived because there is not a lot of depth involved in Flappy Bird. So why do people keep playing a game which isn’t necessarily fun?
The same thing that is keeping the Destiny community alive (and many other video game communities) kept Flappy Bird going for so long. One person tried it, failed miserably, and then their friend tried it, and people just began to pass it around. Then they started to compete with each other. People began posting their scores online to social media. It’s kind of funny that a game which lacks any depth and any assistance to connect to social media would do so well.
Side note: We can take a brief moment to think about Dark Souls, another incredibly difficult game. But while Dark Souls is difficult, it offers so much more. A combat system which feels rewarding to master, a world to explore, lore and a story to uncover, and so on. This gives it considerably more replayability and engages players for longer periods of time. This also appeals to a larger audience. I played Dark Souls initially because of the fantasy setting. I wanted to explore it and learn about the creatures I would encounter through the story. I fell in love with it because of the lore/story telling, combat, exploration and co-op systems. But Dark Souls will be for another time. I know I’m going to get some heat because technically Flappy Bird has access to a larger audience. But this is because of the device it is on, not because it has various hooks to grab players in and retain them.
The only other reasons I can think of as to why people kept playing it would be the same reason people stare at car accidents. They can’t help it. A sense of morbid curiosity if you will. How terribly will I fail? Or how terribly will my friend fail?
It’s a great time waster. If we think about the average engagement time for players on iOS games, we know that it is very short. This game gets players in instantly, and as soon as they lose, it is really easy to get back in again. The entire game is designed around players having the minimum amount of down time. If players can get back into the game incredibly quickly and are constantly engaged throughout, that leaves them with no time to leave the app. It might just be the perfect mix of short gameplay and minimum downtime.
Side note: From my own analytics I’ve been running, typical engagement is less than ten minutes.
Looking at this game helped me to realize that maybe a fair game isn’t necessarily a fun game. People play games for a multitude of reasons. Some like them for the story, others to feel powerful. But I’ve never heard anyone say “I play this game because it is fair!” Maybe someone might enjoy Flappy Bird because they want a challenge, but endless games quickly wear out their welcome. Especially if there is nothing to unlock. With this post I hope I got you to think about where the fun in games are, and where is the fun in your game?
I’ll be off for the holidays for the next two weeks, so I will not be posting a long analysis or updates on prototypes during that time. If I can find some time though I’d like to try a shorter, more bite sized, “Bonus Round” post. I’ll return January 5th. I hope you have a Happy Holidays!
I’ll see you guys next year,
Rayman Fiesta Run is a runner which feels like a party. Today we’ll brush over a few of the game features, but instead of looking at the individual levels, I want to dive deep into the hidden upsell system in play.
How it works:
In a nut shell, Rayman is running full speed through the level. Players can make him jump, attack, or hover for a short time. That’s it. Their primary goal is to get him to the flag at the end while collecting as many Lums (Think generic collectable/currency) as they can along the way.
At roughly 1, 25, 50 and 75 Lums collected, upon completing the level, the player will free a captured Teensy. Teensys are used to progress through the game.
A player must rescue a certain amount to unlock the next group of levels. If a player collects all 100 Lums in any main line level (level unlocked via rescuing Teensys), then a harder version of the same level will be unlocked for the player to challenge.
On the level select screen, we can tell which levels where 100 Lums are collected because they have a crown above the level. The more difficult version appears directly above the completed level and looks like a skull. Each of the four circles within the level icon fill up when those Teensys are rescued. Empty level icons are levels which have yet to be completed. As we can see, the track fills up as we rescue Teensys. This unlocks additional levels, characters and various prizes.
Freeing Teensys aren’t the only purpose of collecting Lums. Another is buying temporary and permanent power ups. At the start of each level players are allowed to purchase temporary power ups. These power ups last until the player successfully finishes the level.
· Magnet: Attract Lums around your hero
· Phoenix: Allows respawning in the middle of a level in case of death
· Too Much Help: Show how to complete the level and collect all the Lums
· Golden Heart: Protection from 2 hits
· Ultimate Flying Punch: Unlimited and stronger flying punches
Permanent power ups can be purchased from the shop in the level select menu. These the player can activate at will without paying for them on each level. Obviously they cost considerably more Lums.
· The level design for most levels is on par with a standard non-music level you might find in Rayman Origins or Legends.
· “No upsells” (I put this in good because usually these annoy players, though I understand in a typical free-to-play game it is a necessary evil to make money) I put this in quotes because there are upsells, the players just don’t notice them.
· The Ubiart Engine –I’ve seen this one in action on consoles. It still looks beautiful on iOS.
· The Charm – This is a little more difficult to describe. But the eyeballs on everything gives the enemies a lot of personality. Then there is Rayman’s undeniable excitement to go running. You can see this in the beginning of each level. It reminds me of a dog running. Little touches like this add to the charm.
o When a player jumps off a lime his eyes close in an “Oof!” fashion
· Controls – We can see the jump button on the left side of the screen and the punch on the right. I can’t tell you how many mobile games make the mistake of only having the button image be an input. This causes problems due to the precision needed to hit these buttons. (Unlike controllers, your finger can move on a flat screen and doesn’t have the feedback of touching an actual button so they are easy to miss, but that’s for another time) Not a problem here! The entire left side of the screen is the jump button. The right side of the screen is for punching.
· The Yoshi’s Wooly World Effect – In Yoshi’s Wooly World, it is perfectly possible to beat the story levels without collecting everything in the game. And it isn’t a particularly difficult game. The difficulty skyrockets when the player decides to be a completionist. Rayman does the exact same thing. The levels aren’t particularly tough but, if the player wishes to collect all the Lums, the difficulty level spikes. God forbid collecting all of the Lums on the difficult series of levels.
Technically, the game isn’t free to play. Generally, it costs $2.99 to download. Then, on top of that, the players have the option within the game to spend additional real life money. Before you grab your pitchforks and torches, the in-game purchases are completely optional. They are entirely to speed up progression or just for fun. The three different purchasable items, via Lums, are:
· Permanent power ups
· Art images
There is an additional purchasable item, but I’ve never thought much about it because I haven’t had any trouble obtaining them. Those are Lums. Because the player can collect up to 100 Lums per level completed, I’ve never had any issue where I had to buy them. They feel strictly like if the player wishes to have a whole bunch of them very quickly they can buy them, but it isn’t needed.
Side note: This is exactly the mentality we want players to have in a free to play game. This keeps them from getting mad at the company for attempting to make some money. It also makes them more likely to actually purchase items because they are feeling happy and more trusting of the developers.
Earlier, I mentioned that there were upsells, but the players never noticed them. You might think, what the heck? How is this possible?
That’s how. After the player has lost at least ten times in a row, before trying again they are upsold a power up. Now this power up is upsold through using in game currency, which is plentiful. Because it seems so plentiful, players don’t mind buying the power up. There is no button asking for money, and the language seems to be more suggesting help rather than “HEY YOU SUCK AND NEED TO BUY HELP”. The look of the heart definitely helps as well. (Derp faces can’t be taken seriously. The Charm is literally hiding the upsell.) Now, this particular power up costs 80 Lums. The player can only ever receive a max of 100 Lums for each level completion. So what the player doesn’t think about is that one power up costs nearly a whole perfect run. And this is one of the cheapest power ups, most are much more expensive. (the highest being 200 Lums)
As you can tell from some of my images, I have over 4,000 Lums at the moment. Five levels ago, I had 1,000 more. The difficulty balancing of later levels nudges the player to use power ups to do better and complete the levels. This slowly drains the Lums as the player chooses to use the power ups. They are not feeling pressured by the game to use them because it is their own drive pushing them to do better. (Essentially they are not doing so well and need help, so they pay for it) All the power ups have a purpose and feel useful. (My go to team is the Magnet, Too Much Help, and the Golden Heart. Every time I do this, I spend 440 Lums without giving it a second thought. That is four and a half perfect runs.) And it works. When I run into a level which is particularly difficult, I’ll try a few times and if I get stuck, I’ll pop one or two power ups. Mostly, the ones I use help me collect all the Lums in the level, where as the other power ups are typically helpful just to get to the end.
Side note/Soap Box: While writing this post it got me thinking. Typically, in free-to-play games we have two kinds of currency, gold – found in game, and gems – premium currency bought with real money. I can’t help but wonder if the lack of gems in this game is helping them to have a more positive response. Because there is only the one currency and it is so plentiful in the game, (By plentiful I mean I understand how to get a decent amount of it using my skill) perhaps this is contributing to the feeling of not being nickeled and dimed. Yes, I can buy Lums if I so choose, or I can put the time in to make the money in game. Where as something like gems are only available through buying them (or getting one or two for a daily reward). Additionally, in other games some content will be locked behind paywalls which require gems. Thus the player is getting more annoyed over time due to the fact that the developers are asking for “more” money later on. In Rayman it doesn’t ask for money, the player has to navigate to the store if they wish to spend real world cash. Thus the player is making a conscious decision to go there and take a look at the products. They aren’t having it shoved in their face.
An analogy if you will:
The way Rayman does shopping is more akin to going to Target and looking around. You have chosen to go to this location and engage in shopping or just looking around. Maybe you will get a flyer in the mail (the incredibly passive upsell in Rayman.) but they don’t do a lot to annoy you. Because you chose to expose yourself to the advertisements and products you will have a better time. Most upsells in games are like your cable company calling you trying to sell you better cable. The first time you are courteous and politely decline. After the fourteenth time…. Not so much. And the way we typically do upsells it would be during every commercial break, while we are watching T.V. While they position it strategically to not directly interrupt us. It still gets annoying when constantly asked.
This bleeds over a little bit into ads as well. Most ads in games are more like telemarketers or door to door salesmen. You’re minding your own business at home, watching the newest episode of Game of Thrones and someone bangs at your door. “Hello sir or Madame? Would you like to purchase a vacuum?”. The interruption is mildly annoying the first time. But if new salesmen keep showing up the annoyance just builds. Until you are frustrated and start to yell at they poor guy trying to make a living. Thus angry comments.
But Scott wouldn’t you go into these games knowing that you will get ads/upsold products? I mean it is common knowledge by now.
This is a valid point. It might be more like watching the Walking Dead then and having commercial breaks. But with technology these days more and more people are avoiding commercials all together. Ad blockers for the web. DVRs allow people to fast forward through commercials during their favorite shows. Heck, I just use Netflix for most of my shows now a-days. No commercials. People don’t like to be interrupted when consuming media. But we need to interrupt them with ads to make a profit or we can’t create new media. So we need to find ways to make their interruptions subtler. Or even passive so we don’t force them from their immersive experience.
Personally, I’m a big fan of subtly. Like how all the Transformers, in Michael Bay’s films, are GMC vehicles. It’s subtle and unobstructive to the player’s engagement. Upsells are a little trickier. I can’t tell you for sure what works perfectly every time. But I can tell you what pisses players off the most: Locking content behind paywalls and feeling like the items being upsold are necessary. Specifically, as far as paywalls go, ones which require real world money. If you want to use in game currency to halt a player’s progression, we know this doesn’t piss them off. Countless games have done it without a problem. But real world pay walls piss players off more than anything. For the items being upsold they must not be necessary. By this, I mean the player must not believe they are necessary to progress. In Angry Birds 2 there was more than once where I felt I required an item in order to beat the level. This is the worst thing you can do to a player. It ejects them from the immersion and the fun of the experience. It’s up to the Designers to make sure the gameplay feels balanced so the items being upsold enhance the gameplay or simply speed it up. We don’t want players to think it is necessary. (Clash of Clans does this expertly with speeding up building construction) And with that I’m stepping off my soap box and continuing on with this analysis.
The “Eh, that could be better”:
· The music: Now, the music is not actually bad. It’s charming like the rest of the game. The issue here comes from working on a mobile device. Because they chose not to use a loader (You know how when you boot up Angry Birds 2 it takes a few minutes to download new assets from the internet? Yeah, that.), they have a limited amount of memory to work with. This doesn’t allow the designers to have as many options. Let me elaborate, in Rayman Legends (2013), in the music levels the player’s jump and attacks are timed with the beat of the music. (I can try to explain it all day but it will be better if I show you:
And while I understand it is almost definitely a different team, other people might not. Due to them making the game for mobile, they have a very limited amount of memory to work with (#mobileDeveloperProblems), or may not have the resources to do it. So they are restricted to using the same five songs over and over again and can’t pull off precision experiences like the one in the video.
Side note: At this time, I would like to acknowledge that it was obviously not the chosen direction to go with due to multiple reasons. And I completely respect that. The game is fantastic already as it is. I’m just saying, I think, it could have been even cooler. People who have not experienced Rayman Legends won’t have this problem because they wont know this exists. But I know this amazing experience exists and I wish they could do something on that level.
Side SIDE note: I do give them credit for not using a loader. It gets the player in and out of the game much faster. It makes the game feel smoother and I love not having to wait 2 minutes to start playing. This, aside from the fact that it is a really solid game, contributes to me hopping in so often.
Hopefully, I got you thinking about how to hide upsells and how to make players feel like nobody is attempting to make any money off of them, even though we are. I know they aren’t glamorous topics, but as mobile developers we have to use them. So why not use them in a way which doesn’t annoy players and makes sure they have as much fun as possible, while we still profit.
Rayman Fiesta Run is a fantastic runner with a lot of charm. The levels are incredibly clever and I suggest you try some of them out for yourself. I would love to discuss them with you in the comments if you’ll join me. This post almost was a look into a few levels and how they taught the player skills just by putting new obstacles in their way. But the hidden upsell really stood out to me. Maybe, if I have a little more time, I’ll do a bonus post this week going over the first level. We’ll see.
Next week we’ll be trying something completely different, I’m going to be getting back out there and showing off a prototype. I created a paper prototype a few weeks back and figured it might be fun to bring it into the digital world. I look forward to sharing that with you.
I’ll see you guys next week,
Possibly the most successful mobile app to date is Angry Birds. No one was surprised when they decided to make a direct sequel. Here I hope to walk readers through what this game does well, what I imagine the designers’ intentions were, and what it does poorly.
What’s the gameplay like?
For the three of you out there who haven’t played Angry Birds 2 the premise is simple: slingshot your birds in attempts to kill all the pigs, via crushing them with debris, popping them with birds, or simply knocking them off the cliff. Each bird has a unique power and are perfectly suited for specific situations. For example, Chuck, the yellow bird is excellent at breaking through wooden structures. The player has a deck of cards, each representing a bird. Three cards are drawn to a player’s hand. The player can now use any of these three birds. When they use one, another card is drawn, unless the deck is empty. When a player destroys enough structures, a card which they have used is returned to their deck (Or their hand, if they have less than 3 cards)
The core gameplay is still solid. The concept of slingshotting a bird into a structure is simple to control and easy to follow. When aiming a bird, a little arcing reticule appears to help the player aim. The sound effects are charming, the boss battles are rewarding (This is primarily due to how frustrating they are to finally defeat), and the small touches add a lot to the game to make it all the more lovable.
Players have five lives which replenish over time (by time I mean they get one life every 30 min or so). When a player loses the level by running out of bird cards, they lose a life. Additionally, upon losing, the players can purchase three more birds and continue. They can also purchase power ups for real cash which will give them an additional card which will pretty much destroy the entire stage for them.
In Angry Birds 1, players were given specific birds for each level. For example, level 4-21 the player is given six yellow birds to defeat the level. This never changes and allows the player to strategize.
Side note: This is a screen shot of level 4-21 in Angry Birds 1. The player needs to hit the structure at the marked spot at least three times to knock it over, using the yellow bird. Upon examining the aiming reticule, we can see that the birds cannot be thrown over to hit the piggies. Whenever a player enters 4-21 it will look like this, allowing for experimentation and strategy.
In Angry Birds 2, the players get a random hand of three cards, each representing a different bird. Typically, what I’ve seen has been the player gets one of each bird card in their deck. Then of the deck of cards, three are drawn. The rest sit in the deck and are unusable until they player uses a bird and draws another. Normally this wouldn’t be too big of a problem, except there are a few other things Angry Birds does that magnifies the issue.
The randomly generated stages compound the issue. While this sounds like a great idea in concept because it makes for infinite replayability, when players don’t have the correct birds to defeat the section it makes the players feel incredibly frustrated. This is due to knowing that, due to luck, they have no chance to succeed. On top of that if the player loses or leaves the level, when they return it will look completely different, preventing them from experimenting with different methods on how to defeat a stage.
It doesn’t help that each level now has multiple stages within it. This makes burning currently useless bird cards a terrible option. Because players only have a limited amount of cards, it creates pressure to make every bird count. Unfortunately, as the bird cards are randomly drawn, the player might be forced into using extra birds early on, only to run out before the final stage. Additionally, the player cannot see what is in the future stages so it is impossible to strategize before arriving to them. In later stages the player just has to get really lucky or they wont have the ability to beat it.
Side note: Possibly the most frustrating thing in Angry Birds 2 is coming into a stage and realizing your cards are going to be useless. Much like this situation I was in. I entered with three birds and was able to destroy two of the structures. But my third bird was the wrong type for this stage and I was doomed. But this problem could also be to my poor skill, so it is not as frustrating as when it happens to me in the first stage of the level.
These issues combined make for an incredibly frustrating experience. It really feels like each of these features were developed independently and then thrown together. Each of these on their own could make for a really cool experience, but combined together make for a frustrating one.
Side note: I would change this by making it so the player can see the future stages within the level, once the first stage is generated, & choose from any bird they have in their deck. This will allow players to truly strategize and be prepared for what is coming. Additionally, if they are going to watch an ad video or pay for additional birds, I’d let them choose which birds they want. While this may not seem like the best idea for monetization, it will make the players much more likely to spend those extra couple bucks for the additional birds. Because they won’t feel like they are being screwed by getting random birds despite spending money. I cannot express how frustrating it is when you spend money on the game and it randomly picks the three birds you can’t win with.
Here’s another example: Let’s take a look at the above stage. This is stage one of this level, it doesn’t seem so hard. Until you look at the birds. The red bird is good at knocking over thin structures, but this structure looks pretty solid. The yellow bird is good at destroying wood, he’s pretty much useless here. The white bird drops a bomb which might be able to kill all of the piggies. It will be very difficult though to get the timing perfect as the player will have to tap the screen as the bird is flying to drop the bomb at the right place. The white bird is best used when bombing a piggy where the other birds can’t get the correct angle to hit it. (The black or blue birds would have destroyed this section easily, but they are in my deck at this time. Blue bird wreaks blue platforms and black birds explode.) So the player is doomed to most likely have to use at least two birds here. Additionally, due to this stage lacking enough destroyable debris, the player will not get enough points to obtain another bird. Even after this stage I have three more stages in this level. So before I have even fired my first bird, there is a very good chance I wont be able to beat this level.
Let’s quickly review the the biggest complaint, the upsells/ads:
· After the player plays X levels, they are forced to watch a video ad
· When a player runs out of lives, they are upsold more
· When a player runs out of lives, they can voluntarily watch a video to gain an additional life (max 3 times)
· When a player loses a level, they are upsold 3 more birds
· When a player loses a level, they can voluntarily watch a video to get one more random bird (max 1 time)
· Players are upsold power ups at the beginning of a level
Contrary to what some of the comments say, there is nothing wrong with the number of upsells. It seems like this frustration stems from a lack of information/resources. Then when they cannot beat a level and are asked if they wish to purchase more birds for gems, bought with real money, they begin to feel like buying the birds are the only way to beat it. This is when players get mad and start to feel like they are being cheated.
While the words “Free-to-play” will cause some people to grab their pitch forks and call for the developers’ heads, it’s not a bad thing. At least when done correctly. We can learn from the mistakes of Angry Birds 2, and make sure the mechanics don’t cause impossible situations. The randomization of stages, the withholding cards from players, and the multipart levels, all make for an interesting experience. But when used together, these mechanics make the game feel too random, causing players to become frustrated and leave poor reviews. It also sows seeds of distrust with Rovio, making people more hesitant to spend money on their games. Hopefully they will learn from their mistakes and Angry Birds 3 wont have this kind of backlash.
Next week we will be looking into Two Dots, yet another excellent mobile game. Thank you for sticking around through this post. I hope you learned something or at least I got you to think about how your mechanics combined with free-to-play can effect the player’s perception of your game and company.
I’ll see you guys next week,