in Games

Design a game that stands out

Mobile games are amazingly popular. Whether you’re launching an Angry Bird while you’re kicking back on the couch watching TV, or flapping a bird waiting in line at the grocery store, we love playing games. If you’re currently are, or considering entering the world of game dev, you may already know how competitive the space is. Even though there is a lot of money to potentially be made, there are also a lot of professionals investing a lot of money on a potential hit.

In this post, we’ll study a few of the elements that make great games stand out and talk through some examples of great games.

How do I differentiate?

In any given mobile marketplace there is an over-abundance of games, in each game category, it’s easy for any game, big or small, to get lost in that marketplace. Like planning any app, planning a game requires an amazing amount of focus, to set up how your game to be successful, and have a differentiated point of view from other games.

Starting with a great concept


At the heart of every great game is a great concept. It’s usually a brief sentence that is the hook that makes you want to play it. There is really no formula to a great game concept. It is only limited by your creativity.

Example: EyeCycle

Recently at a local IGDA meetup, Zach Johnson pitched his Global Game Jam game, Eye Cycle. “It’s essentially a Tron or snake game, that you play on the surface of an eye.” Even before I saw the game, I wanted to play it. What’s great about this concept, is that it is unique, but simple. There’s a balance between clever and straightforward.

Addictive game play


Another important way to set your game apart from the flock by having an amazing, or unique game play. This is something that is difficult to master. One key to building great game play is not being afraid to iterate. Many of the best games have their details tuned hundreds of times to make playing them just right.

Example: Starwhal

One game that I think exemplifies great game play is Starwhal: Just the tip. You’re essentially in a galactic Narwhal joust brawl (also a great concept) and with limited control of a blubbery beast, you have to flap your way to success by piercing the heart of your opponents with your tusk. Part of the reason it’s so great to play is you don’t have ultimate control over your beast, you have to clumsily flap your tail to make your attack. This paired with a slow-motion mode when a kill is possible, makes for a great game.

Beautiful art


Core to any great game, is beautiful art. In a sense, games are more art than computer science. You need the skills to develop it, but composing each frame of an interactive adventure, or arcade game is more like interactive art project than a programming puzzle. How do you pull together the right 2D or 3D background art, game objects, animations, sounds?

When building a game, find a way to team up with an artist. Even if you don’t have a “game illustrator” you’d be surprised how they’ll change your perspective on what the game is about. Not only are they likely to have the skills to help you differentiate your game art, you’d be surprised, many artists with amazing skills may have always wanted to pair up with someone and make a game.

Example: Sword and Sorcery

The game that always comes to mind for me when I think about a game that is centered around great art is Sword and Sorcery. From the minute you boot the game, you are immersed in these amazing landscapes with intricate detail. As you move through the game, you experience the different game atmospheres emotionally because the art itself draws emotion.

Make your game social


The best games always have some social component. As humans, we’ve evolved to interact with each other and if you’re game, cultivates that desire, it will be more successful.

There are multiple levels of social interactivity your game can have:

  1. Share information about the game. Offer some entry point to share that you’re playing the game, what your high score was or if you’ve unlocked some kind of achievement
  2. Offer a leaderboard. You could take the simplest game and add a leaderboard and you’ve added an entirely new element to the game. One example is Balloon, a game I wrote for Windows 8, where have to patiently tap every 2 seconds or so to keep a Balloon in the air and you get a point per tap. I added a worldwide leaderboard and people competed to get up to over 5000 taps..almost three hours of tapping! My colleague Stacey has a great post on how to easily create a leaderboard using Windows Azure like the one I made for Balloon.
  3. Versus play. If you offer a way for people to play against another player, that game will be more exciting and engaging. That could be turn-based play or real-time play and you can consider supporting online multi-player and device-to-device (e.g. wifi direct) multiplayer.
  4. Massively real-time multiplayer. The only thing better than playing against a few people is playing against everyone at once. Take any simple game concept and add, the fact that you’re playing against tens or hundreds of people at the same time, and you’ve got a hit.

Example: Wordament

Wordament is a great game success story. It takes a similar game mechanic from the Boggle board game and it has you play it with everyone at the same time. The massively multiplayer component creates an entirely new type of gameplay that is proportionally competitive to the size of the audience.

What single-player game would you be able to find the kid who can find hundreds of words per minute? It’s the competition that drives us.

Build great touch interactivity

Screenshot (104)

In mobile games, it’s easy to miss on building great interactive touch game play. If you build a game that was meant to be played with an Xbox controller, but you but simple buttons on screen, the kludginess of the UI could kill the game. Every touch game is loaded with custom touch interactions, and a lot of care has to go into ensuring these are designed and built correctly.

Example: Halo: Spartan Assault

Halo: Spartan Assault is a example of a game with great touch interactivity. They’ve essentially replicated the Xbox controller interactivity on-screen with a virtual gamepad. One thumb drives your character, and the other one shoots the gun the direction you point it. It provides an experience that mimics an Xbox controller, while being designed for touch.

Update: In a new post, how to add touch gamepad, you’ll see how to add a controller like Halo: Spartan Assault to your game using a WinJS control package that’s up on NuGet.

Don’t forget about the basics

It goes without saying, but any game that crashes, jitters, runs at a low framerate, or kills your battery is going to be dropped, regardless of how beautiful and differentiated it is.

I hope these examples are helpful when you’re considering how to make your game stand out. Now stop talking about it, go make a great game!

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  1. I think you could say almost all the same things about non-mobile games. While no other market is quite as saturated the concepts still apply.

    I liked your bit about making good touch controls. This topic has come A LOT on our launch title Hextraction, where the player navigates their characters by clicking on grid-based tiles… Not the easiest thing for haptic.