Mobile Game Design Guide: 10 Steps to Creating Games People Want to Play

Mobile Game Design Guide: 10 Steps to Creating Games People Want to Play

A game that meets the current audience needs is always a challenge. Tech advancements and trends in the market change, adding more complications to the already complex issue for a game design studio. Nonetheless, the number of game applications in the world rises exponentially together with the increasing demand. The problem is simple: 95% of those newly-released games fail to retain their users for longer than a month and eventually end up bankrupt.

The trick in a successful game app design is user-centric development. Your solution needs to closely listen to the market’s roar and offer an engaging and absorbing game to a wide audience of players. Let’s see how and why game design impacts the whole game’s success and review nine of the most important strategies to deliver the best player experience.

Why is game design crucial to game success?

game design and development

Game success is a pretty vague concept. For a mobile app development team in Singapore, success would require six-figure income to make the cut. A gamer might say that a game is successful if they like it. For a marketing expert, if the efforts have converted first-time comers into regular players, then the game is good. The shades and methods of measuring success can be different, but in terms of business for top game developers, a successful mobile video game brings money. In this respect, names like Honor of Kings or Monster Strike would be leading the success list.

Getting back to the game design. It is not the art of drawing a character, setting up the game interiors, or coding all the ideas to make the game lively. The game design stands for the development of the game story, rules, physics, characters, interactions, etc. Designers are the people who make the game as it is, while the rest of the team is their hands in making the concepts alive. This means that the ideal graphics or fantastic AI implementation don’t make a game successful; the plot does. Just recollect on the Civilization. Its mobile app design development was pretty flat in 2D, and the graphics were not very fascinating. Yet, it is one of the top commercially successful mobile game masterpieces exactly because of its plot, levels, and game depth–all being the components of game design.  

Game design is what creates the heart of the game – its plot, and the brain of the game – its levels and strategy. Visualization and coding are essential to delivering fantastic game ideas, but they are mere tools serving the greater design concept.

Top 9 principles of a successful mobile game design

In the early days of game development, a game design studio had one rule – write good code to get a good game. The physical constraints of memory and graphics were caus

ing difficulties in developing an elaborate design. Nonetheless, the classic of mobile games, the Snake, remains a beloved time-spending activity for many mobile users. Now it has a variety of versions and adaptations, graphics perks and colors, yet its initial design, levels, and core concept remain intact. Thus, the traditional old-school Snake can be a perfect example of a successful game design.

Today, however, the market demand is much harder to meet. People are ready to spend more (the projected industry revenue is $109,658 million in 2021), but they also have much higher expectations. So let’s take a look at the nine most important game design principles.

#1 Cognitive flow

Cognitive flow is a concept from psychology; the flow itself was introduced by a Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the late 70s. His main finding was a correlation between a person’s skill set and the task difficulty, the interaction of which results in different cognitive and emotional states. So whenever one’s skill is high while the task is too simple, people get bored. In the opposite case, people get anxious because their skills are not enough to complete a complex task.

cognitive flow

To get into the perfect cognitive flow, Csikszentmihalyi outlined the following characteristics for a task. It needs to:

  1. Provide concrete goals and manageable rules.
  2. Require actions that are manageable for a person (those that fall into their capabilities area).
  3. Have timely, relevant, and clear feedback on performance.
  4. Increase a person’s concentration by diminishing extraneous distraction.

To achieve the perfect flow for a game design while they develop a game for Android and iOS, any team of game development in Singapore or Argentina, Australia or Germany needs to consider this psychological aspect. Otherwise, the game would not hook the players, and their interest would drop immediately. Here is the guidance you need to follow to achieve the perfect flow:

  • Your goals must be clearly defined to the player in every level, every mission, and every small task. Consider even making them available for a recap in the game menu.
  • Make sure that the rules do not change or do so gradually. If every level of the game has its own set of rules, gamers will get frustrated because of the ever-changing gaming environment, and the risk of drop-offs will increase.
  • Do not give gamers more tasks than they can handle and manage task complexity accordingly. Keep the difficulty levels growing as the player proceeds through the game to teach them your logic first.
  • Timely and relevant feedback helps players understand and evaluate their own progress and also guides them through the game. Ensure that your game design studio places your feedback pop-up in an easily accessible spot and shows it after the high-tension action. Otherwise, it might only create extra confusion and distraction for a player.
  • Head-up menus, game interface, game world, etc., need to be de-cluttered to allow for the gamer’s focus on a particular game part/element. Not everyone is a Ceasar or a Napoleon, so keep the tasks come one-by-one to keep the players’ focus straight.

#2 Complexity & simplicity

Every gamer is unique. For some, Techron Heroes would be the most engaging and absorbing game; for others, Candy Crush Saga is a dream-come-true. Such a difference comes from every player’s capabilities, game design, and how they match. For instance, while you might be an expert in your game, and everything would seem obvious to you, the Alfa-testing might show that the players are actually confused about it. And it is not because your game is bad, or they are the wrong target audience; it is quite possible that the game design is simply too complex.

When you develop a game for Android and iOS, the complexity and simplicity in game design directly stem from the cognitive flow described above. As it has been mentioned, once the game is too simple or too complicated for a player, they get reverted from it, and you lose the audience.

To design the right game, you need to:

  1. Understand your audience. Explore the market to understand your target audience better: its age and education, language and interests, etc. This step is essential because a game for kids has to be different from a game for adolescents.
  2. Adapt to the situation. The average video game session is about 74 minutes long. For mobile games, the timeframe is between 4-5 minutes. So when you create a game app, you cannot build a complex plotline and in-depth character that requires hours of playing to evolve and become active. Mobile games need to be much simpler and shorter in their immediate tasks than their console twins. 
  3. Focus on one functional domain. If you make a memory game, don’t include images that require much investigation to see the difference. If a goal requires fast actions, then it cannot also demand attention-based tasks. While being complex in terms of levels and global goals, mobile games need to keep it simple within a single functional domain to retain a gamer. A task that incorporates more than one skill at a time puts the whole game at the risk of conversion loss.
  4. Introduce vertical complexity. To keep the skillful players in the game, offer them a vertical of levels for completion. While retaining visitors and converting them through the simple on-level tasks and goals, engage more capable players through more global game goals that run through the whole game but evolve with every completed level.

#3 Flexibility

mobile game design

The market of mobile app design development advances in leaps, not even steps. The tastes change, the audience grows, and the technology evolves, so there is no one-size-fits-all design that a game can adopt for everlasting success. By now, you already understand that every game needs to adjust to its players, their demands and preferences, skill sets and interests. The flexibility in mobile game design stands for the application’s flexibility at all times.

To put the flexible approach in context, consider that your players might get interrupted often, so the option of ‘pause’ is a must. Besides, think of the device interruptions as a sudden loss of the network or an SMS that must be visible regardless of the game progress. Also, consider that some players might (and usually will) be playing with one hand so plan your game’s features to allow for such interaction with the game. These details seem obvious, yet their combined power allows the players to choose their pace and way of playing, hence offering the broadest flexibility possible.

Before your app designer in Singapore, New York, or Berlin gets down to planning the game, consider the session length you expect the players to have and the actual session length your competitors demonstrate. Make your design realistic, not idealistic. 

#4 Familiarity

Every world has its own features. For example, the post-apocalyptic zombie world would have zombies and people of different groups trying to survive. A Tetris-like game would have tiles falling in one direction and disappearing once a row is complete. These are the usual features of mobile games that players like and are used to. Whenever you develop your game for Android and iOS, the mobile game must have the habitual features of similar games and worlds for your end-users.

Why is this important? Familiarity triggers logic and engagement among gamers. Whenever a player enters some game for the first time, they have an idea of how it works. And provided that the main features are clear while the details add the excitement of surprise, the players would remain in the game to proceed and continue interacting with it. The same rule applies to the new objects or features introduced in a game. A gamer who has been picking up new artifacts by running close to them for ten levels cannot be expected to know that in the 11th level, s/he has to jump on a new item to obtain it.

Every item, feature, level, game, and genre in the mobile game design have their pre-supposed roles, shapes, appearances, and functionalities. Keeping them consistent is paramount to game success.

#5 Assistance & tutorials

Experienced gamers are likely to explore a game without any tutorials, hints, and how-to guides. They would click through everything to learn their own game. However, the trial-and-error method does not fit everyone, especially if your potential player is trying out a new game type. For this reason, when you create a game app, carefully think of the help and support materials every player will have access to.

  • Option 1: initial tutorial at the game start. In this option, a player receives guidance with arrows and some supporting text when the game begins. The arrows lead through the basic interactions to demonstrate the usual user journey in the game. This option is beneficial for gamers of all levels of expertise since it introduces the world of the new game application.
  • Option 2: dry runs throughout the game. Top game developers know that many people learn better in a safe environment where no harm can be done to their actual game progress. For this reason, some trial-run levels, goals, tasks, and mini-games get introduced throughout the product. In this way, players receive a stress-free learning environment that allows understanding the game from inside without a risk of progress erasure. This is, in fact, a very effective user-retention strategy in mobile app design development.
  • Option 3: on-demand help. Special buttons with “information” or “help” or “read more” are a perfect solution if you do not know what your audience likes: self-study or guided learning. Make sure that when designing a game, you make the buttons vivid and easy-to-find. Otherwise, you risk losing potential gamers because they simply cannot find help when it is most needed.
  • Option 4: support system with tutorials. It is true that not every app designer in Singapore would use external help and tutorials because not every game might find such resources effective. Yet, some complex games with a wide range of scenarios and dependencies can heavily benefit from such assisting materials. Remember to create a ‘help’ button anyway so users could easily access all the tutorials directly from the app.

The options of assistance and tutorials in game design are not exclusive. You can use all four or select the most UI-friendly option for your game. Consider also getting professional help from game development outsourcing teams specializing in comprehensive supporting materials for game apps.

#6 Strategy

app designer singapore

Game design and development are built on bringing the players back to the game over and over again. To do so, game design needs to foresee the challenges and goals, the triggers and giveaways to make people want to come back and play more. It is all about the metagame–the deeper purpose of a game for its players.

Even the top game developers view translating their metagame to the players as a challenge. You cannot use all the trump cards at once, but at the same time, you cannot withhold your advantages forever. Too long – and the gamers abandon your product; too fast – and they do so as well because there is nothing else to crave for. The simplest model of bringing deeper interaction in a game is the introduction of levels and a reward system. For instance, you make players complete a set of smaller tasks to win a star, and ten stars bring them to the next level. Each level opens new artifacts that make the game more engaging and complex. 

Besides, consider the introduction of interaction among players: tournaments, group tasks, visits to the competitors’ worlds/cities, etc. Whenever people feel that they are not alone and get the competition toggle “on,” the game gets even more reasons to be played.

#7 Positive reinforcement

The concept of positive reinforcement is simple – if you want a person to repeat an action, give them some reward for doing so. It is one of the most fundamental psychological principles that is heavily used in the game industry. Daily bonuses for opening a game, completing a task regularly, taking a feedback survey, or watching an ad – all these rewards that a player basically gets for free make people go back to the game.

The most effective way of positive reinforcement implementation in mobile game design is by setting up a reward schedule. Give players daily reward for returning visits, hand over gift boxes on big holidays like the Festival of Lights, the New Year, Christmas, etc. Consider also making these rewards country-specific for a better effect. Besides that, you can add randomized rewards in the game, for example, an in-built casino to gamble on the luck of winning coins. Such a system offers an element of surprise while still guaranteeing a reward now and then. Remember also about game popularization through social media and give free gifts for subscribing to your channels or sharing your posts.

The professional tip here is that you need rewards in your game design and development at all times. Failure to introduce this feature leads to an even higher percentage of app abandonments, and hence lower possibility to monetize your software.

#8 Genre consistency 

Genre consistency is a crucial element in the metagame. Games do have genres: arcade, role-playing, strategy, sports, adventure, MOBA, etc. Every genre has its own attributes and characteristics that players get used to. The simple way to make a successful game of a specific genre would be to review the top games in this category and take some design elements from them. The harder way is to reinvent the genre and add your own distinctive features while still maintaining its overall tendency.

The truth is, the harder way is more successful, yet it contains higher risks. There is already a Pac-Man, but if you add a possibility for it to shoot at the ghosts, you get a new feature that can trigger a greater audience response. At the same time, if you decide to change an iconic Pac-Man into a poop, this might, on the contrary, turn the audience away. 

Every reward and level, interaction and challenge must be thought through before you develop a game for Android and iOS. Inconsistencies in a game are very frustrating, mainly when a player gets used to the particular way of playing. So when you plan your game design, consider adopting the traditional features of the selected game genre and making add-ons to keep the core the same but the UI different for greater engagement. You need to carefully strategize the overall game design, levels, reward system, and every element that directly impacts engagement before releasing the app. Consider hiring a game development outsourcing team for testing to have a second opinion on the new app’s consistency.

#9 Design for players

mobile app design development

Every game design studio has its perfect game design in mind. They know what they like and what would look fantastic in a game. Unfortunately, this is not always what the audience wants. However tempting it might be to create a game app that you would like to play, remember that you are making software for your players. Yes, sometimes there can be an audience of like-minded people who would love your design; but if it is small, then there will not be many chances to monetize your app. In this case, it is worth researching the market to collect the demand and meet it in your game.

Please, do not see it as a tip to forget about your game design and just follow the crowd. It is not that. Your game is still your project with your rules, your soul, and your preferences. But the minor tweaks in the game design can be a valid choice for making an application commercially successful. 

Conclusion: successful mobile game design with SwagSoft

As one of the top game development outsourcing companies in Singapore, SwagSoft knows that effective game design is two-thirds of a commercially successful application that people would love. Our journey into the world of app development started from games, and today we are proud to be a valuable member of Singapore’s game development community.

Our team of designers, developers, and UI-experts has two focuses: game success and customer satisfaction. All the principles of a successful mobile game design described above are at the core of our game design studio. We offer the development of game apps for the top mobile devices, models, makes, and operating systems (read on how to choose the right app development platform: iPhone vs Android). By working with SwagSoft you get a reliable game development outsourcing partner who can join your team or adopt the reins of project management for you. Consultation, project-based cooperation, or full-cycle game design and development–we offer anything you need and even more. Contact us today for a tip or an estimate, and let’s create your next successful game together!