Thursday, March 19, 2009

iPhone Game Design - Getting it Right : Blocked

The iPhone app store is going crazy, with over 25000 apps available for download already. One must give their props to apple, who must be making a ton of money from their share of the downloaded money.

As a developer, the iPhone is an enticing platform. Like the Nintendo Wii and DS, it offers a slew of new functionality that allows developers to create applications that can be intereacted with in new, exciting ways. And like Xbox Live Community Games, it has a channel that is relatively easy for any developer to publish their app on.

With the ability to push a new product to the iphone relatively quickly, many developers have swarmed to the platform. Achieving a position in the top 25 paid apps in the app store is an accomplishment in and of itself.

One of the most prominent app types in the app store are games. Of these games, Blocked, a 99 cent game, is currently sitting at position 6 in the top 25 paid apps. For any developers looking to pull a profit from the app store by developing a game, I think that Blocked is definitely one that needs to be examined in detail.

Blocked is supremely simple in many ways. The graphics use minimal colours and are, for the most part, rectangles stylized to look like rocks, on a grid paper background. The gameplay uses only one iphone feature - touch. And the idea (moving blocks) has been around for ages, appearing in many action/adventure/and rpg games throughout the history of gaming.

So, on a system that allows users to have apps with internet connectivity, access to their phone, geographic tie ins, advanced acceleromator functionality, and many different types of touches, why does an app that only allows the player to perform one action, simply by moving their fingers, be such a success?

I think that the story behind the success of the game is about as simple as the game itself.

Blocked is a game that is immediately accessible. Anybody who had used an iphone knows exactly what to do in blocked. There is a 'help' screen that explains what the goal is to lost players (move blocks out of the way and get the blue block out of the screen), which most players will only have to reference once, if at all.

For a game where the player does only one thing, Blocked is deceptively addicting. Because the actions the player performs are so simple, the player knows that they are able to beat any level - but it will tax their brain. The game follows the principle of 'Easy to Learn, Hard to Master' to a tee.

The game also puts the player into the game straight off the bat. As soon as the game loads, which does not take long, the player is taken directly to the game. There is no title screen where the player selects to load a file, start a new game, tell a friend, or get help. They are simple greeted with a simple interface that has a level, and a few controls.

This minimalistic interface ties into what I'm assuming was one of the games goals, which is to be a stress free game. Like a crossword puzzle or a sudoku puzzle, blocked does not require the player to solve the puzzle in a set time limit. When creating a game, many designers are tempted to add challenges to the game, such as time limits, or dangers, or limiting the number of moves a player can perform, to increase the challenge. Blocked has wisely foregone this option, allowing the mental challenge the game provides to drive the fun.

The game follows a stress free pattern in nearly ever facet. I so far have only reached Medium, so if this changes later on I cannot comment, but for the beginning of the game at least, every single level takes place in a single screen. There is no camera moving around to stress the player out as they try to find out what else is going on, there are no unknowns - the player always knows everything at their disposal (in this sense, it is even less stressful than a crossword puzzle, as the player does not have to constantly reference what the current row of letters is for).

If the player is stuck on a level, the reset button is always available in the lower left corner, allowing the player to start from scratch. If they are frustrated, then they can just skip past the level, even if they haven't beaten it. The only limitation to which levels a player can play is based on which is the lowest difficulty they have completed completely.

On top of being incredibly simple to pick up, addicting through 'Easy to Learn, Hard to Master' (ETLHTM) and stress free, Blocked has an extremely polished user experience. The game puts them right into the game as soon as it's loaded; if they were playing before, it loads both the level they were playing and their last configuration in that level. Navigating to any level is easy through the level select screens, which are sorted by difficulty, so if the player wants to move to a different level, there is no challenge in doing so. If they simply want to move forward or back a level, there are even arrows on the top of the screen.

In terms of development, Blocked does not seem to be a difficult app to develop. With very few art assets, and simple gameplay, the most time was probably spent on polishing the user interface, and designing the levels for the game (I believe there are about 100 in the game, sorted by difficulty into tiers of about 20 levels each). By concentrating on a simple, stress free, and polished user experience, it was able to rise to a high level of success.

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