Top 6 tips for standing out in the crowded app world, by MAQL Europe's Harry Holmwood
Different by design
Harry Holmwood is CEO of MAQL Europe - a subsidiary of Marvelous AQL, a Japanese developer and publisher of mobile, social and console games.
Since we announced our MarvDev developer program a few months back, we've been lucky enough to be contacted by hundreds of developers looking for a publishing partner for their games.
We've signed up our first titles under the program and had the opportunity to check out all kinds of games from talented teams and one-man bands across the globe.
But with well over 100 apps released every single day, getting yours to stand out can be a challenge.
Having seen so many different games in such a short space of time - and having had to think about them from a commercial standpoint, we thought it would be useful to put together a list of what, to us at least - seem like the common factors in the games that really appeal.
1. Be different
Taking inspiration from other games is fine but, if your game isn't adding anything new, giving users a reason why they just 'must' play, then it's unlikely to succeed.
Most of the huge success stories of the last couple of years worked because they gave players something they didn't have before. That's why, even up against massive competition, they were able to cut through and succeed.
By all means look at what worked last year – but the main thing you'll learn is what you should have done last year, not what you should do this time around!
Smash hit games like Minecraft, CSR Racing, Infinity Blade and Draw Something all drew inspiration from earlier products, but each brought something very new to gamers.
2. Decide the business model early on
A premium (pay up front) game is an entirely different beast from a freemium one. It's tough to move from one to the other.
In particular, many arcade-style games don't fit the freemium model well – user retention is a challenge, and monetisation can be very difficult – very few users want to pay for power ups or access to additional content.
Freemium isn't the only option though – if your game doesn't suit a free-to-play model, don't be afraid to go premium. Fantastic games like The Room, The Walking Dead and Super Hexagon command both a premium pricepoint and a loving fanbase.
3. Make paying part of the fun
The best games make paying a positive, rather than a negative experience – there's a subtle, but important, difference between paying for something that makes a game ‘less frustrating' and something that makes it ‘more enjoyable'.
Energy mechanics, time gating – these tend to fall into the former category, for which players have less and less tolerance. Collecting, nurturing, creating, communicating, taking a chance… these are all positive experiences players are happy to pay for.
As a child I was an avid buyer of Panini football stickers – despite having no interest in football. The fun there was in buying a sealed pack of cards, delighting in finding a rare metallic club badge sticker or top player to add to my album, swapping spares with my friends and slowly filling my album.
If the 'game' consisted of buying any card I wanted from the newsagent, and sticking it into the album, or just being given an album pre-filled with stickers, the joy would be gone.
Thinking of freemium experiences in this way helps to understand how spending in-game can be a part of the fun, not detrimental to it.
4. Design for the device
Those, like me, who come from a console background can struggle to shift that mindset, but it's essential to do so.
First, think about how best to use the touchscreen – it's an incredibly tactile interface, and the best games feel lovely to touch. Embrace that rather than try to emulate console controls and you're half way there.
The other half? Think about when people play – mobile games should be playable for very short periods of time, and still give players a meaningful experience.
Super Hexagon nailed it – when you start playing you'll struggle to last more than a couple of seconds. Bejewelled Blitz has a maximum game length of one minute. The Walking Dead, broke this rule with an autosave system which didn't let you carry on where you left off if you had to quit.
It's a testament to the quality of the game that, despite repeatedly having to go back and replay sections I'd already completed, I was hooked enough to play through all the episodes over a single weekend.
5. Don't confuse the player
Players have very short attention spans. There are, literally, a million or more other apps they could be using, and billions of web pages they could be reading. The moment they're confused or frustrated, they're out.
Try to play your games from the perspective of someone who's never played it (or anything like it) before. Better yet, get other people to play it, and watch them as they do.
Don't be tempted to blame them for what they're doing wrong – any confusion is a potential game over for your app, and needs to be fixed. Check out Clash of Clans, or any Zynga game to see how to make a game anyone can understand.
6. Be excellent
Above all else, you have to make a great game.
There are already so many games on the App Store that, even if everyone stopped making games tomorrow, you could play a different game every day for the next 300 years. There's a lot of competition!
Despite the huge number of games out there, this has to be the most exciting times ever to be a game developer – there are millions of new people getting into playing games across a whole range of platforms, in almost every country in the world.
I hope they help, but you don't have to follow the rules above. The best games rewrite the rules and do something wonderful to delight and surprise gamers.
What do the games we've signed so far have in common? Very little – other than the fact that they made us smile, stood out from the crowd somehow, and made us want to play again, and again…and maybe just once more.
You can get more tips from Harry on the Marvelous AQL blog.
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