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How to make your games perfect for mobile

At Develop: Brighton, V Buckenham, creator of mobile games creation platform Downpour, gave some great tips on designing for "the lump in your pocket"
How to make your games perfect for mobile
  • “When you are designing your game, think about how - if someone is using it one-handed - where they can actually touch it”
  • “This triggers a whole gesture change so keep that in mind when you’re choosing between a vertical or horizontal game"

Develop: Brighton is well underway, and we caught a talk by V Buckenham the renowned game designer and most recently the creator of Downpour, a tool aiming to radically democratize game creation.

Their talk was entitled 'From ‘Alt-Ctrl’ to touch screens: Designing for that strange lump in your pocket' and as the title suggests, this talk was about understanding how to design games specifically for mobile platforms. 

Buckenham stands by the sentiment that: “video games are always played with the body. You need to take input and output from the body and think of the environment it’s in.”

Limitations

Buckenham shared that designing with a touch screen is unique and, in many ways, feels natural as it offers a more direct sense of interacting with something. “You’re not moving a mouse which moves a cursor, and then an action happens, it’s an immediate reaction."

Despite the feeling being natural, there are design aspects to keep in mind. For example, hitboxes on mobile phones need to be bigger since the player can’t see exactly where they are touching, something that both Apple and Google offer guidelines for, with recommended pixel sizes.

Also developers should always remain conscious of other aspects of the phone itself, even on the most simple of points. Most people will hold their phones in one hand, which changes how phones can be used, but there are also limitations to that. 

“When you are designing your game, think about how - if someone is using it one-handed - where they can actually touch it. The middle of the screen is the most accessible, the bottom is slightly harder to navigate, and the top of the screen is very hard to reach, so you could put less important or non-interactive information there.”

Buckenham explained that games could instead be played horizontally, which gives the player more freedom of control over the screen. However, this also means they are using the phone in a way they wouldn’t usually be: “This triggers a whole gesture change so keep that in mind when you’re choosing between a vertical or horizontal game."

“Always think of how and who you are designing for. Where is the player going to be? How will they be playing? How long will they have to play?”
V Buckenham

Design with the player in mind

A key aspect of designing your game needs to come from what feels good for the player. It needs to feel good in their hand and suit their play style.

Buckenham shared a statistic that, generally, people open their phones around 80 times a day, which is why many games are made with a short playtime session in mind. This should also make you consider aspects of your game, such as the time it takes to boot up.

If it takes too long, players may simply disconnect; it needs to be quick and easy.

“Always think of how and who you are designing for. Where is the player going to be? How will they be playing? How long will they have to play?” Buckenham also noted that players may likely be out in public when they are playing a mobile game. This should be something you consider not just for design but also from a marketing perspective too.

Be prepared for anything

During the session, Buckenham touched on various design aspects, one of which being that developers shouldn’t just look at their game in its optimal environment; they should test it in circumstances that the player may be experiencing it in, such as outside where the sun is shining. One tip they offered was that games with a high-contrast interface will fare better in the sunshine, whereas a low-contrast user interface will be much harder for the player to see or read.

“This is the most powerful UI tip I could give developers. Put an image on your phone of your game and see how it looks outside. You’ll immediately see what issues there are.”