I have decided to start a series of posts which analyze interaction design and visual design elements of apps and games for iOS, since I am spending more time than ever developing my own apps, this will act as an outlet for me to get all of my ideas down in one place. These are not reviews, and I will not be telling you which apps to buy for your own iPhone. Instead, the app analysis series will exist to help myself and others understand which parts of an app are Doing It Right©, which parts are Doing It Wrong©, and how to improve what’s not working. If you disagree with me, then please feel free to let me know why you think I’m wrong on Twitter.
One of my favorite games for iOS is “No, Human” in which you play as a vengeful universe determined to destroy the invading humans who wish to colonize you. The gameplay in “No, Human” is simple to pick up – you throw fireballs toward the human spaceships to destroy them. The game slowly ramps up difficulty with additional elements that are perfectly suited to its gameplay style.
The game begins with a conversation between a human and the the universe, and that’s where it starts Doing It Right© in the most subtle of ways. In “No, Human” the cutscenes are interactive, it’s not something that hasn’t been done before but in most games the sudden command to “Press x now!” seems grafted on. In most games interactive cutscenes are used as a way to force the player to pay attention to the story unfolding on screen—if you look away, you lose—but in “No, Human” the interactive portions of cutscenes will wait for your input. If you wait too long, the cutscenes will even display their impatience with remarks, in this case the text changes to “Ahem… threw a fireball!?!” and eventually “OK, drag the fireball over the human and lift your finger.” This detail which adds a layer of interactivity to cutscenes is important for games on an iOS device, even just a few seconds of cutscene can seem like an eternity on an iPhone. Adding interactivity to the cutscene keeps the player’s attention for the duration of the cutscene (in this case, about 30 seconds) but the lack of a sudden need for a response will ensure that your player isn’t disappointed when they look away from the screen for a moment and look back to find out that their character has failed already. This is especially important for an untimed puzzle game like “No, Human” which should be designed to be demand attention only at the user’s convenience.
App usage scenarios on iOS are quite different from those of a desktop computer or a game console, with the latter two you can take it for granted that your users are generally sitting in one place and expecting to stay there for quite some time. On an iOS device, however, your users will generally be using your app as a short term distraction and so your design must be adjusted accordingly. In the console game scenario, cutscenes generally act as mini movies designed to tell part of the story or to indicate that an event important to gameplay has occurred, it’s not uncommon for them to last five or ten minutes. Cutscenes in an iOS scenario should be pared down to the absolute minimum with the ultimate goal being to get the player into gameplay as soon as possible. What better way to do that than to make the cutscene the actual gameplay? Integrating moments of gameplay into cutscenes in the way that “No, Human” does is the first step toward this goal.
The title to each new level in “No, Human” is a hint to the level’s solution. This is Doing It Right©, when the developer designs a level too complex to figure out immediately, a short explanation before the level will help the player out but still leaves them the feeling that they figured it out themselves.
This level uses one of my favorite gameplay elements in “No, Human,” the pink asteroid will repel an oncoming fireball unless struck directly with a fireball upon which it will turn blue and reverse its gravitational field to attract nearby fireballs. Each of these behaviors effects the gameplay in a different way and are used as an integral method for building puzzles. The key to writing these player hints in a way that doesn’t ruin gameplay is to avoid verbs directed at the player, you would never want to use “Fling the fireball at the pink asteroid to bounce it at the spaceship.” Directing the player to do anything specific ruins the puzzle element of the level. Instead, the title hints at what effect the key game element will have.
Gameplay hints are important to any game because they help ease the player into difficult situations, without them you would have to choose between making your game so easy that it lacks a challenge or risk frustrating players who may not find your solution obvious. The first instinct of a puzzle designer is to make their puzzles so hard that even the solution is baffling. In a good puzzle game for a mobile usage scenario the solution to the puzzle should seem obvious once you know the answer, but not immediately evident to a new player. This sort of puzzle design is advantageous in that players will more easily have a feeling of accomplishment which encourages them to keep playing, but the downside is that your puzzles will generally be disposable single-play levels. For a console game, it’s generally a good idea to weigh the game more on the side of levels with complex solutions because the player is expected to spend enough time playing to finely hone their skills. In a mobile game, levels should follow a much shallower learning curve and generally will never reach the complexity of a console game. The goal in a mobile game is to keep your player entertained in short spurts which inhibits the ability for the player to build expert skills, they should be able to come back to the game two weeks later and still know what to do without having to replay all of the beginning levels.
I honestly tried to find something that “No, Human” was doing wrong but at every turn it seemed to be doing everything right. I don’t care much for the font choice in the menus—it looks like somebody took an axe to the corners of Helvetica—but everything else about “No, Human” seems to be getting it right. If you have more thoughts on “No, Human” tweet @aaroncorsi to let me know.