MMObility: What makes a good mobile game to me

Fleck screenshot
Over the time I have been exploring mobile gaming, especially since I have been writing this column, I've discovered exactly what I like and dislike about the genre. Mobile MMOs are the tiniest niche within the greater world of MMOs. Some would say that MMOs are even a tiny corner of gaming in general. While I don't quite agree, I would say that explaining my column to random game shop employees or curious friends is quite the challenge.

"You write about games... on your phone?"

"Yes, massively multiplayer games."


Luckily there are many new ones that offer a much more robust gaming experience. I can proudly show people examples of games like Order and Chaos Online, Star Legends or Illyriad. Of course, I sift through many poor examples before I get to the good ones. So let's take this opportunity to discuss what I think makes for a good game. Click past the cut and feel free to add your ideas in the comments section!

TibiaME artwork
Originality: This is the first and foremost important thing to me. I want a game that isn't something I have seen before. While that is much, much easier said than done, it is also a pretty simple premise: Developers take a chance and make a unique game. I can download any number of Mafia Wars-style grinders or RTS-like copies, but what ticks my tock has to be a game that is set in a unique setting or at the very least takes standard settings and does something unique with them. Mobile gaming is very similar to the music industry right now. Thanks to cheap distribution, anyone can get his game out there and it can possibly make a splash. This means that developers can take more chances since the market is massive. That is, if they wish to do so.

"Sure, I'll accept your class-based linear quest driven world, but at least give me one or two optional systems that tie them together."

Gameplay: Setting is important but what you do in that setting is just as important. Sure, I'll accept your class-based linear quest driven world, but at least give me one or two optional systems that tie them together. Outer Empires is pretty standard stuff, but it allows players to hook up through either the browser or an app. Fleck might be a FarmVille-style clone, but it layers it on top of real-world maps and locations. If I had my wish, I would want a game that skips leveling or standard upward character growth and replaces it with exploration or allowing players to build whatever type of characters they want.

Style: If I had a dime for every ugly mobile game I have downloaded, I would have around six dollars and 20 cents. Yes, I know that development for a small screen is tough, but with some creativity it can be executed wonderfully. I think too many mobile games try to cram in some sort of realistic detail or lighting effects that just do not work. Designing for a tiny screen is a lot like painting a picture with limited materials. Understand your limitations and work with them. Instead of marching characters across hideous 8-bit landscapes, why not move them by using lovely hand-drawn hex maps? I hate to sound harsh, but a lot of the time indie developers are the smart types, the individuals who have a good time plugging away at lines of code. A lot of the time, the mechanically minded are not the most artistically minded. The developers of Illyriad, for example, literally hired artists to improve their character portraits and other in-game assets. What resulted was a game that had its own style, even while residing in a familiar gaming genre, the MMORTS.

Flexibility: Again I am asking to fill a tall order. If it is possible for your mobile game to work across many devices, make it so. HTML5 is supposed to be bringing us games that will be playable no matter what device you have, but so far there are very few MMOs that use the technology. Some games are exclusive to one device, or at least it takes a long time before they work for all. I feel a lot like a console player when I discover a new MMO for my phone or tablet. I have to read how it might be available "soon" on other devices or just get used to lugging around my laptop, my HTC Inspire Android phone, and my disconnected iPhone and iPad. I long for the time when there will be no boundaries between devices. Perhaps the lines in the sand can be erased with new technologies that allow hardware manufacturers to retain their unique market presence and connect with each other while still making a profit. We'll have to see.

"I have played so many cool little games that could have benefited from great music or sound. How many mobile games use the same goofy song over and over, no matter where you are in the world?"

Great music: While I am writing this entire article from my special designer armchair, I might as well hope for some great music as well. Have you ever been driving along, listening to some good rock and roll and then decide to flip through the stations? Suddenly you find yourself staring out the front window as a sad song fills the air. Music has that effect on us. I have played so many cool little games that could have benefited from great music or sound. How many mobile games use the same goofy song over and over, no matter where you are in the world? Developers do not need to be afraid to use subtle and possibly gloomy or sad music in their games. I truly believe that it will help slow players down and will encourage exploring and non-linear play.

After adding up these rules, I'm not surprised I have such a short list of mobile favorites. It holds under a dozen titles. Many folks might think that by writing this column I am exclaiming that the world of mobile gaming (and in this case I am talking about tablet or phone gaming) is as rich and vibrant as browser-based or "normal" MMOs. It is not, and I am not pretending that it is. But it is growing. The developers are learning from mistakes and are quickly adapting. I write this column because I truly believe that, simply due to advancing technology, we will be experiencing much more than a dozen wonderful mobile MMOs very soon.

Soon enough I'll find more MMOs that follow this list perfectly.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr.
This article was originally published on Massively.