MMObility: Simplifying design for the mobile market

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MMObility: Simplifying design for the mobile market
Whenever I write up something about a smartphone MMO, one of the most common complaints I hear is this: "If I wanted to play a game for several hours, I would sit at my gaming desktop." While this is true for many players, it is also true that games like Star Legends and Pocket Legends by Spacetime Studios have met with a lot of success. The developers were surprised to find that players were more than willing to sit for several hours while playing the games on their tiny screens.

Still, there is a lot of truth to the complaints about smartphone MMOs. An MMO is typically something a player wants to get lost in. We commonly refer to it as "immersion," but really we're just talking about being sucked into the ideas and design of a title. If you have found yourself daydreaming about a game while at work, you were "immersed."

I would argue that this type of deep immersion is very possible on the smaller screens of smartphones and tablets. However, in order to achieve it more commonly, developers might have to adjust many of their designs and theories. Click past the cut and we'll discuss it!

Pocket Legends screenshot
Impressions, not reality

First I would like to compare the tiny window of a smartphone to the much, much larger windows of our netbooks, our laptops and of course those massive gaming desktop monitors. It's relatively inexpensive to own a huge monitor, one that engulfs your entire vision. We can even play in 3-D, and our sound cards often pump out incredible, realistic surround-sound. The difference between poking at a four-inch screen and staring at a monitor that measures a few feet across is pretty obvious. Still, the smaller screens are here to stay. Of course, one day soon we might all wear portable PCs that shine images directly into our eyes and do away with the need for any type of monitor, but until that day, the small screen provides portability and security that a massive screen cannot.

"Instead of designing mobile games that are mere copies of a much larger desktop experience, designers might look into creating mobile games that are either impressions of a larger experience or extensions of one."

Many smartphone MMOs quite literally try to squeeze an entire world onto the device. The characters are represented by tiny avatars on the screen, and buttons and shortcuts often take up much needed real estate. Instead of designing mobile games that are mere copies of a much larger desktop experience, designers might look into creating mobile games that are either impressions of a larger experience or extensions of one.

If you wonder about how a game can leave you with a powerful, and sometimes moving, impression, look no further than the MUDs of MMO history. They were, and still are in many cases, nothing more than descriptive text that ran across a player's screen. They utilized the power of a player's imagination to give him a rich experience. If you have ever read a good book and found that the hours have flown by, you were immersed in a world thanks to nothing but letters on a page. Mobile developers might be able to use these same tools and combine them with the portability of the mobile device to create a very convincing experience. It's important to remember that another attractive quality of smartphone gaming is your ability to grab the device in between meetings or while waiting in line at the airport. This lack of marathon gaming sessions alleviates some of the pressure from the mobile developer as well. Quick impressions can often be very powerful and can leave a gamer with a lingering daydream.

Fleck screenshot
Location-based fun

One of the smartest shortcuts that a mobile developer can use is location-based gaming. Essentially this design tool uses a player's real-world location and lays the game map or world over it. Your house might work as your castle, and your favorite store might count as a storage depot. There are a few advantages to this design. First, it is quite possibly much easier and cheaper to use the real world and all of its variable locations as the in-game world. I am by no means saying that it is a simple task to design such a game, but there are tools or design elements that can help with the workload. The point is that a player can still get lost within your game, even if it is just a few icons marching across a Google map. It might just be more affordable, as well.

It's also important to note that location-based games are a way of moving the game off the tiny screen of the smartphone and releasing it into the larger world. When the literal world around you is the playground for your favorite game, you have moved way beyond even the larger screens and confines of your desktop. The smartphone acts almost as a tiny window or viewfinder into the larger world. There are titles in development right now that literally lay the artificial world over an image of the real one, using the smartphone's camera.

Immersion? There's an app for that

Many MMO developers are now utilizing the smartphone as an extension of their games. As players play the Wizard101 minigame, they earn gold that can be used inside the MMO. Fallen Earth's app lets players chat, look at crafts and organize inventory (a game in itself) while taking a coffee break. EverQuest II's app allows players to check out their mail, chat with guildmates, and even see where their characters are located in the game world.

"Yes, it allows players to stay connected in case of emergency or boredom while at the office, but the real charm of an app is that it makes a player feel as though she is carrying the world in her pocket."

The true advantage of releasing an app might not be so obvious. Yes, an app allows players to stay connected in case of emergency or boredom while at the office, but the real charm of an app is that it makes a player feel as though she is carrying the world in her pocket. Where a location-based game uses the tiny screen as a keyhole to view a much larger world, an app can take the larger game world and seemingly shrink it down to the size of a smartphone window.

I would not be surprised if we start to see more existing MMOs release apps that are separate games from their MMOs but that remain connected to a player's account. Like Wizard101's WizardBlox, a game that is played on the smartphone could provide some benefit to the player's main account in the form of currency won, experience gained, or information unlocked. I would even go so far as to say that chatting with guildmates or organizing quests lists is gaming to many players, so even allowing that basic access through an app might be a very wise decision for developers.

The smartphone market is not getting any smaller. If anything, it will soon be the largest multiplayer gaming platform the world has ever seen. Design will need to switch gears a bit to work with the smaller screens, but I do not think it needs to be such a complicated switch. The tiny screens might get a bit larger, and technology will surely soon allow for larger, folding screens or displays that are nothing more than floating images, but until the day comes when it can be done safely and cheaply, we're stuck with the pocket-sized monitors.

If designers adapt to the change, we have nothing to worry about.

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 and Facebook.
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