GameDev Protips: Game Design With Mobile In Mind

Mobile devices are a significant proportion of today’s gaming market. Their convenience makes it a first-stop for lots of players who would otherwise not be playing anything on a console. Unfortunately, designing games with mobile in mind requires a different mindset than tradition development because of the added element of touch controls replacing buttons in almost all cases. Here are some things to keep in mind when designing for mobile.

First off, some things simply do not work very well on mobile. FPS games, for one, just don’t have an elegant control scheme that can be used for the normal player. Using multiple inputs at the same time is often a bad idea since mobile devices are usually held with one hand and played with the other (which goes against how FPS games are played two-handed), and emulating control schemes from platforms that use completely different input methods just makes things feel clunky. In most cases, if your game has something like a virtual joystick, it’s doing something wrong. You have to keep these things in mind when you’re thinking about mobile.

Next, you have to consider how your controls will be laid out in terms of screen space. Mobile is one of the few platforms where the input method can actually get between the player and the game, so you have to make sure your buttons don’t put the players’ hands in a place that blocks the screen. This usually means having touchable elements on the outside of the screen and not in the middle, at least not for extended periods of time. Players won’t enjoy playing a game that they can’t see after all.

Lastly, make sure that your games are tested by people with long fingernails as well as people with short fingernails. While it doesn’t sound like a big difference, playing with the flat of your fingers versus playing with the tip of your fingers can change things drastically. Some control schemes are too precise for those playing with their flats, and some also cause too much of the screen to be obscured because they can’t arch their fingers in a way that stops the screen from being blocked, at least not in a comfortable manner.

With that out of the way, what does work for mobile? For one, turn-based games are excellent for mobile; any awkward control schemes don’t matter as much when the player has as much time as they need to execute their actions, and the genre is perfect for the “on the go” nature of playing on mobile. This also plays well with allowing players to quit in the middle of a game and return later, which is important to mobile as well. Games that “restart” when players receive a call or a low battery notification, or when they turn off their phone and turn it back on later, can cause lots of frustration. 

The game should also be playable with one hand, as often times the other hand will be holding the phone, or should involve actions that the two thumbs can handle to accommodate the “texting method” of holding phones. Finally, the control schemes will work out best if it emulates human motions that we’re already used to. Examples include tapping your fingers to a rhythm game or swiping in match-three games. Don’t forget that most most mobile devices have things beyond their screen, such as gyroscopes, that might allow for more elegant control schemes or alternative control scheme choices. Always utilize those if they’re appropriate.

Important Takeaways: Mobile is a large gaming platform today, so knowing how to design for it is important. Don’t try to force genres that don’t work, like FPS, onto mobile, as that’s just asking for a clunky control scheme. Make sure your buttons aren’t laid out in a way that will cause fingers to block important parts of the screen. On a similar note, when your game is being tested, make sure people with long fingernails can also effective use your control scheme as some things that work for fingertips don’t work well with the flats of fingers. With those warnings out of the way, there are a few things in particular that work well on mobile: turn-based games, games with very few simultaneous inputs, and games with control schemes that mimic human motions that we’re already used to. If you can use them, you should also use some of the nifty features that mobile devices have today, like gyroscopes, to improve your control schemes or offer alternatives.