Over the past two years I’ve delivered a general “introduction to the videogame industry” lecture to undergrads as part of a more general Media programme. In each of these I’ve used Angry Birds as a case study in the specific types of design choices that go into a ‘casual’ mobile game. Whether you personally like the game or not, understanding the technological platform and its user-base is essential to understanding the game’s success. I am differentiating between “well designed” and “designed with me in mind”, and if you can’t make the same distinction, you’re not going to get much out of this post.

angry birds1

The Forbes infographic above helps to illustrate Rovio’s journey as a studio. The main messages are pretty standard creative industry platitudes (“there’s no such thing as an overnight success” and “keep trying because even the successful fail a lot at first”). It’s good motivational poster type stuff, but it doesn’t really help an would-be developer understand what made Angry Birds specifically such a big success after so many duds. We need to critically analyse Rovio’s output prior to its release. There are external factors such as appstore features which contributed to the games success which are summarised pretty well elsewhere. But I want to start from the assumption that none of this counts for anything if the game isn’t well designed in the first place.

With all of that in mind, the task I have set students in the past is this:

Look at the screenshots in from “Rovio’s failed games before ‘Angry Birds'” (CNN, 2012). From a design perspective, what made them fail while Angry Birds succeeded? Think carefully about what is in these games which isn’t in Angry Birds and how this might affect the audience.

The purpose of this task is to illustrate that Rovio did not simply “get lucky” or triumph through sheer perseverance. Success isn’t attained by designing a greater volume of stuff, but by designing better (or, at least, by happening upon a good design by accident). So take a look at the images below (yes, all pre-Angry Birds Rovio games) and then scroll down and see if your answers match mine.


Heavy Use of Text to Convey Narrative Information

As I see it, there are some serious questions you should ask yourself before filling your game with text. Does this potentially limit the audience for my game? Can everyone read it? Even without language barriers, is the need to read excessive text going to turn off gamers who wanted a quick fix; something to play on a 20 minute train journey (I can’t overemphasise the benefits of understanding how devices fit into average people’s daily lives!) If the game does well, how difficult is it going to be for you to go back into it and change all the text to Spanish or German or Cantonese? This isn’t just a big budget soulless casual game wanting to make loads of $$$$ thing; go and read Lucas Pope’s account of localising/translating Papers Please.

Emphasis on Combat

There are two issues with games having an emphasis on combat. One is obvious, the other less so. Firstly, we have the general “violence” issue. Parents who heavily police what their kids can play are a barrier to success for games with zombies and bazookas. Whether or not you agree with it Apple are also starting to crack down on images of guns in promotional screenshots and icons. But in my mind the issue with assuming that all games must be about combat is more fundamental. People play mobile games to pass the time and to relax. The reason for the success of games on this platform is that those who don’t identify as ‘gamers’ don’t have to buy a dedicated machine; they already own it for other purposes. These gamers are less likely to enjoy dying over and over again. Angry Birds has a very quick start-fail-retry loop compared to many traditional console and PC games, even compared to arcade classics like Tetris which arguably are similar to contemporary

Self-Serious/GrimDark Iconography

Not everyone likes vampires and robots. If they did, we wouldn’t have conventions for people who are into that stuff. Jesper Juul points out that the artistic direction of a game usually signposts its mechanics and by extension its implied audience. A black box with a vampire on it is going to contain a punishingly difficult game, probably with an immersive storyline, which players are expected to play in long sessions. It will probably be the sort of game where you will have to have played a dozen games in the same genre to “get” in terms of controls and other conventions (think how taken for granted assumptions like “blue potions are mana which let you do more magic” are in hardcore game genres!) A brightly coloured box is more likely to contain something that anyone can pick up and play.

Did you spot any other things?

Sure, we are seeing a surge of traditional hard-core games on tablets (FTL, X-Com, Baldur’s Gate) but it is rare that the tablet is rarely the initial primary platform. Casual games are casual exactly because they don’t require the same level of pre-learning or taking-seriously of a fictional game-world. My takeaway from all of this is that the early Rovio games are very traditional hardcore genres of game on the wrong device. They have accessibility issues in relation to their complexity and dependency on reading, and they do not seem to acknowledge how mobile games fit into people’s everyday lives. They expect the player to be a seasoned video-game connoisseur who treats their iPhone like a Nintendo DS.