Anyone who owns a smartphone or knows someone who does - that's most of us then - will have played or at least heard of Candy Crush Saga, Flappy Bird and such. What makes so many people play a game? Why do we humans, in our thousands, waste our lives playing meaningless smartphone games? And WHY ON EARTH did the maker of Flappy Bird remove it from the app store? I wanted to download it onto my tablet as well as my phone...
Several key ingredients have to be present for a mobile game to go viral. Here's my take, as an avid mobile gamer, on the subject.
It doesn't necessarily have to be fun
Say the word "game" and for most people, thoughts of innocent childish fun will spring to mind. Board games are fun. So are gameshows. And football games... Smartphone games are about something else. Using a smartphone with a tiddly screen is never going to be a social experience. (Take that Facebook!). And without a social aspect, an activity is never going to be fun. At least not for more than a few minutes. No. Smarphone games aren't about being fun. For most, they're about killing time: on a long train journey; in the airport; waiting for an appointment; or staving off the boredom of day to day life. This leads me on to the next ingredient.
Repetition is key
Take Flappy Bird. There's no way that anyone in their right mind would describe it as "fun". What it is though, is repetitive. In one session, you can easily tap your thumb several thousand times in order to conquer that ever elusive high score. So what keeps us coming back for more of the same? It's tediously boring really, navigating a bird through hundreds of identical green pipes. Who does that? Only about half the world population...
Repetition is crucial in creating an addiction factor to a mobile game. When something is so repetitive you lose track of where you are: both in the game and out. You lose track of time when each moment is so similar to the previous moment and the next few hundred future moments. When you're playing a mobile game like Flappy Bird or Candy Crush Saga you have no reference point with time, location or anything. So you keep playing for hours until suddenly you snap back into reality. This normally happens late at night with the sudden realisation that you now haven't got a hope of meeting tomorrow's work/school/university deadline. Ah well, at least you beat that record...
It has to be a challenge
The reason we all keep flocking back to our smartphones and bouncing birds is because it's a challenge. We're not addicted to applying upwards thrust to flying animals, we're addicted to beating ourselves; improving on our personal bests. Mine's 130 for Flappy Bird: post in the comments if you can beat that!
Aesthetically pleasing design
No one is going to play some smartphone game with a lurid pink, headache-inducing theme colour. It just doesn't make for a pleasant time wasting experience. Especially when there are so many other apps out there all waiting to waste your time. A game has to be visually pleasing before people actually play it. There have been scientific studies into the effects that certain colours have on people. Smartphone game developers should take this into account. If you're making a shoot-em-up game, have a lot of red things in it because red makes people feel angry. That sort of thing.
Let's face it. Had Flappy Bird not been free, even if it was only $0.50 or so, it would have been a real flop (or should I say flap?). Smartphone and mobile device gamers have a casual relationship with the whole thing. Hop onto the app/play store, browse the games, download one and have a play. When there are so many similar games out there to choose from, who in their right mind would pay for Flappy Bird when there are several thousand free alternatives?
Whatever it is that makes us keep coming back for more flapping and crushing, I say keep it coming. If you want to waste a couple of hours with a mindlessly repetitive activity, the start of the 21st century is a better time than ever before to do it.