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Portable Game Labels

The unique & inherent challenge for portable gaming is the continuously changing gaming context. Not all games are suitable for a bumpy bus ride or 2 min. sessions. I suggest 3 rating labels to improve search results, game discovery & player satisfaction.

Johan Basberg, Blogger

July 20, 2014

10 Min Read

Smartphones are great. To be able to do actual work, but also play detailed and great looking online games on a pocked sized device still blows my mind. I love dedicated gaming hardware as well, the current 3DS and PSVita are both pretty fantastic devices. However, there is one unique and inherent challenge associated with portable gaming, not relevant for other platforms: the constantly changing gaming situation and environment – collectively referred to as the gaming context or just context.

In this article I suggest three different labels we can add to our games to help the player identify the games suitable for a specific context (eg. a game suitable for a kid during an hour long car trip). The end result should be better search results, easier game discovery, and happier players.

GroupingMobile gaming happens literally anywhere, at any time and for any duration. The games being played however, are the result of a series of design decisions making a game better suited for certain situations over others. In an increasingly crowded App Store (any platform) how does a player pick a game optimal for the current gaming context? Right now that isn’t possible, as games are pigeonholed by their predominant game mechanic. Puzzles, RTS, FPS and JRPG are all terms for describing gameplay, but they don’t necessarily indicate anything about the optimal context of play. The terms casual and hardcore falls short in the same way; a hardcore tactical game can be played while both distracted and on the move, while a single-tap casual game could demand your full attention.

The gaming context affects the online state of the device, the light conditions, noise level, and the will, ability and space to interact with the device in different ways (e.g. games primarily using the accelerometer can’t be played during a bumpy bus ride). The context also limits the duration of the game session and the ability to focus on the gameplay – as you know, mobile games are played walking, waiting for or riding a bus, running, in the bathroom and so on.

To ensure an optimal gaming experience I see two alternatives: the game adapts to the gaming context or the player picks the optimal game for any given moment. The latter is likely better, as we can never really know what the player wants without asking (and even if we were to ask, adjusting the pace, continuity or gameplay will likely be very hard and costly). We also don’t want to introduce anything that extends time to action.

LabelsFor a player to be able to pick a game optimal for the current game context, we should establish a taxonomy that efficiently and consistently can be used to label mobile games beyond mere gameplay. The game developer then adds these labels or tags to their game description to clearly communicate the optimal gaming context.

Using these labels in this exact order in a search should yield a more relevant search result and improve game recommendations. It will also make the process of finding games suited for a particular context not only possible, but easy. The end result is a win for everyone.

Precision Requirements

Requirements to focus and precision is determined by the size of the interactive elements and time sensitivity of gameplay.

  1. Micro precision requires the player to hit exactly at the right place and time to succeed. This means the screen should be easily readable. Periodic sunlight on a backlit screen is problematic.

  2. Meso precision is somewhere in-between micro and macro. Tap targets are reasonably large, the occasional sun glare is mostly without any game ending consequence.

  3. Macro precision describes large and relaxed interaction with little, if any tap target movements. Games like these are suitable for any age group, and almost any disabilities.

Game Session Duration

The duration of the optimal game session can’t be too precise. Players are different, and we don’t want to end up with too many labels.

  1. Bit sized games are suited for short play sessions, minutes long maybe. A regular match-3 game or casual puzzle is likely a bit sized game: a level is short, they can be paused at any time without interrupting any overarching story.

  2. Bite sized games requires a minimum of several bit sessions, spending 3-7 consecutive minutes before it is optimal to leave the game.

  3. Bowl sized games consists of several bytes, resulting in the optimal or regular game session lasting anywhere between 10 and 25 minutes.

To further hint at the optimal session duration, we could describe a game as a small bowl game; meaning that the optimal session is 6-15 minutes long, but more likely 15 than 6 and vice versa for a large bite game (range of 6-15 minutes, but more likely 6 minutes than 15).

Focus Level

The less a player is occupied by things in the real world, the more they will be capable to focus on gameplay. These focus related labels therefore refer to how much a player moves around; less movement also means less attention is needed by the surroundings.

  1. Walking games can be played while partly distracted or in short bursts. During a burst the game could, to some extent, still require a high level of focus.

  2. Standing Games requires a minimum level of continuous focus, while the occasional distraction is still acceptable and even expected. The game has a somewhat time or precision sensitive gameplay.

  3. Seated games requires high precision or consists of very time sensitive gameplay, or possibly both. The player is comfortably seated for the purpose of playing the game, and the play session is expected to go on uninterrupted.


Couch games traditionally refers to local multiplayer games, best enjoyed sitting next to those you play with, but we have no idea about the actual gameplay. Take for example the digital iOS version of Carcassonne, it’s a really nice couch game, but by calling it that we omit that it can also be played with a faceless opponent online (unlike e.g. the cool party game Spaceteam).

Carcassonne could instead be labeled an optionally online macro bit size walking game: it has large tap and drag targets which require little precision, it can be played in short bursts or minute long sessions, and is suitable to be played while partly distracted. The same cannot be said about many other digital versions of popular board games, with small tap targets and strict time limits. The tags are added as actual tags, or simply as text to the end of the game description: “Portable Game Labels: macro, bit, walking”.

Heroes of Order & Chaos is a mobile MOBA game, or more precisely we can describe it as an online micro bowl sized seated game. For a player unfamiliar with the MOBA term, the labels indicate that she will have to pay close attention to the game (micro), that an average session lasts between 10 and 25 minutes (bowl size) and finally that distractions are not acceptable (seated). So, the tags added are: micro, bowl, seated.

Battleheart Legacy is an excellent action RPG with great depth, and a lot of content and character customization. This game is a wonderful example of a meso bite sized standing game: The tap targets are not small, but the enemies you target move around; a single random encounter can be resolved in a couple of minutes and a mission in less than 10; and finally, the levels are divided into sections, and more often than not, the action doesn’t start unless the avatar moves (the occasional distraction is not game ending). The devs add these tags: meso, bite, standing.

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