Let's take a look at a timeless classic that was born in an arcade environment.
My goal for today is to figure out what makes a game like this fun to play. I don't believe the lessons learned here will apply easily to a mobile environment - although there may be an analogy between the idea of getting a user to put in one more quarter and the idea of getting the user to launch your mobile game app one more time, repeating until you have made mad profits.
Arcades are very specialized gaming environments in that a game has to be fun, but inherently challenging. If a player plays for too long without losing, the business loses money. Yet if the game is frustratingly difficult, the player loses interest and the arcade once again loses money. (One of my favorite arcade games, Joust, balances entertainment and difficulty extremely well. I will probably analyze Joust in a later post.)
What I'm trying to get at here is the fact that like most arcade games, Frogger is all about the challenge. The fun comes from overcoming the game, performing difficult tasks well, and getting recognition for it in the form of a high score, or a higher score than your friends. Yet is it the challenge that makes the game "fun"? Let's start by removing elements until you don't want to play anymore.
Playtest One - You don't need to cross the river
This makes the game boring. You eventually get used to the exceedingly simple and monotonous task of avoiding slow moving vehicles to cross the road.
I think part of the challenge comes from the fact that despite its simplicity, the task of crossing the river is almost the opposite of crossing the road. Many players might feel that the river crossing is harder than crossing the road, but is that just a result of having to switch to chasing the obstacles from having to avoid them? Let's test it out...
Playtest Two - You only need to cross the river
This is actually not quite as boring as crossing the road. I feel like there are two reasons for this - part of the challenge comes from not being able to be in full control of where you can go, due to the water, and the fact that rows move you in alternate directions. This means that if you don't time your jumps right, you may be unable to cross the river. Another factor is the fear of uncertainty - you see some of the turtles submerging, and you get scared that the ones you are on will submerge as well. This isn't true (the objects in this implementation of Frogger just repeat over and over, you can even memorize them), but it affects your play style regardless.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the rows move at different speeds, and in one case two adjacent rows move in the same direction - this means if you are not careful, you will get to the right edge of the screen FAST!
Because one of the goals is "not dying", and there is not always a path forward, sometimes the player has to backtrack a bit. Even though the patterns repeat, it seems we humans seem to have an expectation of nice equidistant platforms, a fact the game leverages gleefully.
Oh, and a note on the patterns - the player cannot just sit around forever memorizing the patterns, because the timer will expire and the frog will die!
If the game was only the river crossing without the road, it would still be a fun and challenging game. So, let's drop the road from the discussion of what makes this game fun (for now). It definitely adds to the challenge, but it is not the core of the fun in this game.
What about the lily-pads at the end? Do they add anything to the game?
Do you think this lily-pad adds anything to the game?
Playtest Three - You can jump off anywhere after crossing the river
On level one this makes the game boring, since the platforms are relatively straightforward and getting moved around by the obstacles matter quite as much. On level two and onwards, however, the game is still quite challenging due to the scarcity of platforms to step on and some interesting design decisions. Every time there is a large gap in the platforms and a desperate player almost getting killed by the edge of the screen, the very next platform that appears as apparent salvation will be a trap. The turtles will sink, the log will be a gator. This sort of deception is probably also the reason the gators are the same color as the logs.
Despite the interesting challenges that remain, removing the slots makes the game a lot less interesting. It becomes a lot easier for players to reach the other side, and there is less of a sense of accomplishment.
The game is still fun if it's just several rounds of river crossing, but it gets boring quite quickly. The player is only solving simple problems - avoiding the edges and obvious traps, which isn't that challenging. Adding the slots makes the game a lot more difficult, especially when the obstacles are actively working against the player. The player has to solve additional problems - knowing when to expect a trap, knowing when to backtrack. At this point the game is fun enough to sustain hours of entertainment, but it is still possible for a player to get really good at it and lose rarely.
The road crossing adds a final touch, a wrench in the learning process. It interleaves a problem contrary to the skills required to cross the river, thereby making it difficult to get good at either task by performing it repeatedly in a row. It isn't necessary for the game to be fun, but it adds to the challenge. The game would probably be just as fun whether it was just the road or just the river, as long as you had to make it to the lily-pads and not just any ole' spot across the course.