Opinion: This Is The Game That Doesn't End

Looking at feedback from her recent iOS release, Mobili Studio's Hsiao Wei Chen examines if it's preferable to build levels or to implement infinit
[Looking at feedback from her recent iOS release, Mobili Studio's Hsiao Wei Chen examines if it's preferable to build levels or to implement infinitely replayable stages, in this #altdevblogaday-reprinted opinion piece.] Almost two years ago, I wrote a blog post on Gamasutra, "A Peek into the Mind of a Social Gamer" (excerpt: "A social gamer (a.k.a. me) writes about what we, social gamers, like and look for in social games"). In that blog post, I said that casual gamers want their games cute, simple, and what's the last one again, oh yeah, easily accessible. I mentioned: "KISS. Keep it short and simple. The game itself doesn't have to be short per se, but it absolutely has to be simple. Otherwise, we wouldn't get it. I'm not saying that social gamers are dumb because we most definitely are not! But the reason we play games is so that we can relax and rest our brains. We don't really want to spend 30 minutes or so figuring out how a game works." I also brought up easily accessible -- back then it meant Alt-Tab, and Facebook, "we just have to switch tabs on our Firefox to play games while we're pretending to be researching stuff." And then almost a year ago, I wrote another blog post on Gamasutra, "I Want My Games In Bite Sized Chunks!" (excerpt: "Some thoughts on casual gamers having shorter and shorter attention spans, and some ideas on how to design games for them"). The solution I came up with then is "games in bite-size chunks that I can keep challenging myself over and over again with". In it, I argued: "Games HAVE to be pick up and play. Games don't have to be really short, but they should be short enough so that the player doesn't lose interest, or they have to be really engaging so that the player doesn't get bored. Like I mentioned before, casual games are played in between -- in between classes, checking Facebook messages, or during train rides." Now, after a year in iPhone game development, I have made some new realizations. We recently released a game, and the comment that we got most often is the game is too short. Our game is a shoot'em up, with five levels, each lasting about three minutes. Okay, it does seem short, so in our next update, we will have to add another level. Although, would adding another level really solve the problem? I fear that we might end up adding more levels (repeat ad infinitum). Our problem is not actually how short the game is, rather how replayable it is. I realized that I don't want my games simply in bite-sized chunks; I want my game in bite-sized chunks that I can keep on eating forever (and not get bored or fat). Basically, I want a game that doesn't end (like the song). But how do we make a game that is infinitely replayable and won't get our players bored? I think Tiny Wings (and the newly released Be The Kiwi) already answers the question in some ways.
Both games offer "a new look every day you play," a "different appearance every time you start the game." Tiny Wings uses procedural graphics to generate the levels each day. And with procedural generation, it's almost impossible to end up generating the exact same level. In a sense, it has an infinite possibilities of levels. But why would we want a game that never ends? The target audience of iPhone games (Android, etc) are casual and commuter gamers, (people who play with games while they are waiting for the train, etc). They are the type of people (forgive me for generalizing) who would slide unlock their phones, and then tap on one game and start playing when they get bored on the train, etc. Easily accessible now means that they want to be able to play the game as soon as possible, they don't want to have to sign in the GameCenter or other services in order to play the game, and they want a Quick Play button (just one tap, and the game will start). Also, when they arrive at their stop, they want to stop the game at once, and then maybe pick up again whenever. In a way, they are not as invested in the game as people who would play games on their consoles or PCs. They play games to pass the time, to relax. Once they have the simple mechanics of one game, most likely they will play the game over and over again. I have seen many people (ok, myself included) play Angry Birds to death. Well, with Angry Birds, I play the same levels over and over again in order to get the three stars. And the good thing about Angry Birds is that it has a lot of levels. But of course, a lot of levels is hard work to design, develop and balance. So it's either make a lot of levels, or find a way to make your game levels procedural and have an infinite number of levels. Which is a better option? As a developer, I'm not really sure. But as a gamer, I think I'd like a game that I can play forever, and at $0.99, that's a bargain. [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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