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What Makes a Mobile Blockbuster? Designs in Top iPhone Apps

The Apple App store passes its 10 billionth download, and the few games who have sold millions have a lot in common. What are the key elements of a blockbuster mobile design?

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

The Apple App store, servicing apps to the iPhone, iPad, and more, recently passed its 10 billionth app download.  Incredible.

A very large portion of these apps are games.  Simple, only $0.99, and addictive, the most popular titles have made a few talented developers rich and given others a good chunk of change.  It’s always exciting when new platforms and audiences open up.  But each always brings with it its own set of rules, challenges, and player behaviors that need to be mastered by designers in order to succeed on the platform.

What can we game designers learn from the successes of these games?  We can learn a lot by analyzing the game designs of each of these top iPhone games and see what they have in common, and how they can be used in our own game titles.  I’ve done my best to stay objective in this article and point out aspects that are factually similar between these top sellers.  Designers, you’re free to take from this analysis what you will.

Let’s take a look at the following paid iPhone apps (source):

Playing within 10 Seconds

There are two hurdles to getting a player to actually play your game once they’ve booted it up.  The first is getting the game to a point where the player can perform an action, and the second is getting the player to understand what to do.

Most other platforms, consoles, PC games, and so on, take a substantial amount of time before the fun begins.  On console games it’s a few minutes for setting up the game, getting through the intro movie, starting a new save file, and so forth.  Because the games are larger, the barriers to beginning to play take longer to trudge through.

Each of these top selling games gets the player performing an action in the game in about 10 seconds.  Just 10 seconds!  That’s even faster than most online Flash games, which used to be the gold standard for attention deficit game design, clocking in at about one minute before the player is enjoying what they’re doing.

Some examples:

  • In Traffic Rush, the player presses start, and the cars start coming
  • In Doodle Jump, players press start and the character automatically begins jumping up the platforms
  • In Pocket God, you load the game, the island appears, and you can begin playing with it

In addition to getting the player to a state of the game where they can begin interacting, all of these games are also designed to be very intuitive, which is the name of the game for Apple’s platform.  In each game, players can more or less figure out exactly what they need to do almost immediately.  And if they don’t, then it becomes amply clear in one or two clicks.

This is a great takeaway for designers.  The two traditional approaches for teaching a game’s design are usually either a tutorial, or allowing the player enough time to poke around and figure it out.  But by taking the time to convey the game’s design quickly, the developers of these titles removed one of the central hurdles to getting a player up and running.

Complete Action within One Swipe

Think of all of the work that needs to be done for some games.   In an RPG you need to navigate a menu, select “Attack”, then select the enemy to hit, and then confirm, and wait a few seconds for it to be your turn.  In Farmville you need to click a crop, select which one to plant, wait for your avatar to walk over, and then come back later to harvest.  Even in a game as simple as Mario super need to jump, aim yourself to land on an enemy, and come down on top of him.  Not as simple as possible.

In each of these iPhone games, a single click or swipe (which uses about the same amount of brain power as a single click) performs an entire action.  With one quick movement the player is satisfied with what they’ve done and what happened because of it.  Here are some examples:

  • In Tap Tap Revenge, a single tap handles each note (compare this to Guitar Hero, which requires both a button and a guitar strum)
  • In Traffic Rush, a tap stops a car, while a swipe speeds it up
  • In Angry Birds, a swipe pulls back the bird and flings it at its target

This design philosophy makes playing each of these games very satisfying.  Few things are more boring than something that you interact with and receive no feedback.  Walking through a long hallway in Zelda without anything exciting happening.  Hitting a block in Super Mario, trying to find a secret, and revealing nothing.  Trying to annoy your older brother, and all he does is ignore you.

But this never happens in any of these games.  Each time you tap or swipe, the game responds quickly and in an interesting way.  That quick loop keeps mobile players appetite for action satisfied.

Great Depth of Gameplay

While on one hand each of these games are brilliantly simple and intuitive in their initial designs, don’t let that fool you.  These games are all poster children for the concept “easy to learn, hard to master”.  By getting the player started on a simple and easy-to-understand concept and then moving quickly to expand into vast gameplay space, the games do a great job of conveying the value of purchasing the full game.


  • Doodle Jump begins with numerous, stable platforms, but eventually introduces crumbling platforms, springs, and moving platforms
  • Angry Birds starts with simple targets and destructible blocks, but soon moves to concrete, ice, and more heavily guarded pig targets to stump even expert players
  • Bejeweled 2 + Blitz has combos and a high score counter, challenging the player to endlessly improve
  • Flight Control begins with just a few planes, but they quickly increase in frequency

It’s really very inspiring how much fun the designers of each of these titles have been able to fit into such simple mechanics.  Video after video has players talking about how they’ve spent hours playing each of these games.  When you hear this your first thought is, “Really?” but upon picking the title up you can see how easy it is to get sucked into getting that one more point.  And they do this without unlocking entirely new features, usually just a few tweaks to an already fun experience.

Other Key Similarities?

One of my favorite things about editing this blog is having smart readers.  There are of course many factors we could talk about that contributed to what made these games successful, but in terms of their designs, are there other similarities that I’ve missed?  Point them out if you see any!

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

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