Commentary

Meaningful Diversions, Or How I Got Hijacked By A Sopwith Camel

I was going to write about brand clutter on the mobile deck in this column, until I flipped my phone open to start researching it. In that weird way that only a serendipitous encounter with interactive content can do (this usually happens to me in the email in-box), I took an unintended detour into the new Namco game "Snoopy the Flying Ace." I ended up staying in PeanutsLand for a long while, and I think I learned a lot about why so many other mobile games (and perhaps the mobile experience altogether) suck so badly.

"Snoopy" brings the design ethic of simplicity to its logical conclusion -- one-button game play. Except to navigate menus, there is only one command you need to know in this game, that the center OK button on your directional pad keeps Snoopy and his famed Sopwith Camel doghouse aloft. You glide and navigate our hero through storm clouds, to pick up balloons, avoid enemy fliers. This is something that game designers just don't get (or can't bring themselves to accept) - that in the three-to-five-minute window in which we play these games on the go, you just can't dumb it down enough.

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This one-button mechanic of keeping the player aloft first appeared a couple of years ago in a game version of the After Dark Flying Toasters. It is a brilliant design move for phones because it solves the inherent challenge of using a dialing pad for gameplay input by simply ignoring the keypad entirely. I have seen phone games that actually start with a map of dial pad in which every key is assigned a function. The day I can remember the keypad assignments for mobile Metal Gear Solid is the day I start worrying about myself.

You also can't make it soothing enough. There is a therapeutic quality to the most successful casual games that is anathema to the action-oriented "challenge" of typical video games, and many designers miss this. Keeping Snoopy and his doghouse aloft with gentle key presses is a game goal with a tangible payoff; it is a bit hypnotic. A study of male and female gamers years ago discovered that men tend to game for the "challenge," while women play for the relaxation. So games with a simple, soothing rhythm and tone such as Bejeweled and Zuma are like crack for soccer moms.

But once you do pare down the design to the bare essentials of a single key press, then you can introduce detail and complexity gradually via more intricate levels. For instance, a double press of the OK button makes Snoopy loop the loop. And then storm clouds and enemy fighter start appearing.

One of the things the Snoopy game gets so right is the simple balance of story and gameplay. At the outset, Snoopy is gathering balloons in order to lift Woodstock's nest back up a tree. This all sounds disarmingly simple, but in fact it is the necessary element to give the game play some sense of purpose. Just as important is that the story is communicated as cleanly and visually as one of Charles Schultz's original Snoopy strips. For those of us who were fans of the original strip, the Snoopy ones tended to be short silent films: no word or thought balloons, just pantomime. This approach works beautifully on a phone, and game designers would do well to follow Schulz and Namco's good examples. On some platforms, making your characters shut up is the best way to help them communicate. We are only beginning to understand that despite its postage stamp size, the mobile phone is a visual content medium. One of the cool little things that the Snoopy game does is reward the player with comic strips at certain milestones.

The game progresses through a series of "Acts" in which a set of levels satisfies a plot point or advances the situation. The design telegraphs to the player how long this will take, because you can see how many levels are ahead of you. The sense of accomplishment at reaching meaningful milestones is always present. Again, this is something that game developers generally don't get, that players like to attach meaning even to the mindless play and that they need to sense an end point, especially when they are squeezing in a few minutes of phone gaming.

I suspect that "Snoopy the Flying Ace" successfully hijacked me from my original topic (it is coming next time) because it really is a welcome respite from the rest of my phone experience. I wonder what mobile marketers could learn from this?

  • That we could do more to help users "glide" through information and mobile experiences, not just "access" them. There is a reason why the iPod and now the iPhone interface feels so different; it is because they let us slip down into data.

  • That we could use transparency to help users know from the outset where they are going in an application, how long it will take, and what the goals are.

  • That the deck is, after all, more visual than we think -- and that we may do better showing rather than saying. Schultz demonstrated how a simple line, a hint of movement, and an arched eyebrow can communicate so much more efficiently than text. The combination of image with spare dialogue is the essence of the one mass medium in the last two centuries that has endured in its original form and continues to satisfy us. Comic strips are also the medium that communicates in precisely the same miniature form factor as a cell phone screen.

    Imagine if a media historian of the next century decided that the mobile content platform had its roots more in the daily comic strip than it did in the Web? Or maybe I am just being Snoopy's blockheaded owner.

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