"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.
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?
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.