Flick It
February 8, 2012

The touchstone for a popular mobile app has, in the last two years, become Rovio's Angry Birds. Mention that game to most iOS developers and you'll either see Angry Birds induced anger froth forth, or an earnest explanation as to why their app will be even bigger than that.

Introduced December 11, 2009, the app seems a ridiculously simple concept, and on the face of it, it doesn't sound like much. Some green pigs have stolen the eggs of a variety of birds (Green Eggs and Ham, anyone?). You control the birds and you fling those birds via a stationary slingshot at structures of stone, glass and wood that the pigs have built around them. The birds either strike the pigs directly and destroy them or they knock down bits of the structures on top of the pigs and destroy them that way. A level can be completed (or failed) in well under a minute.

That's it.

The game has succeeded because while the characters and visual design are not the greatest, they are cute and reasonably well rendered and displayed. The extreme number of levels (and Rovio is constantly adding more levels at no additional cost to the player) and speed at which levels can be played are key points to its repeat playability. In addition, Rovio taps into the competitive players and the completionist players by including levels of winning. You can go on to the next screen if you kill all the piggies, but ... to unlock certain levels you have to have gotten a score high enough to earn you three stars. But, that's not all. Many levels have golden eggs hidden in them. Some are easily visible, some are not. You can play the game and succeed without ever hitting a golden egg, but to be competitive or completionist, you have to go back through and hunt down the golden eggs as well. For most people, new levels come out before they can complete all levels, including golden eggs and the three star level.

The game is constantly enticing players back with new levels or by social media (hearing about a golden egg for example).

Another level of engagement is the game physics. Honestly, the game seems to personify the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. The game physics are reasonably reliable, although if you talk to anyone who plays the game regularly you'll inevitably hear frustration that "there is NO WAY a damn pig would survive having four stone blocks on top of it" or "there is no way in HELL that piece of wood would not fall down in real life. Don't the game makers understand basic physics?"

The game physics, I have grown to believe despite my occasional frustrations, are this way very much on purpose. Players become convinced that they are "almost there" and if they "just do this a little bit differently" it will work. In addition, adding some random element to the physics means that no two players are getting precisely the exact same results on levels. I know I have attempted to count pixels before releasing my bird - expecting that if the physics are completely consistent, I could expect that bird to land in the same spot every time. That doesn't happen. It might be close, but it's never exactly the same. I suppose we could chalk up this random element as the air speed we can't see or feel, but it's become one of the elements I believe makes the game most addicting because you can do the same thing over and over again and it's not insanity - you don't get exactly the same results. It's not so far as to be inconsistent - it's small variances. I find this important to note since inconsistency will frustrate players and cause them to reject the game.

Combining the game physics with the rapid level plays, the plethora of levels and the various goals, the "addiction" level of the game tends to be quite high.

There are only a handful of games I continuously go back to and Angry Birds (in all its permutations) is one. The two other favourites are Iconfactory's Ramp Champ (developed very much prior to the release of the retina displays) and Tiny Wings by Andreas Illiger.

Both of these games are essentially designer-driven and as such are drop-dead gorgeous. The design certainly caught my eye, but the game play on both are also quite well thought-out. Ramp Champ is essentially either Skee-Ball or a target gallery game, depending on the level you play. You roll the balls up the ramp, hit targets or holes and get points. The points earn you tickets, just like in physical Skee-Ball and you exchange them for virtual prizes. There's a set of shelves for you to display (and interact) with your goodies and there's also 3 goals for you to hit per level with trophies received (and displayed in your trophy shelves) as well. You have fast play and lots of incentives to keep coming back to the game. After all, you have to save up to get some of those nifty prizes!

At first blush, this game should have gone just as viral as Angry Birds, but it didn't. It was certainly attractive enough to catch the eyes and attentions of people. Game play was fast and it was a variation on a well-loved and established game.

I believe it didn't achieve the same popularity for an extremely frustrating reason. In Angry Birds, the graphics are reasonable and cute, but they're not drop-dead gorgeous. The backgrounds from major "chapter" to major "chapter" change, but the individual levels within a "chapter" don't change much. The game pieces don't really change much either, other than the occasional addition of a new bird or new complication. Development time for Angry Birds is primarily devoted to level design, not visual design.

Ramp Champ's development time focused both on level design and drop-dead gorgeous, intense-focus-on-the-little-details visual design as well. The result was far fewer levels. They added in-app purchase of additional levels and did seasonal levels before Rovio added Angry Birds Seasons to the mix, but it was one level per season whereas Rovio had one "chapter" per season with 15, 30 or more levels to it.

Ramp Champ has a loyal and devout following and when the retina display iPhones came out and especially when the iPad came out, players begged for an update to the game. Several of the Iconfactory designers said it would never happen. The graphics would have to be recreated at the different resolutions in order to maintain the standards they'd already set in the visual design of the levels. The ROI for the update, which many users would insist should be free, was just not worth the time. The same went for the additional ramp packs - it wasn't worth the time and effort to produce more levels if the purchases weren't forthcoming. Without continuing support for the ever-changing world of iOS and without adding more levels, the game essentially flat-lined.

Similarly, Tiny Wings also had fast game play with multiple goals per level and also had gorgeous graphics. It got quite a bit of buzz in the design community when it first came out, but I rarely hear about it now. The basic gameplay for this game is you have a bird with tiny wings - he can't fly far, but if you land him just right in the valleys, you essentially slingshot him high up in the sky and give him a speed and distance boost. You have various basic goals, gathering coins, getting to a further island before night overtakes you and more specific goals to each level.

I eventually lost interest in the game because despite the fact that the colour, textures and arrangement of the hills and valleys differed (along with the goals), the basic background was essentially the same. Combining that with the increasing difficulty of the levels and I eventually got bored. (Granted, I have a low threshold of boredom, but I can also be quite obsessive about completing all goals.) It became the same look and the same goals in my mind as the game progressed. There was not enough change to keep my interest. I'm sure that Andreas Illiger kept the backgrounds relatively similar in order to cut down on development needs, but that trade-off is a portion of what finally made the game boring to me. I understand that Tiny Wings was voted iPhone game of the year for 2011 and even landed a top spot in the App Store until Angry Birds Rio was released. Still, despite its success, the buzz around it has not reached the viral levels and penetrated popular culture in the way that Angry Birds has.

Angry Birds is not a brilliant game in and of itself. It is a brilliant understanding of why we play games. It fits a need for us to have something to do whilst we wait in line at the store, wait for a plane or unwind before bed. We don't have to make much of a time commitment to the game in order to succeed at it. It's constantly introducing new things - environments, characters, complications. Its random elements ensure the game is never exactly the same and its incredible wealth of levels ensures that even if you replay a level you've not only beaten, but three-starred, you'll most likely have forgotten just how you did it last time. It understands our need for constantly challenging ourselves, our propensity for boredom and our desire to compare our achievements to others.

It also understands the fine balance between design and business practicality.

It's not a choice I would prefer to make. As a designer, I want stunning graphics all the way through my game. But I have to admit that what truly keeps me coming back is both the challenge of "almost getting it" and new levels. If Angry Birds had stopped releasing new levels and challenges both, I'd have deleted it long ago.

Posted by Red Monkey at February 8, 2012 8:25 PM | Design | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Dawn said:

Haven't honestly played much of Angry Birds, though the few times I have, I can see why it's addictive. It's cute. I like the little sounds the birds make. It's bright. I don't feel too badly when I don't knock everything down, but I get a little rush of pleasure when I have a good hit. Elliot, however, loses his interest quite quickly with Angry Birds, though hat he does like and is good at is World of Goo, which he plays on the iPad at his school since I've yet to get one.

March 5, 2012 6:49 AM
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