The standard platforms for game design are either PCs or home consoles, both of which normally exist within private, stable, and controlled conditions. Thus, given the design of home games, the environment in which they’re played is not given much thought. Portable games on the other hand are interesting, since they can be played in a multitude of places, all of which can have an effect on gameplay and design. How does one effectively design for a portable game? How can we make them better? What are the main principles behind portable games? Well, let’s take a look.
In order to dissect the core ideas supporting portable design, lets look at the different scenarios in which portable consoles come in handy and how the design caters to them. Portable games can be played for short bursts in between getting stuff done around the house, while sitting on the bus, waiting for an appointment, or simply lazing on the sofa for a long stretch of time. The principles present in each of these examples in order are, time, presentation, abnegation, and flexibility. That sounds a bit vague now, but they’re all vital to a portable game, both individually as well as intertwined.
The first and most readily apparent aspect is time, or the time of an average play session to be more exact. A well made portable game should be able to engage the player within reasonably small spans of interactivity. This time slot of average play time should be anywhere between thirty seconds, such as in Half-Minute Hero, to an hour, such as in Valkyria Chronicles 2. This allows players to still experience an uninterrupted chunk of gameplay, but keeps it compact and structured. It leads to an interesting trade off that requires designers to find the right balance based on their mechanics. Make gameplay segments too short and players can lose interest, but make them too long and the player has a greater chance of being interrupted. A portable game must also be properly paced to allow for extended breaks between gameplay and story. Players must be able to stop playing at a moments notice, only to come back and pick up where they left off without any disconnect.
The next element that designers must take note of is presentation. A player should be able to enjoy a portable game while surrounded by people, meaning that audio, visuals, and gameplay for the most part should try to keep themselves tame. While that doesn’t mean every game should abstain from cursing and violence, try to keep elements such as these sparse, or even better, optional. The use of a toggle option for swearing and violence, such as the one in Brutal Legend, is an option that more designers should try to implement. It removes content restrictions from the design but doesn’t discourage the player from playing amongst mixed company. Sure, sometimes there are exceptions where even an optional system is not required, but just keep it in mind so your game isn’t rendered unplayable in public like Dead or Alive: Paradise.
This brings us to abnegation, or simply put, killing time. Portable consoles are wonderful sources of abnegation in busy or boring places, which serves more as a helpful advantage to designers rather than a design restriction. Relaxing, easy, and repetitive gameplay can be more easily forgiven in a portable game played at the dentist’s than in a home console surrounded by countless other sources of entertainment. That’s not to say that designers should use portable games as an excuse to make horrible, padded and boring games, just that they shouldn’t be afraid of implementing slower and more rigid, experimental forms of interaction. A few good examples of games who have taken to portable consoles as a refuge, are Ghost Trick, Hotel Dusk, Phoenix Wright, and 999. Older and more archaic games can also find rebirth on handhelds, such as the original Final Fantasy games being available on the PSP, or Nintendo’s wonderful classic backlog available on the 3DS. Designers must still remember to use this slight advantage in responsible and appropriate ways though, lest we be buried under a pile of shovelware and lazily-developed games.
If we take the time to step back and analyze what we currently have, you may actually notice that smart phone games ostensibly fit these requirements perfectly. Games such as Angry Birds break their stages to small bite sized challenges, keep their aesthetics appropriate for both children and adults, and provide a simple engagement that serves as a great time killer. Other types of mobile games such as Farmville instead use their time sensitive design requirements in order to space out the amount of resources given to a player at any given time, while also upholding all other requirements. If these simple phone games are able to boast better portable design than more traditional handhelds such as the DS and PSP, then why we even try with these other types of portables? The saving grace of these consoles are flexibility.
Flexibility may be the most important aspect of designing for traditional handhelds, and teaches us the real lesson behind portable design. The wonderful thing about modern portable consoles such as the 3DS and Vita, is that they remove many boundaries that have long since constricted portable design. It may be true that limitations may inspire great works, but the limitations have instead moved to phone game design. This means that our more traditional and modern handhelds also offer the chance to deliver meatier and more consistent experiences that do not even need to subscribe to main portable design theories. If your game makes wonderful use of a portable’s peripherals and cheap licensing, then all of the structured and regimented design can be thrown out the window, allowing for freedom and creativity. One of the best examples of this would be Gravity Daze, which uses many of the Vita’s input modes in ways that assist immersion and also presents sandbox gameplay similar to a Grand Theft Auto game.
Portable consoles are one of the last bastions of the the AA studio. They’re a place full of rules, and without rules; a place where quirky and unique games are king. This is why I believe that portable games and portable design still has a place in our industry, and still deserves attention. Tomatoes deserve attention as well. While it may be a wild, wild, west, portable design is still worthy of a closer look.
Special thanks to Saotome for authoring this article.
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