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What it takes to be a top Android game

clash-of-clans-android-app1

It’s the year end once again, and holiday season would usually involve sales (starting from Black Friday and Cyber Monday onwards), promotions and deals. It’s also the time for year-end round-ups, top-10 lists and other rankings for the year. For instance, did you know that Facebook is the top mobile application of 2013? According to a Nielsen study, the Facebook Mobile app has garnered 103 million plus average unique users. But Google dominates with five mobile apps in the top 10, including Gmail, Google Play and YouTube.

Then there are also the top ranking games for this year. On the Android platform, one can expect the leading games to be mostly the casual kind — we can’t expect too much from mobile devices after all, with their limitations in terms of screen size, processing power and graphics capability. But in a recent list by Heavy.com, the top 10 Android games of the year include a good mix of both casual games, arcade games, strategy games, as well as some role-playing games. There are a handful of other lists out there, but the mix of game types is usually similar.

This prompted me to take a deeper look into what makes mobile games so popular. Sure, there are thousands of games out there, but only a few make the cut, in terms of gaining traction among an audience. Either these games go viral and people keep on sharing their statuses and achievements on social networks, get featured on Google Play (as well as the iTunes App Store), or perhaps some already have a solid following from other platforms.

Here are a few thoughts.

Games are simple enough to play on touchscreens and mobile devices

Why do we spend hours and hours tapping on our phone and tablet touchscreens? Because we can!
Why do we spend hours and hours tapping on our phone and tablet touchscreens? Because we can!

Touch screens offer an altogether different gameplay compared with keyboards and controllers — gamers have the ability to actually manipulate elements on screen. But casual games seem to benefit the most, even in their simplicity. On Candy Crush Saga, for instance, it’s all taps. On most others, a combination of taps, swipes, shakes and even position changes. The repetitive motions and real-time on-screen feedback can be addictive, after all.

They are social

Why would you want to spend hours and hours tapping on your touchscreen? Because you can!
I get a ton of Candy Crush Saga invites on Facebook. Do you?

Most popular Android games involve some social elements, which can include sharing achievements on social networks like Facebook or Twitter. This, in turn, encourages social media contacts to likewise join the game, or at least share their own achievements. Some games even give incentives like in-game items or currency for social media referrals or sharing.

Some are unique, but not all

Plants vs Zombies 2 for Android
The Plants vs Zombies series is a new take on the “castle defense” concept

In the world of gaming, you’ve probably seen similarities across games and titles. You can probably generalize games into certain genres, like 2D platform games, first-person shooters, perpetual running games, RPGs and puzzle games, racing simulators, or even so-called “sandbox” games where there is no structured approach to gameplay. One might wonder whether there’s anything unique about these games at all.

But even if some game play elements might be the same, you might find unique, interesting or innovative approaches to the genre. Why did Angry Birds rise to prominence, for instance, when there are other, older physics-based puzzle games that came before it? Is it because it capitalized on the rise of touchscreen devices? How about Minecraft (one of last year’s top releases), with its lack of structure and order. What makes it so popular?

They are engaging

There are a ton of perpetual running games out there, but each brings its own unique gameplay element that makes the game so addictive.
There are a ton of perpetual running games out there, but each brings its own unique gameplay element that makes the game so addictive.

Sure, most mobile games can sometimes be rote, especially if puzzles require repetitive motions that can end up to be boring. But game developers are always adding new twists and challenges to games, requiring an attribute of player intelligence and responsiveness. This is what makes these applications so exciting and engaging that your two-hour train ride might not be enough — you’d want to keep playing.

They span different platforms

GTA: San Andreas
GTA is one of my favorite series because of its anything-goes nature.

Game developers cannot rely on a single mobile platform or ecosystem if they want to gain a big audience. One has to release on both Android and iOS, for instance, plus other smaller audiences like Windows Phone and BlackBerry. The more successful ones are even able to launch titles across different types of devices: console, mobile and computer. Take the Grand Theft Auto series, for example, which has releases on Android, Game Boy, iOS, PlayStation, PSP, Nintendo DS, Xbox, PC, Mac. You name it, they have it.

Not all games can release on different ecosystems, however, but the successful ones at least try to reach as wide an audience as they can through different platform releases.

It’s about timing, too

Sadly, one of this year's top-selling games is not being released on Android (yet?), but there is an official companion app that extends the functionality o the console game.
Sadly, one of this year’s top-selling games is not being released on Android (yet?), but there is an official companion app that extends the functionality o the console game.

The holiday season is a good time to release new titles, especially for apps and games sold as premium items. But it is even better when the public is expecting the launch of new console gaming systems. This year, platforms are getting a major refresh, with Sony releasing the PlayStation 4 and Microsoft also releasing the Xbox One. This comes  with new versions of popular games like Call of Duty: Ghosts, which sold at least $1 billion on the first day alone. This particular title has 1/5 odds at Ladbrokes for being the best-selling game of 2013, even if it was only introduced late in the year. Interestingly, this particular PS4 game by Activision runs on more powerful console gaming systems, but has an official companion app for Android and iOS (download from Google Play here).

In the end, success in game development will be a combination of these factors. What will matter for us mobile users and gamers, of course, is discovering great games, as well as getting to play these on whichever platform or device we enjoy most.