6 App Design Tips from Experienced App Designers

Photo via Flickr / Cristiano Betta

Photo via Flickr / Cristiano Betta

A great app is one people want to use over and over again. And great apps all have one thing in common – a well-executed design appropriate for the platform and use. Sometimes it takes a few bad experiences (AKA zero-to-no amount of downloads) to get the hang of user experience in mobile devices, but sometimes it’s much easier to learn from other developers’ experiences.

Here are six expert app design tips to satisfy clients and keep users coming back.


Mixamo delivers 3D facial animation capture via standard Webcam

Image via Mixamo

Image via Mixamo

I’m sitting inside Mixamo’s San Francisco studio, and as I grimace and growl at the Webacam, the character on screen grimaces and growls right back in a way that is both hilarious and downright eerie. Those are my mannerisms in real-time now staring back at me in the form of an animated character.

The motion-capture game is about to change.

Forget the days of face sensors or markers, as thanks to Mixamo’s new Face Plus Unity plugin (utilizes the new Unity 4.3 blendshape technology), work that used to take weeks is now done in minutes, giving small to mid-size developers the ability to add facial animations to games at fractions of the cost and manpower.


Gamebrain reveals cloud-based development and publishing platform

Image via Gamebrain

Image via Gamebrain

Designed to address the needs of small to mid-sized mobile game developers, Gamebrain announced today a cloud-based development and publishing platform that Founder and CEO Eduardo Cervantes sees as a major breakthrough for developers looking to expedite the process from game idea to monetization.

“It is very hard to get your game discovered by the public,” explains Cervantes, “especially if you’re a small developer. You just don’t have the resources to rank high on the app stores.

“The top 20 game development companies account for 90-percent of revenue at the big app stores, both Google and Apple. In our study, we counted 1.1 million app development shops and independent developers around the world. So if the top 20 players are taking 90-percent of the revenue, that means the other 10-percent is being spread out among those 1.1 million developers. So where we see the opportunity is in evening the playing field.”


Guest Post: The secrets to Blood Brothers’ success

Editor’s note: DeNA’s Japanese RPG card battler has been a hit for the mobile-social gaming juggernaut since release. As Inside Mobile Apps previously reported, Blood Brothers’ events feature is wildly successful for the game. In a third guest post from Kevin Oke, lead designer at both Adrian Crook & Associates, a social-mobile game design consultancy, and PlayRank, a second screen startup, he analyzes the successful components of Blood Brothers from an outsider’s perspective. He previously wrote guest posts for Inside Mobile Apps which analyzed Supercell’s Clash of Clans and NimbeBit’s Nimbe Quest.

DeNA Mobage’s Blood Brothers for iOS and Android recently celebrated its one year anniversary, and is continuing to monetize very well, with an ARPU that has grown every month since release. With this milestone in mind, now seems like a good time to take a dive into the game and highlight some of the things this collectible card game (CCG) does well.

Although it’s certainly firmly rooted in the conventions of the CCG genre (“hands-off” battles, card fusion, gacha) Blood Brothers does add its own touches of innovation, as explained below.

Blood Brothers PvP battle surfacingPvP

Blood Brothers excels at player vs. player (PvP) on a number of levels, one being surfacing. Good surfacing ensures that players are not only made aware of key AEM (Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization) features and the benefits they stand to gain by using them, but also pushed towards these behaviors via smart timing and offering incentives. This is generally done through contextual dialog boxes and limited time promotions.

As PvP gameplay is traditionally a strong source of retention and monetization, it’s especially important to do surfacing well. Blood Brothers keeps PvP at the forefront of the player’s mind with random PvP battles while the player is progressing through a level. These random battles are effective in several ways:

  • Surfacing of PvP gameplay to get the player interested in it and strengthen its ability to help monetize and retain players.
  • Increases PvP’s effectiveness as a morale sink (morale being the rechargeable energy resource needed to engage in PvP and raid boss fights).
  • Clear, simple goals and incentives (winning streaks reward the player with items) — these suck the player in, extending sessions and draining the player of their morale as they attempt to extend their win streak to hit the next reward.

Although conceptually not unique to Blood Brothers, the inclusion of “all-out attacks” (more effective than regular attacks but three-times more costly in terms of morale) and high level raid bosses that are susceptible to them further help to keep morale a precious resource and make a micro-transaction refill more tempting.

Lastly, compared to the confusing and convoluted user experience (UX) that precludes getting into a PvP match in Rage of Bahamut, there is little such friction in Blood Brothers. Opponent selection filtering options are eliminated in favor of pre-determined choices, and it’s immediately clear to the player what’s at stake with rewards, and how their deck stacks up against their potential opponents. (more…)

Google I/O 2013: How to make magical Android apps

Android jelly BeanIn the final part of a three-leg series about Android development pro tips, Reto Meier, Android developer relations tech lead at Google, presented some tips for Android developers to make their apps “magical.” Meier wanted to answer the question “How do we build apps significantly enough to feel like magic?”

For his first tip, Meier says the easiest way for a developer to make an app magical is by looking at competitors.

“You can use your competitors as an eye for where you should be,” he says. But there’s a downfall when analyzing what competitors are doing. “Aiming for the past or where your competitors have been isn’t magic,” he adds.

Meier also says developers shouldn’t focus on the current breakdown of the Android operating system, which Google provides publicly at its developer dashboard.

“If you wait for Jelly Bean to hit 50 percent, you’re going to be behind,” he says. Meier adds that developers should build apps for users with the latest Android OS, especially.

An example of a magical moment is when two users hold their handsets together, tap the devices together, and initiate a multiplayer session in a game, similarly to the sharing capability in Samsung’s Galaxy S3 and newer handsets. “For regular people, this is the sort of stuff that creates magical experiences,” Meier says.

Meier provided some additional tips including not transmitting or storing contact details or location of users, supplying a privacy policy on Google Play and allowing users to delete stored data as well as not storing data that’s more than a few months old.

Meier continually drove the point home on designing a personalized app for everyone. To do that, a developer has to create context through tracking. A developer can implement tracking abilities in their apps such as location tracking, activity recognition (which can tell if a user is running, walking, cycling, etc.) and social tracking of a user’s Google+ profile. Utilizing a mobile device’s sensory abilities such as sight, sound, and touch, can create a rich sensory experience for the user that will feel magical.

Disney Interactive launches storytelling app Story for iOS

Disney Story app iconDisney Interactive today launched Story for iOS, a storytelling app that accesses a user’s camera roll of photos and videos on their mobile device and automatically organizes their media into stories, which can be personalized, saved and shared.

Disney senior director of engineering Scott Gerlach told Inside Mobile Apps that “We realized that parents were collecting media on their phones at a rate even greater than the typical smartphone user. They were drowning in this sea of personal media and feeling pressure from their family and friends to share that.”

Gerlach, who works for Disney’s parent-oriented group called Women and Family, explains that although Story is geared toward moms and parents, the app is for everyone.Disney Story screenshot

Story is broken up into two sections — Moments and Stories. Moments are pieces of media from a user’s camera roll that is automatically pulled together based on a piece of media’s time stamp and location tag by Disney’s proprietary algorithm. The developers classified a moment as something that can’t span more than a calendar day, and no piece of media in a series collected within that time span can have a gap of more than a certain amount of time or distance. Once a moment is collected, a user can turn it into a story. Users can drag and drop media around, edit a title, add captions, and give their story a theme, which consists of fonts, colors, backgrounds and photo treatments. Gerlach says Disney will later allow users to add vocal annotations, music and other forms of media, to their stories. (more…)

Guest Post: Analyzing the stickiness in Nimble Quest

Editor’s note: Arcade action game Nimble Quest is the latest offering from Tiny Towers and Pocket Planes developer NimbleBit. Kevin Oke, Lead Designer at both Adrian Crook & Associates, a social-mobile game design consultancy, and PlayRank, a second screen startup, analyzes the stickiness in Nimble Quest. He previously wrote a guest post for Inside Mobile Apps that analyzed engagement in Supercell’s Clash of Clans.

nimblebit-logoNimbleBit, creators of Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes, released their latest title the aptly named Nimble Quest at the end of March. While it’s a fun game, I’ve found four key issues described below that I believe limit its stickiness and in turn, its ability to monetize.

According to AppData, after a strong start peaking at No. 6 on the top free iPhone apps chart for the games genre, it has slid to No. 217 as of this writing. Its rank on the top grossing iPhone apps chart for the games genre is at No. 190. These positions may be at least partially attributable to the issues I found.

The Compulsion Loop

This is the biggest barrier for Nimble Quest to overcome. The nature of its compulsion loop makes for a very grind heavy experience that hinders its stickiness.Nimble Quest compulsion loop

It’s a rule of thumb in game design that the shorter the loop, the more addictive the experience. By analyzing the loop (diagram above), one can see that unless the player is willing to spend hard currency, they have to restart from the beginning every time. The variable session length nature of the game means that as the player and their friends improve, it takes more and more time for them to challenge their ever-increasing high scores.

Essentially Nimble Quest is banking on players getting invested enough in leaderboard competition to start paying once the grind becomes too much to bear. This is a risky hook to rely on here, as it’s one that is much better suited to games with more of a sense of permanence and ownership, like city builders and strategy games such as Kingdoms of Camelot by Kabam. The reason being that without such permanence, it’s much easier for the player to decide to quit when the grinding gets tiresome.

As in any freemium game leveraging the player’s time for money, if the player tires of the grind too quickly and churns out, they can’t be monetized. However Nimble Quest is especially at risk here because of their compulsion loop. Fixed session lengths with level progression and difficulty determined by a party XP level would have provided more stickiness. (more…)

Google refreshes Google Play’s look

google-play-logoGoogle today revealed a new redesigned look for its Google Play app store on Android smartphones and tablets.

The refreshed look is one that’s simple, clean and aimed to help users find apps and media content faster. Notable changes include larger images, grouping of similar content and the appearance of content recommendations as the user scrolls through the app store. Purchasing has also been simplified, so users can go from checkout to enjoying their content as fast as possible.

The previous look of the Google Play store was more text heavy, with black as its primary color. The redesigned store changes the main colors to lighter colors, which is more akin to the look of the web-based Google Chrome Store.

The redesigned Google Play store begins rolling out today for Android smartphones and tablets running the Android Froyo operating system (version 2.2) and above. The refreshed storefront will roll out worldwide in the next few weeks.Google Play redesign tabletGoogle Play redesign smartphone

Web-based Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliances heads to mobile

Electronic Arts’ web-based game Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliances is heading to mobile, featuring cross-platform play between the web-based and mobile versions. Senior producer Martin Löhlein of EA Phenomic filled us in on the massively-multiplayer strategy title’s gameplay, cross-platform capability and monetization hooks.EA logo

“Right from the start, Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliances was designed to work on both platforms,” he says. “The size of the bases, the amount of building that you have in bases, the size of the defense and of the attacks that you’re making were designed for the mobile screen.”

Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliances, which has more than three million registered users on the web-based version (Click here to read our review of that version), is free-to-play and based loosely on the long-standing Command and Conquer franchise.

Löhlein, who’s been with the studio since 2003, has worked on other titles for the Ingelheim, Germany-based developer including the real-time strategy and role-playing game hybrid SpellForce franchise before the studio was acquired by EA in 2006, BattleForge, which mixes RTS gameplay with trading cards and web-based MMO strategy game Lord of Ultima.

Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliances isn’t reinventing the wheel for the more than decade-old free-to-play MMO strategy genre on PC, which includes the likes of Travian (2004), Evony (2009), OGame (2002) and Tribal Wars (2003). What separates Tiberium Alliances from the MMO strategy games of yesteryear is its design, which focuses on the mobile platform. Older free-to-play MMO strategy games for PC were focused on lengthy queues, which lasted for hours, even days, to complete a building or to attack an opponent and report back. In Tiberium Alliances, users can build, attack and upgrade instantly. Also, the game is more about thoughtfully setting up defenses and troops rather than click skills, which a game like Blizzard’s StarCraft II relies upon, Löhlein says.Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances screenshot 1

Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliances for both web and mobile is the same exact game with all the same features. The only difference is the user-interface, which has been optimized for both platforms — touch for mobile and mouse and keyboard for web. Users can pick up where they left off on either the computer or mobile. All the monetization hooks are the same on both platforms and virtual currency is redeemable on both platforms. Löhlein says a large part of the code is the same on both platforms, which is mostly written in HTML5 and JavaScript.

“We think that HTML5 is the technology of the future,” Löhlein believes.

 Playing for the greater good

The core gameplay revolves around constructing a base, harvesting resources and building up an army to capture territory from AI-controlled enemies known as the The Forgotten, and other players. One core gameplay loop is all about a user optimizing their base for the maximum amount of resource output. The other core gameplay loop is combat. The game is set in a large, persistent world map in the shape of a circle, where random camps with NPC-controlled baddies spawn. Players then choose the optimal target to attack and set up an army using the least amount of resources. Combat is handled asynchronously. A player can’t change their base around during an attack by an opponent, but they can spectate the attack. Spectating a battle can be helpful, for example, if the player being attacked by an opponent has a second base, that player can counter-attack by sending troops to the opponent’s base. When a user defeats an enemy — either The Forgotten or a real player — the user is rewarded with resources used to level up or unlock new units.Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances screenshot 2

Individual victories contribute to a player’s alliance, the game’s big multiplayer selling point. Basically, players join an alliance, which consist of up to 50 people, and compete with other alliances on a given server. Alliances battle each other for strategic positions, which give the alliance a bonus of some sort. Since the game world is a huge circle, every alliance is aimed at moving toward the center over time, where there’s an end-game challenge. The further alliances get to the center, the stronger enemies get, meaning strategic positions become more valuable. If an alliance defeats the end-game at the center of the map, that alliance wins the server, but other alliances can still continue playing to reach second place, third place and so on.

Striking a balance between players who monetize and don’t monetize

Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliance’s monetizes in two way. First, players can increase their resource cap, which is helpful since the game limits the amount of resource packages that are produced by buildings. Users can also increase the cap to store Command Points, which are spent for attacking. Second, users can purchase extra supply crates that give them direct resources or Command Points, which allow the user to execute more attacks. The game utilizes EA’s premium currency known as Play4Free Funds for in-game purchasing. Löhlein tells us that EA Phenomic are trying to make sure that players can’t pay to win. The developer set a limit on the number of crates a player can use per session, so users can’t spend an infinite amount of money or time into the game to infinitely boost their army.

“If you’re willing to invest more time and be a little less flexible in when and how often you do your sessions, you are actually able to grind for those supply crates instead of buying them and still be able to keep up,” Löhlein says.

Currently, the game has soft-launched on the Canadian Apple App Store and it will release for iOS worldwide sometime in March. The game will also release for Android in the coming months.

Guest Post: Clash of Clans engagement analysis

Editor’s note: Clash of Clans, one of two titles from Finnish mobile developer Supercell, has continually topped the iOS charts and raked in loads of money for the studio. Kevin Oke, Lead Designer at both Adrian Crook & Associates, a social-mobile game design consultancy, and PlayRank, a second screen startup, takes a deep dive into how Clash of Clans effectively engages and retains players.
Supercell logo

Supercell’s Clash of Clans (CoC) has been a top grossing title on the iOS app store for months now, and in the course of playing (and becoming addicted to) the game, I began to unravel just how it manages to engage and retain players so well.

Meaningful Downtime Mechanics

Games relying on appointment mechanics as part of their compulsion loop typically have trouble addressing the downtime that arises in between these appointments. Specifically, how to engage players during this time, as generally the most engaging gameplay and core mechanics are intertwined with these downtime-creating appointment mechanics. In city builder games, usually the only thing available to the player during downtime is re-organizing their cities — shallow gameplay, generally speaking.Clash of Clans downtime screenshot

In this sense, CoC is no different. However the composition of the player’s village is not only vital to success, but a downtime session of moving gold mines and cannons around can directly lead to a micro-transaction.

A quick explanation for those that have not played CoC: The layout of your buildings, walls, traps, and weaponry are key, as you need to defend against raids from other players. An airtight defense quickly becomes the obsession of CoC players as they try to protect their stores of gold and elixir. Using the Replay feature (more on this later), they watch and learn from their defeats, tweaking their layout to patch holes in their defense.

In short, this is a fantastic downtime mechanic. Why?

  • It’s meaningful.
  • It creates additional, long play sessions (a level 20 player could easily spend half an hour doing a total revamp of their defenses).
  • Spurs on purchases — “I could defend the south side of the village with just these two cannons if they were upgraded. But I don’t have enough gold … But if I don’t upgrade, I’m too vulnerable.” A perfect example of this mechanic leading to a micro-transaction.
  • The player’s fortress layout is personal and unique. This attachment is great for engagement long-term.

As you can see, this isn’t just a fantastic downtime mechanic, but a fantastic gameplay mechanic period.

Loop Optimization

Loop optimization provides the player with tricks to discover and exploit over the course of their lifetime within the game. A prime example in social games is Farmville players finding and planting the seeds with the best coin/XP cost ratio. Instances of loop optimization help with long-term engagement by making a game more difficult to grok, and in competitive games, providing an edge to players with the will to unearth them. In social games with appointment mechanics, they also create more sessions per day.

Loop optimization in CoC is centered on resource collecting and raids. In classic appointment mechanic fashion, for the player to most efficiently harvest gold and elixir they need to return to the game and harvest right when the resource generating structures are at max capacity. Harvest any time past that point, and it’s the equivalent of turning on a tap to fill a bucket and leaving, coming back, and seeing the bucket overflowing — wasted resources. This is not unique to CoC in any way, but it’s still important in maximizing the number of daily sessions per player.

The more interesting loop optimization comes from player vs. player (PvP) and the threat of raids. Leaving hoards of gold and elixir sitting around makes the player a very appealing target for raids. Thus they are encouraged to check in often and do one of two things:

  • Collect their resources from the buildings that generate them, moving them into their storage units, which if the player is smart, are behind fortifications.
  • Collect and spend their resources immediately.Clash of Clans lopp optimization screenshot

As the player can only build a certain number of defenses at any given time (based on the level of their town hall), they can never provide adequate protection for all of their structures.

Thus the need to check in often and spend, or move the gold and elixir to storage units that are better protected — it’s a common strategy to keep storage units behind walls and near archery towers and cannons, and leave gold mines and elixir collectors out in the open, as they store much less and therefore are less of a loss if pillaged.

This all means that saving up for big-ticket upgrades and buildings is risky. The more time spent saving up, the bigger the loss and time wasted if the player is raided. Recognizing that a moment of tension and risk is a great time to conduct a micro-transaction, Supercell offers a shield that will protect the player from raids while they are saving up. Or the player can just buy the item in question immediately with hard currency. (more…)

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