It’s 2:32am on Tuesday morning and I can’t sleep... Every time I close my eyes my mind fills with baseball wielding Yetis and masochistic penguins flying gracefully through the air... A slightly effeminate whale pops up from the snow, a tear falling from his eye as he waves helplessly at me. Just another few feet... I just need another few feet!
A funny little spaceman rockets into the sky dodging swarms of flies and lightning clouds, towards a large mothership that looks more like a floating forest than anything that could propel itself through space.
Suddenly a plump looking pigmy races past me, and hurtles a spear into the sky, inadvertently stepping over the line as he goes, causing a foul which wakes me from my maniac slumber once again.
To the best of my knowledge I haven’t been feasting on magic mushrooms lately nor have I switched on any of my much-neglected consoles - the previous cause of my sleepless nights.
It wasn’t so long ago that I used to hear the cries of the Covenant in the darkness and wake in a sweat as the swarm invaded my dreams once again. These days I have a new sleep partner, one of unlikely situations and fantastical characters, and one that crept up on me so unexpectedly I never saw it coming.
Web games. Those innocent little distractions we all enjoy between emails and meetings are the cause of my distress. The addiction is strong and steadfast but has, on the plus side, all but completely cured me of my previous obsession with the infinitely more powerful games console.
In fact, since web games captured my imagination (and my heart), the only consoles that seem to hold any allure to me are my GBA and DS from Nintendo. And that’s solely due to the wonderful world of Warioware!
As my attention span ever decreases its not the immersing worlds of Link, Samus and Master Chief that I pine for, but the quick fix gaming nirvana of Warioware.
Web games, or at least good web games, hold the same allure to me and continue to delight and amaze me on an almost hourly basis. The camaraderie and pleasure you can gain from discovering the next web gem and sending it to your friends and colleagues is almost as good as the enjoyment you can gain from playing it!
The speed at which you can obtain a gaming fix, coupled with the inventiveness and variety of emerging web game content has my head in a spin.
So what makes a good web game? And why do we like playing them so much? What is it about web games that we find enjoyable? And is it possible to create a definition for a ’good’ web game?
One that could be applied to all web games to form a definitive scale of game play excellence and more specifically one that could be applied to the development of new web games for public consumption, ensuring their popularity and subsequent success?
In order to attempt to answer this question we must first look at the definition of a ’web game’.
What are web games?
For the purpose of this evenings distraction (or is it morning now? I never know what to call this time of night) I’m going to try and define a ’web game’ - or at least the definition that I’m referring to and one with attributes that fit into a restrictive set of rules.
You may argue that all games accessed via the internet - for example downloadables or MMORPG’s - should be classed as, or at least associated with, the phrase ’web game’ - and there is certainly a strong argument for this.
The ever more apparent convergence of ’games’ and the ’internet’, is no more clearly illustrated than with the development, industry support and popularity of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. These games - which have at their core the requirement to go online in order to play - give us a potential glimpse of where things are possibly heading.
Other clear examples of this convergence are the internet support for the current and forthcoming generation of games consoles, with internet goliath Microsoft forging the way with its popular XBox Live service.
I am not, however, referring to the above when talking about ’web games’ and as such feel that it is important to outline my interpretation of a ’web game’ before attempting to dissect the topic further.
A ’web game’, in this instance, shall be defined as one that has attributes that fit all of the following three statements:
1. A ’web game’ must be found on a web server - usually linked to from a web page
2. A ’web game’ must be playable using a web browser
3. A ’web game’ may be downloaded but must be playable online
As such a ’web game’ may also be a downloadable game but can only be classed as a ’web game’ if it can also be loaded into and played with a web browser.
Good. Now we’ve got that out of the way, is there any way we can arrive at a series of characteristic by which we could form a definition of a ‘good’ web game? A rule book for good design, from which game designers could guarantee a game’s success?
As a creative digital professional, I am defining ’success’ as a measure of a web game’s popularity and subsequent internet proliferation, as this is one of the measures by which a commissioned web game can guarantee a brand and/or product, maximum campaign awareness and ROI (ignoring the more complex problem of target market, demographic, geography and so on - as this is not the focus of this discussion).
So what makes a ’good’ web game? We all recognise a good game when we see one, in the same, immediate way that we recognise a bad one. If this statement is true - and I am arguing that it is - then surely by this hypothesis we should be able to distill the formula by which a ’good’ game can be defined? And if we can define the characteristics of a good web game, then surely we will arrive at the holy grail of web game design - the formula for web game success?
The fact that such a formula has thus far evaded the videogame industry - despite doubtless 100s of millions being invested on research and focus groups by the heavy hitters in that sector - does seem to point to the inevitable conclusion that such a formula is one of myth and legend only, but hey, there’s no harm in trying, right?
Especially at 3:42am…
So if a successful web game is one that has displayed impressive internet proliferation and popularity - popularity born through word of mouth, not marketing spend - then these are the games we should be looking at; and not coincidentally, the same games that haunt me in my sleep...
Games so addictive, if you could bottle them and sell them on street corners, the developers would be setting up home next door to Bill Gates quicker than you could shout "one more hit!".
Makai Media’s ’Spear Toss’ - was one of the first of this new breed of web games that got my attention. A super simple premise disguises a game of infinite complexity and pleasure. You are challenged with throwing a spear as far as possible; and with just two mouse clicks to do the business.
But for a game with so little on the surface, the enjoyment you can glean from the experience belies its simplicity.
I have often wondered, in the middle of the night - as my insomnia determines - what makes a game like this so enjoyable, so popular; if the game counter is to be believed it’s been played over half a billion times to date (although it has been around for a few years now and the accuracy of the counter cannot be verified).
The game utilises a real world physics model, which is instantly recognisable to the player and as such is extremely "pick-up’n’play-able" (sorry about the made up word but its 4 in the morning and I’m sticking with it so you better get used to it!).
It would appear that it is this simplicity, coupled with good game physics that is at the heart of the game’s success. The steep learning curve also helps to encourage multiple plays and longevity of game session as you quickly become accustomed to the intricacies of the appropriate mouse click positions and subsequent higher scores.
I also think the lack of necessity to read any instructions (you can pick up the game in a couple of turns) helps to increase its appeal. And finally the game takes an average of 4 seconds to play. This speed of game play certainly helps to encourage play and strong word of mouth potential.
Ok, let’s look at another of my nightly distractions....
Yeti Sports’ ’Pingu Throw’ - is a relatively new web game - when compared to an old favourite like ’Spear Toss’ at least. Like ’Spear Toss’, ’Pingu Throw’ spread across the internet faster than a Paris Hilton home video and has spawned many pretenders and official sequels; indeed the Yeti Sports ’brand’ now sports many different web game titles and has even started requiring registration to play (a death knell in any web game’s viral potential).
At its inception however, ’Pingu Throw’ was a true viral success story. Initially hosted on a non-branded IP address, this little web game tasked you with one simple, if a little surreal, challenge; Hit a penguin as far as you can across the icy terrain.
You’re in-game character, 3d rendered Yeti wielding a baseball bat, was controlled by a simple mouse click. Click once and the penguin jumped off the ledge above you and hurtled towards your bat. Click again, and if timed just right, the penguin would fly gracefully through the air as the scene scrolled from left to right to keep up with the flightless (until now!) bird.
The better timed your hit, the further the penguin flew. (A new version of the same game, available after registration on the Yeti site, now includes an additional control mechanism - the arrow keys - to control the angle of the penguin mid air to maximise the distance achievable, but for the purposes of this discussion I am referring to the simple, original game).
In the same manner as Makai’s ’Spear Toss’, ’Pingu Throw’ has a steep learning curve, allowing new players to quickly improve their game and score. This ’learning’, based once again on a real world physics mechanism, coupled with a ’turn’ time (amount of time it takes to have one go) of about 4 seconds, encourages maximum "pick-up’n’playability" and strong word of mouth potential.
4:48am. Time to move on...
Next on my list of web game success stories is one that is a little closer to home. In fact I could say I’m more familiar with this particular game than any other... ’Diesel’s Daily Catch’, developed by Bloc Games (aka one of my companies), has been a real viral success story.
Long since removed from the Diesel site (it’s official home), yet still hosted there, the game continues to enjoy an extremely active daily play count and has so far been played around 8 million times, regardless of the fact that the game enjoys no official support or mention. In fact its success even took me by surprise.
The game was developed as part of the launch of a new one-off collection of engineered denim, named ’Herringbone’. Bloc Games created the fishing game to support the official ad campaign, which used fishing and fishermen to sell the collection. The game challenges players to fire a gun propelled plunger at a friendly whale named Dusty.
Again utilising real world physics the game requires you to learn and improve your score over (a short period of) time. The game is controlled using the arrow keys and spacebar, and the target, Dusty, moves position between each turn. Choosing your angle and power, players fire a shot at Dusty and try and get as close to the centre of his target as possible.
The fast learning curve and speed of play, again about 4-5 seconds a turn, encourages maximum "pick-up’n’playability" and strong word of mouth potential.
Damn it’s late… or should that be ’early’? I’m hungry.
OK, next up, Cyrkam Airtos. You know, the one where you have to throw screwed up bits of paper into a bin in your office? A premise for a game grounded in reality for a change (I’m sure we can all relate to such frivolous real life activities), and one that captured just as much public imagination as any web game has - at one point it seemed to be in every inbox and every website I visited.
Airtos is another simple game that can be played with your mouse alone. You control the seated gentleman’s arm and are challenged with first catching, then throwing, paper balls into a waste paper basket. The target is moved with each successful throw and the game last as long as your skill allows (about 15 throws if you miss every throw, or as long as your skill can hold up if you find yourself ’in the zone’).
Like ’Pingu Throw’, this game seems to have suffered a little from its success and now requires you to ’queue’ for a free play (takes about 2 minutes) or pay (yes actually part with real cash) to play the ’premium’ version. I’m not referring to this version here, but the long gone, load and play, original. A surprisingly addictive, fast-play game, which is harder to put down than you may, at first, assume.
The perfect time of day to revisit ’Samarost’ - one of the more surreal internet moments I’ve experienced at a decidedly surreal time of day. This game really puts a spanner in the proverbial works... A game, unlike all the others, which has an average play time of 15-20 minutes!
A game that doesn’t even sport a highscore board!... but one that has, nonetheless, enjoyed the same internet proliferation and success as all the others. But wait a minute... if this game has the same magic formula as all the others, then by its very existence we can discount almost all the similarities that have been thus far tantalizingly drawing us towards a series of conclusions that could have formed the basis of our ’definition’.
This game seems to work differently to all the others yet still managed to attract mass-market success.
I’m clutching at straws here...’Samarost’ has thrown me somewhat. The only thing I can see that is in any way consistent in every game we’ve looked at is a simple control mechanism. None of them feature an "a" "s" and "d" to do this and "w" "z" "x" "spacebar" "shift" and "number keys" to do that, type control system...
Each game requires the simplest of controls and the minimum of instructions to play. Even the square peg ’Samarost’ can be picked up and played, without the need for complex instructions. Perhaps this is the one thing we can learn from my night of insomnia. A ’good’ web game needs to be very "pick-up’n’playable".
Ok, indulge me just a little longer. This night shall not be in vein. Let’s try and make this sound more official...
Good Web Game Design Rule Number One:
Ensure a simple and intuitive control system is employed, allowing for quick "pick-up’n’play"-ability. If you need pages of instructions, think again.
Yep, that’ll do it... I’m feeling sleepy all of a sudden... brain shutting down now... bed so warm and cosy. Pillow so soft... can’t fight it any longer. What time is it?
Must get to work...
I wonder if anyone in the studio has beaten my highscore on ‘Pingu Throw’...
God I hate web games.
About The Author, Rick Palmer
Rick studied Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins and has worked in online for 10 years. Prior to starting Bloc Media, Rick owned a highly successful film distribution Dot Com company, which was subsequently sold to a large PLC.
Bloc Media’s clients include Electronic Arts, Sony Computer Entertainment, EMI Records and Diesel, the international fashion brand. Rick also founded the successful non-profit gaming site THEGAMESLIST.com featuring hundreds of web games, including all the ones mentioned here.