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MMObility: Online board games make for good mobile design

I’m proud of myself. The other day I was away from my phone and PC for nearly half an hour. Of course, I grabbed my phone in case I wanted to Tweet about the experience, but I decided to just leave it be. Sometimes, technology gets to be a bit much. After this record-breaking summer (and still no rain into the beginning of fall), I even found myself becoming mad at electricity. I found myself turning off fans or cable boxes to save a little bit here and there. I would get up earlier to walk the dogs and so I could enjoy some time with the door open and the air conditioners finally silent. I started to hate how much we need electricity.

When those irrational thoughts hit me, I like to play a board or card game. A good board game can give you the same feelings of adventure or teamwork that any MMO can. Then I stumbled upon Ironhelmet Games’ site and started to fall in love with its online games. The site gave me some good ideas about designing for mobile gamers.

Click past the cut and let’s discuss!

Ironhelmet seems to be making some pretty cool, stable choices in its development. Perhaps it’s the veteran talent who formed the company after coming from titles like Bioshock, Freedom Force, and the Total War franchise. The first thought I had when playing browser-based game Jupiter’s Folly was this would be perfect for a phone or tablet. Of course I was playing the game on my laptop at the time and could see the game running on a basic netbook (they are Flash-based titles), so taking it on the road would be no issue. Also, the design really helps prove the case that good design can be mobile and intriguing, even when simple.

Graphically, the titles are tight. No, they won’t present you with all of the bells and whistles of a standard MMO like Vanguard or Lord of the Rings Online, but they do have their charm. There’s nothing wrong with using a little cleverness to get the job done. Each character piece looks hand-painted, and they all flow together. Flow is something you just don’t see in as many titles as you would like; it’s the ability to give your players a constant experience, both graphically and during gameplay. Many titles concentrate on creating mega-realistic or stylized experiences but can be harsh in places or feel disjointed. Maybe it’s my age (it has to be), but I would rather have a flowing online board game than a game that has no soul.

The graphics of the titles also open them up to phone or tablet use by offering large buttons and a simple interface. Whether this is only a side-benefit to the interface design or it was intended for use on a phone or tablet, I cannot say. I’ve already tried Jupiter’s Folly on my HTC Inspire Android phone and it works great. The icons are a little small and the performance is a bit sluggish, but using a stylus helps with touching the smaller buttons. The sound in minimal, and that must help with keeping system requirements down.


Another good point about the games of Ironhelment is that they are turn-based with options. According to the website, some games can run for months on end. I wouldn’t know, being that I have barely made it into the real game so far. I can see how the games could take a long time, however. Each player takes a turn (during single-player he has the option to skip past several hours to see what might happen after everyone’s made decisions), or he can take his time and just wait until his opponents have gone. Either way, the developers have allowed for a casual-hardcore experience.

While it’s true that these board games are not true MMOs, it doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to see how the design could be opened up to allow for a persistent world and thousand of players. Just as in many MMORTS games, players could each have a safe zone or personal area to grow in, then they could venture out into the player map or world. My imagination runs away with me when I consider designs like this, and every time I play a round of Magic: The Gathering or Zombie Fluxx I am intrigued by how card or board game design could be applied to MMO design.

My wife mentioned something the other day that really stuck with me. She said, “Blizzard has really been preparing the World of Warcraft playerbase for Diablo III by encouraging them to enjoy dungeon-crawling.” I agreed with her and then silently promised myself to put that in an article sometime. Seriously, though, it’s true. Saying something like that also brings up how much gaming genres share, possibly without knowing it. If you are a gamer in the general sense instead of just an “FPS gamer” or an “MMO gamer,” then you probably have noticed these design elements overlapping. I think this might explain a lot of the appeal of social or “Facebook”-style games to older or more experienced players. It’s no wonder those social games make so much money… the playerbase has the extra money to spend because it’s not busily blowing it all on beer and concert tickets anymore. This accessibility, coupled with many Facebook games’ similarity to board games, might be the reason Zynga is going to eventually buy the world.

So you can see why it isn’t much of a stretch to see the more complicated, multi-million dollar “AAA” three-dimensional worlds becoming the smaller and smaller niche in gaming, while more “primitive”-looking games take over the marketplace, games that also blur the lines between multiplayer and massively multiplayer. While I prefer the massively part, obviously, I can definitely appreciate the convenience of a board game-style product.

Take a moment and look around on Ironhelmet’s website. Notice how it carries the same design elements between titles and how you can easily switch from one to another without being completely lost. Now imagine these games with thousands of people, massive maps and real-time events. A game like that could suck you in for hours and hours.