Gaming has taken the world by storm, and the mobile environment is no different. When you have a daily revenue of $1,386,580 for Game of War, the highest grossing game in the US, it’s easy to see why someone would want to break into this lucrative market.

However, the research we’ve done through Appsee also shows that gaming apps have a very low retention rate. Only 22% of users return after one month!

The type of users who download games are also quite mixed. Now a days, most users download games because of a friend’s recommendation, various trends, or through app discovery. As such, mobile games gain traction and popularity by catering to users who may not be “gamers” per se.

The best way to build and hold such an audience is by applying solid gaming UX principles. Here are 6 UX tips you should take into account when designing your gaming app:


1. New players do not always know genre conventions

Keep in mind that newcomers might not know the unwritten rules of a certain genre. This is why it’s important to guide newbies and show them the ropes. This is especially true for complex genres such as RPGs (role playing games) and strategies. For example, when designing an RPG, don’t assume that a user will know automatically what a character creation screen is.


Legend of Grimrock app, a type of intricate RPG.
Legend of Grimrock app, a type of intricate RPG.


 2. Tutorials and onboarding are essential

Tying into rule number one, make sure you have a comprehensive tutorial and onboarding process. You should address every aspect of playing your game in an easy to understand, intuitive tutorial. On the other hand, avoid text heavy, drawn-out tutorials, because they can be as big a turn-off as stumbling through a game without really understanding what’s going on. Typically, standard game onboarding offer either of the following: prompted practice opportunities for the user, where they can test the gestures and controls of the game, or in-line hinting throughout the first level of game play. It is also a good idea is to have a skippable tutorial. This way, you can teach new players, without boring the veterans from your game genre.


3. Balance the challenge level

Just because you’re designing your game to be appealing to new and casual players, it doesn’t mean that challenge is a bad thing. Of course, you don’t want to go overboard, but a sensible, intelligent design that provides gamers with a challenging experience will always attract a fan base.

The best way to strike this delicate balancing act is by knowing your audience. For example, you should take into consideration your target age range, the difficulty standards for the current genre you’re working on and, the challenge levels found within your competitors’ games. Once you have an outline for your challenge level, you need to make sure to implement challenging elements early on in the game. This will engage players and keep them interested from the get go.


Cut the Rope offers an additional, non-mandatory challenge to its users of collecting stars in each level.
Cut the Rope offers an additional, non-mandatory challenge to its users of collecting stars in each level.


 4. Design for small screens

Compared to PC or console games, you have very limited screen space to work with. This makes each centimeter on the screen very valuable. But this has implications for gameplay as well as graphics. Because you have no keyboards or gamepads to work with here, the touchscreen becomes the controller. As such it’s important to keep two things in mind when designing a mobile game UI: how a user will hold the phone, and where you place the buttons. You can have games that play in portrait view, landscape view or both. Be advised: younger users tend to accidentally push buttons/functions when they are located at the bottom of the screen on a tablet or smartphone.


5. Implement intuitive gestures

Luckily, the lack of space for buttons is made up for by the use of gesture controls. When implementing gesture controls into your app’s gameplay, make sure they feel natural and fun. Otherwise they might become more of a burden than a feature. You also want to make sure you use special gestures for new movements or functions. For example, don’t use the “pinch” gesture for anything other than zooming in.

Intuitive is hard to design. Using user session recording and touch heat maps provided by analytics tools such as Appsee can help you optimize your gestures and controls to understand which are understandable for the user and which are confusing. Great examples of games that use gesture controls well are driving games, where you tilt the screen to turn, or, good old Angry Birds, where a very simple tapping and dragging gesture created a gaming phenomenon.


Angry Bird's core gesture for its game is an intuitive drag and release gesture.
Angry Bird’s core gesture for its game is an intuitive drag and release gesture.

6. Don’t forget to make it fun!

At the end of the day, the biggest predictor of a game’s success is the fun factor. If a game is fun, a bad tutorial or a slightly imbalanced challenge level will often times be overlooked. Of course, fun can mean many things, and it can mean different things for different genres. For a strategy game, the fun might come from complexity and depth, while an action game might be fun because it’s simple.

For an example of what fun can do for a game, just look at Jetpack Joyride. Jetpack Joyride is a side-scrolling endless runner game that uses a one-touch system to control the jetpack. When the user presses on the screen, the jetpack turns on and the character rises. As soon as they let go the jetpack turns off and the character descends. The user’s actions only control one variable, the character’s movement along a vertical axis. Despite its relatively simple design and controls, Jetpack Joyride is one of the most popular mobile app games to date. It has 4.5 stars on both the App Store and Google Play, and over 3 million votes on the Google Play store.


Sample of Jetpack Joyride's gameplay.
Sample of Jetpack Joyride’s gameplay.



With users spending more time on their smartphones and free-to-play becoming the prevailing pricing option for gaming apps, price has become less of a discerning factor. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to the quality of an app’s UX. A fun game that is accessible, has a strong tutorial, is well balanced, and well optimized for mobile devices, will have many advantages over the competition.

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