Over 2019, we spotted a very clear trend. We’re not talking about the obvious surge of battle royale, auto-chess or roguelike games. We’re talking about the more subtle iterations, as developers revamp and refine their mechanics.

That trend is simplicity. So in this three-part series, Sarah, Chay, and I will be looking back at nine of the most intriguing developments this year, why they stood out, and what we should remember in 2020.

Kicking off the series myself, I’m excited to share with you my top three picks of 2019 – coincidentally, they’re all story-driven mobile games. If you like, you can skip to part two and part three.

1. Sky: Children of the Light

  • Developer: Thatgamecompany
  • Release date: 18th July 2019
  • Available on: iOS, Android and Apple TV
  • Price: Free
  • Genre: Adventure | RPG

Beautiful, artistic exploration

Children of the Light was a rare treat for the industry. The player travels around, meeting others, subtly helping them on their journeys. It’s likely to go down in history as proof that gaming can be art. But what can we learn from it?

Keep your interface minimalistic

It’s easy to bombard our players with information, and clutter the screen with prompts. Children of the Light sidesteps that in two ways. First, the icons themselves are subtle and clean. But secondly, as you explore the seven realms, searching for spirits, the interface will occasionally fade away, allowing the player to focus on experiencing the actual game. This same mentality runs through everything. The social system, for example, slowly introduces new ways to communicate with those you meet. It doesn’t unload everything at once.

This uncluttered approach helps immerse the player in the world, and makes sure they never feel overwhelmed. But it also keeps us hooked, as we seek to unlock the next step.

Focus on quality, not adverts

Monetization models are constantly changing, and developers are still looking for the right balance. Children of the Light decided to askew adverts, in favour of earning money through cosmetic items. It’s a trend that’s seeing a lot of success, and one that doesn’t break the immersion.

2. Path of Adventure

  • Developer: Keeweed
  • Release date: 19th December 2018
  • Available on: Android and iOS
  • Price: Free Genre Adventure | Text-based roguelike

A revamp on a classic format

I’m cheating a bit by including this one, as it was at the tail-end of last year that it came out. But I couldn’t ignore a game that focused on mixing text-based storytelling, random encounters and humour.

Make your choices genuinely difficult

When creating a text-based game, it’s easy to assume that a ‘difficult’ choice is a moral choice: do you choose the good or bad option? These decisions might change the story, but they don’t really affect the gameplay, and can be quite boring.

Keeweed went a different route. Instead, they have smaller choices. For example, do you choose to attack with your most powerful weapon or use your fists? Attacking with your weapon might guarantee the kill, but the weapon could break. Similarly, do you use your key to save a trapped knight, and get a small reward? But if you do, you risk not being able to save yourself later. These small choices stack up to whether you’ll even get to the ending, and make your player think harder about them.

A choice doesn’t need to be complicated to be difficult. In fact, it’s only when we can understand the direct consequences of our actions that they become meaningful. So the simpler they are, and the easier it is to see the outcome, the more effective they become.

Make your payments a bonus, not a requirement

Path of Adventure is free. But you can undo actions or revive your character if you die, for a slight cost. You never need to do this, and the narrator carefully explains that the game is winnable without these safety nets. (And it really is.) This means that the payment doesn’t interrupt the gameplay.

This is important in a story-driven game. You don’t want to suddenly break your player’s immersion by showing an advert. Keeweed instead put payment after the game has already ended, and made it feel like part of the story. They chose the right monetization model for their game, and didn’t get greedy.

3. Guildlings

  • Developer: Sirvo Studios
  • Release date: 8th November 2019
  • Available on: iOS, Mac and tvOS
  • Price: Free with Apple Arcade
  • Genre: Adventure | RPG

Classic mechanics, modern theme

Sirvo describes Guildlings as “a fantasy in a world of Wizards and Wifi.” That pretty much sums up the interesting mix of old and new. This applies to the storyline, but also to the actual mechanics themselves. Instead of health, you have battery life. And instead of the usual dialogue, the characters write as though they’re texting you.

But while this is an intriguing premise, it’s not all that Guildlings has to offer.

Use your mechanics to guide the player

Guildings has all the usual RPG tropes, like combat and conversation. But it also introduces moods. All characters have a current ‘mood’. And they can only perform certain actions if they’re in the right mood. This affects how they fight, but also gives the developer a legitimate reason for blocking off areas of the map.

For example, if Sirvo doesn’t want the player to progress to the next city just yet, they can simply change the character’s mood. Now, the player will hunt around for a way to reset their it so that they can continue. They’ll talk to characters they might have missed, explore side alleys, and experience more of the game. Eventually, they get the mood they’re looking for. Bingo. The player now feels like they’ve been clever, rather than sidetracked. Such a simple way of controlling the player’s actions without them ever realizing.

Make dialogue choices have an effect, but not too much

Most games, which let you choose between being snarky, confident or nice, will tend to feel rather hollow after a while. We’ve all played games like Mass Effect where you need to keep choosing the same style of dialogue, otherwise, you don’t get the best abilities.

Guildlings sidesteps this problem; where people get stuck in a certain playstyle, arbitrarily choosing the same kind of responses. Instead, dialogue choices level up your characters. These levels just increase health, so it’s not the end of the world if you improve the wrong person. But you can never be completely sure how each one will affect your party. Will being excited help my best friend or my sister? This forces players to think about their choices more, without ruining the story or stopping people from role-playing.

Stay savvy in 2020

That’s it for part one.

We’ll be back next week with Sarah’s list of top three mobile games of 2019. In the meantime, you can stay up to date by signing up to our newsletter. And if you think we’ve missed any ‘simple’ masterpieces from this list, tweet us, and we’ll consider adding them on 🙂

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