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One of the defining qualities of some of the best mobile games is their simplicity. While video games on PC or home consoles often tend to be larger, more involved projects, many of the most resonant mobile titles are bite-sized bits of fun you can consume in five-minute increments.
But what happens when games that only have one or two notes and are meant to be played in short stints start to get stale? For the best games, the answer is to add “quests.”
Among the titles I've found most addictive lately has been Slayin, a simplified role-playing game in which you play as one of three heroes and fight level after level of monsters. Each level is a single screen in size, and the characters continually walk left or right with a weapon held out in front of them. Your job as the player is just to steer, trying to keep the sword, dagger or magic spell out ahead of your character and avoid getting hit by enemies as they swarm the screen.
It's actually an exceedingly simple reinterpretation of the best games ever made, and while Slayin might look too thin at first glance, it packs a lot of challenge in each level just through the sheer number of enemies it throws at players. Throw in the addition of upgrades you can purchase along the way, and Slayin manages to be pretty entertaining.
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But even still, Slayin is, by its nature, a game that gets stale in a hurry. After all, you have exactly one button to push every single time you play it. Each character plays exactly one way, and while you might buy new swords or new magic spells, you basically make use of them in the same way in every level. That Slayin's mechanics are so simple is what makes it work well, but simplicity means they might not stay entertaining for very long.
Enter the “quest.” In the case of Slayin, quests are optional objectives that pop up in groups of three and ask the player to do things like beat a specific boss while taking no damage, use a specific weapon to make a certain number of kills, or defeat enemies in a certain way, like by jumping. They're usually pretty simple in and of themselves, but the thing that quests encourage is variety, and they reward players who do things a bit differently with a little bit of in-game currency or other rewards.
Even though the quests in Slayin don't amount to much, they provide extra incentive to get creative – and ultimately, to get better at the game. And among some of the best games in the iTunes App Store are some of the best quests.
All about the jetpack
To this day, one of my favorite mobile games out there is Halfbrick's Jetpack Joyride, and that love is derived almost 100 percent from its incredibly smart use of optional quests. On its face, Jetpack Joyride is an endless running title that's challenging, but lacks variety – you run through a science facility, dodging obstacles by touching the screen to activate your jetpack and fly up, and letting go to fall back down.
The quests in Jetpack Joyride often add a lot more to the difficulty. For example, players will often dodge missiles in Jetpack Joyride – but one quest asks players to get as close to missiles as they can before dodging them, and to do so a number of times. The myriad quests range from zany to tough and back again.
What Jetpack Joyride does right specifically is to make those quests no only fun to complete on their own, but expanding them as you add new vehicles and power-ups to your repertoire. As you unlock new stuff, you get new quests that challenge you to play with all that new stuff. Quests then become a feedback loop that help make the game more fun and up the challenge, over and over again.
Amping up the run
Running titles tend to do a solid job with their optional quests, because they generally ask players to do creative things with mechanics they're already used to. One Epic Knight is a 3-D runner that has players speeding through an underground dungeon, and is filled with different elements like monsters, spikes, walls and more that players have to avoid to keep from dying.
There are also power-ups littered throughout the game that let you smash through all those various obstacles, though, and each has different properties. So One Epic Knight's quests often become about grabbing the right power-up and wreaking havoc, which might lure players into more death-defying, dangerous situations than just getting as far as possible.
Temple Run 2 usually uses its quests as a means to challenging players to do better. Grabbing more coins and going longer distances reward you with crystals that can be used to purchase lots of new stuff, and even better, grant a second chance when you screw up.
Though they're all optional objectives, the simple addition of a few extra challenges and nice rewards help to elevate many mobile games from a decent pass-time to a thrilling experience. Variety is key to keeping these games fresh, and developers with the most creative uses of their games' mechanics often succeed in making what looks like a simple game into something with many exciting layers.
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