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Learning About Design from Angry Birds

posted by Matt Ward on Nov 23, 2010.

Yes, I’ll admit that I’ve started playing Angry Birds, and that it has chewed up many hours over the past several weeks. In this post, I would like to look at one simple truth that I think Angry Birds can remind us about when it comes to designing for a digital landscape that is including an increasingly broad range of devices.

Alright, I confess, I’ve joined the Angry Birds bandwagon. I purchased the popular iPhone app the other day and have been pretty much addicted to it ever since. I’m currently in the fourth episode, though after I beat that I still have plenty of play time left as I go back and try to score three stars on all the levels.

Unfortunately, the game is ridiculously addictive and I probably find myself playing it more than is really good for me. As I noted on Twitter the other day, I think that there should be a new category on the iTunes App Store called “un-productivity” since, quite often, that seems to be what Angry Birds ultimately leads to!

Still, the game has been a huge success and I think that there is definitely something that we can learn from it!

Touch, Drag, Release

I am absolutely convinced that a huge part of the success that Angry Birds has seen stems from that fact that it is so incredibly easy to play. All you do is touch the screen, drag your finger across the it to pull back the game’s slingshot and then release to send your bird flying on a destructive trajectory towards the increasingly complex structures of the of those vile, green, egg stealing pigs!

That’s really all there is to it. Of course, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Angry Birds is a real puzzle game and there is a lot of strategy involved in how you aim your feathered onslaught, but the basic mechanics of the game remain unchanged from the first level to the last.

In fact, the game is so simple that my two and half year old daughter can, with a little assistance, actually play it with me. She doesn’t really understand what she’s doing, but she knows that she had to pull the birds back on the slingshot and try to hit the little green pigs on the other screen. Her dexterity is not quite developed enough to be able to do it all on her own, and I generally have to guide her finger, but its still impressive that she is able to engage with the game at all.

Similarly, my wife and I were over at some friends’ for dinner a few weeks ago and, after the meal when were just sitting in the living room chatting, I ended up having their three year old boy on my lap, spending the better part of an hour playing Angry Birds, with just an occasional bit of help from me.

Rain feathery destruction on the evil, egg-stealing pigs

Rain feathery destruction on the evil, egg-stealing pigs

What’s the point of all this, though? Is this an article about simplicity or minimalism in design? Not exactly. I think that the remarkable simplicity of Angry Birds (and other successful iPhone games) is actually a by-product of the fact that it is designed specifically for the method of control that is ultimately offered by the device on which the game itself is played. My wife probably wishes there was a version of the app available for her BlackBerry, but the game’s design simply does not match the scroll and click functionality of that device!

A Square Design in a Round Device

Yes, it would probably be possible to create some sort of port of Angry Birds for the BlackBerry, where some alternate form of control is created to fake or emulate the dynamic of the iPhone, but I find that this is something like the old adage of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Or, in this case, trying to fit a square design in a round device. This is, of course, is more a statement of purpose rather than actual geometric shape, but my own, larger gaming experience actually supports the idea.

Several years ago, we in the Ward home decided to buy a Wii, primarily because of its novelty at the time, and also because of the large selection of games that could be played by the entire family (we spend hours Mario-karting). A few weeks later, my lovely wife decided to rent me a game for some reason, and came home with Transformers, which was based on the story of the first movie. It seemed like it would be a really cool experience, especially since I really dug the film.

It was horrible.

The story didn’t really follow the movie all that closely, but I could live with that – it was the sort of thing that happens fairly frequently with video game adaptations of movies. What made the game almost impossible for me to play was the controls. Within just a matter of minutes I could already tell that it was the type of game which is far better suited to a more traditional kind of console, such as an X-Box or a PlayStation, both of which used a standard, hand-held controller (this was before the release of Kinect or PlayStation Move).

Transofmers for Wii has a weak control system which seems more suited to more traditional gaming platforms

Transofmers for Wii has a weak control system which seems more suited to more traditional gaming platforms

The Wii, however, is a very different kind of system with its motion based remote and detachable nunchuck extension. Because the Transformers game seemed to have been originally designed for a different kind of device, something was definitely lost in the translation from one platform to another. The controls were clumsy and non-intuitive, ultimately undermining the overall quality of the game and causing me to set it aside and not play it very much.

In stark contrast, is another Wii game like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. While, like Transformers, it is a third person adventure game, my initial experience with it could not have been more different. The controls were actually incredibly easy to pick up. They felt natural and easy and made the game fun and easy to play, rather than difficult and frustrating, as I experienced with Transformers.

Twilight princess has a much more enjoyable and natural feeling control system and feels right at home on the Wii

Twilight princess has a much more enjoyable and natural feeling control system and feels right at home on the Wii

Why? I believe it is because the game was purposefully and intentionally designed with the need for Wii-based gameplay in mind. Yes, I recognize that the game was originally created for the more traditionally controlled GameCube, and was actually ported to the Wii (though released ahead of the GC version), but Nintendo did a great job at designing a play system specifically geared to the its unique device, rather than just approximating and trying to force the Wii to behave as much like an X-Box or PlayStation as possible!

Thinking About Design

Alright, so we’ve talked at length about different types of video games, but what does this all have to do with actual design? Well, as our experiences of the Internet and the web continue to grow and diversify, so to does the entire industry of web design. We are seeing an ever increasing array of different devices that are being used to access information, many of which may have different properties or functionality.

From my experience, the most prevalent of these certainly seems to be the touch-based mobile devices like the iPhone or iPad, which introduce all kinds of new an interesting problems when it comes to screen sizes and interaction. How do we handle controls that may have previously been made visible on hover states? How does text size work in the design, not only in terms of readability, but in terms of interaction (different finger sizes)? How does device movement, such as flip scrolling, affect or inform the design?

These are all important, device-specific questions that need to be considered when designing (sites or apps) for the expanding Web. Just as Angry Birds, finds its success in being perfectly suited for touch-based gaming and Twilight Princess was optimized for motion-based play, I truly believe that the most successful designs that we will see emerge over the coming years will be those which are crafted to function (or better yet, thrive) in a device’s particular behavioral context.

Conclusion

In many ways, this is probably a very simple lesson, but then Angry Birds is a very simple game, isn’t it? Besides, sometimes it’s a important to be reminded of the basic truths that can occasionally be overlooked in the larger context of the design process.

So, next time you break out those brightly coloured, pig crushing birds, take the time to think about how the game that is probably eating up your valuable time is actually a prime example of successful device-specific design.

Main image by Yaniv Golan

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

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About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Nov 23, 2010

Louis says:

Great observations, Matt.

I could almost have written those first few paragraphs myself, because I just purchased the game a few weeks ago, and I too am at level 4 and am officially hooked. I think the sound effects are absolutely hilarious.

My wife happened to be looking over my shoulder while I started reading this and she says: “Why didn’t you write that article?” :)

Nov 24, 2010

Lewis Nyman says:

I would call this a side effect of the design of the iPhone I think. They whole point of touch and motion controls are to remove barriers between us and the screen.

The twilight princess is a bad example in this case, being a game that was originally developed for standard controls.

Wii sports had way more mainstream success in my view because you literally didn’t need any instruction, everyone knows how to swing.

Nov 24, 2010

Stevwen says:

Indeed, there is much that can be learned from this game. It is very important to be able to identify users and how best to cater to their needs and balance that with something new; it is paramount to success.

The winning formula clearly follows that of Lemmings in that it relates to the dormant humor of it’s general target audience (though this time it is on-the-move iPhone users of the 2010s as opposed to sitting-at-home-or-in-the-office-with-a-mouse Amiga users of the 1990s).

At this rate, the iOS platform could soon be seen as a real Nintendo Gameboy/DS successor.

Le us hope Blackberry and Microsoft take note.

Nov 24, 2010

Brian McDaniel says:

Great observations, Matt. I too am hooked on Angry Birds, only finally giving in and trying it out for the first time on my iPad a couple weeks ago. You did a great job of presenting the examples of good and bad design and functionality, and I love how you brought it all together to make your design points. My type of article!

Nov 24, 2010

Brian McDaniel says:

Thought this article just published on Mashable would interest you: “Angry Birds” Coming to Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 http://mashable.com/2010/11/24/angry-birds-console/

Wonder how they’ll port the touchscreen functionality…

Nov 24, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Interesting! At least this might mean my wife can play without stealing my phone all the time! ;)

Nov 29, 2010

raybak says:

I have played it on both iphone & Android and the experience on iphone is way better than android so if its released for Wii,ps3 or xbox I dont think it will have same charm as it is for iphone.

Jan 21, 2011

Thomas says:

I haven’t played it yet but I’m about to put it on my iphone right now. :)

Feb 1, 2011

Daniel H Pavey says:

Angry Birds is great, as are a number of other iPhone apps which follow a similar design principle.

There are a few now that really maximise the benefit of the touchscreen interface, and I to often find myself wrestling my iPhone from my kids!

And you’re right it is a simple lesson to be learned here, but aren’t all the best things simple! (well that’s what I keep telling the wife!)

Feb 14, 2011

Chromatix says:

The effortless simplicity to Angry Birds is TOO smart, but as Daniel above said there are many iPhone games that are now very similar in design.
Despite this Angry Bird’s level design, character design and UI design also contribute to its success which is why it’s still yet to be rivaled in terms of popularity.
All the best things are simple… and effortlessly awesome!

May 6, 2011

Pat says:

I have played it on my iPad and the overall design of the game is very appealing and pleasing to me.

It’s not complicated at all that’s why I believe many are addicted to this game – me, included. =)

Aug 26, 2011

M1Creative says:

The fact that the IPad, IPhone have this perfectly superb touch screen is definitely the reason why games, such as angry birds, that utilise the touch screen so effectively have come about. It is a shame that the Blackberry, and its roller ball etc, just wouldn’t work as it does ‘limit’ the number of people who will experience Angry Birds. But it isn’t the end and as other methods of interacting such as voice and eye movement are harnessed effectively, then so will games that respond better to that type of input be created to suit that dimension.

Sep 14, 2011

Twizzle says:

The simplicity of 1 touch games and the appealing graphics are key ingredients to successful iPhone games now a days. Another great example would be Jetpack Joyride which has recently come on the market.

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