Pixel Dungeon: what makes a mobile game amazing?

Shattered Pixel Dungeon splash

In January, I bought an Android phone. This is only my second smartphone, an iPhone 4 being my first. I had that iPhone for almost three years and loved it, especially the way the App Store organized and presented games. However, I didn’t realize how much I appreciated the Apple App Store until I got an Android.

The Google Play Store, while more expansive, is way too inclusive. Even though I could find my old standbys like Threes and Crossy Road, I was having a really hard time finding any new, high-quality games on the bestseller lists. All of this is just a prelude to me grabbing my new favorite mobile game, Pixel Dungeon, after finding it at the top of many bloggers’ “best of” lists. But what was it about this particular game that made it so addictive?

Pixel Dungeon, or more specifically, Shattered Pixel Dungeon (it’s updated mod), embodies everything I love about roguelikes: the tension of perma-death, the excitement of finding some new item, the complexity of managing resources. The game slaps you down in a dungeon shrouded in darkness with only one goal: go deeper. You encounter all kinds of mutant animals and treasures galore, all the while hoping desperately that you won’t starve to death.

“Mobile games are really just exercises in time management”

The reason Pixel Dungeon is perfect for mobile gaming has to do with a number of things, but the biggest factor, by far, is the time required to play. Sure, it could take you three hours for one run if you’re skilled enough. Still, it might only take you five seconds, depending on how lucky your RNG is from the outset. Regardless of how long each run takes you, the game never feels like it’s asking you for more time than you have, which brings me to my main point: mobile games are really just exercises in time management.

Unlike a full-fledged AAA game, you don’t have time to go ham on a mobile game for three or four hour gaming sessions. In fact, mobile games are actually the antithesis of big console games: instead of requiring a large intellectual and scheduling investment, mobile games let you just chill for once.

Regulating the time required to play a mobile game is probably its biggest challenge. In Shattered Pixel Dungeon, it accomplishes this with one important tool: managing expectations. Like many roguelikes and hardcore action games (Spelunky, Rogue LegacyOlliOlli, etc), Pixel Dungeon warns you that you will likely die many times, often simply because of the way the level was generated.

Shattered Pixel Dungeon caps

Left: main menu. Center: map views (manipulated with pinch-zoom touch controls). Right: expect to see this screen a lot.

And you will die. And die. And die. But that’s okay, cause, realistically, I only have about ten minutes to play at a time anyways. Taking a dump? Ten minutes. Riding the bus? Ten minutes. Procrastinating on writing this post? Ten minutes.

Some games approach the issue of “time consumed per game” differently. Some use timers, some use cheap in-app purchase tricks, and some use both in the worst possible way (cough* Clash of Clans and its ilk *cough*).

But what makes the “time consumed per game” design in Pixel Dungeon stand above the rest is that it doesn’t demand anything from you that you can’t give. Can’t finish this dungeon yet? Auto-save. Keep dying? Try again instantly with the “restart” button. No cheap tricks here.

Some other games that fit into this model are Hoplite, 868-Hackand even Binding of Isaac. The biggest difference between these games and Shattered PIxel, though, is that the level design is so much more varied in this little Android game than any of the others. Want fifty box-shaped rooms scattered around a map? Binding of Isaac. Want one square room reconfigured over and over? 868-Hack. Want a series of rooms, all different sizes and all connecting in a random pattern every time? Shattered Pixel Dungeon’‘s your game.

No matter what kind of mobile gameplay you like, whether it’s match-three monotony, twitch-based ball flicking, or even word searches, the way the game manages your time is almost always the biggest factor in whether or not you delete it after two sessions or keep coming back for more.

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