Let me guess. You just downloaded a game like MU Origins and you were shocked to discover the game wastes no time in taking control and “forcefully guiding” you through it’s content. It seems that so many mobile games are beginning to renounce their interactive heritage and instead adopt a more “Look don’t touch” mantle. Why is autoplay so common in mobile games?
Your Answer Upfront:
Autoplay is extremely common in mobile games due to the convenient nature of the mechanic. It allows players with little time to progress through a game with minimal interaction, grinding through quests and objectives until such a point where they can re-take control and play normally. Autoplay can also ease new and casual games into more complex games such as RPGs.
In this article we’re going to dive deep into idle and autoplay game design. We’re going to explain what autoplay is, why it’s used, what problems it tends to solve and why people seem to (dis)like it.
We’re also going to give examples of games where auto play is implemented well and talk about the history of autoplay and it’s evolution and inclusion in modern games.
What is an autoplay mobile game?
Autoplay, as its name implies, is a system through which the player’s input in a game is automated. Instead of you, as a player, having to go to location X to kill 200 mobs you set the target and let the game do it for you.
Think of it as a docking computer that automatically docks your spaceship for you so you don’t have to deal with the boring tasks of doing it repeatedly every single time.
In short, autoplay is a form of convenience for gamers who want to play a game but lack the time to do it consistently or due to lacking the required time to grind through a game but want to experience it.
And in the world of handheld or mobile gaming? Convenience is the key to success, especially with the more casual approach to game design when it comes to this platforms.
In the next chapter we’ll explain why mobile games tend to be more casual in their design but feel free to skip this chapter if you want. The one following it goes into more depth on why autoplay is used in mobile games.
Why games are more casual on smartphones
Mobile games are designed with a more casual audience in mind due to the very nature of the platform. Smartphones can be picked up, opened and interacted with at any point. In the bus, on an airplane, on the metro or during a meeting.
Sometimes this interaction can only last for a handful of minutes so game designers cater their games with this very circumstance in mind.
The smartphone industry exploded into the hardware scene not to long ago and their adoption rates is huge. Nowadays, there are about 6 billion smartphones in the wild (according to statista) and very few smartphone owners have any experience with hardcore PC and Console games.
This is why mobile games were designed with a more casual approach – to make it easy for new smartphone owners to get into gaming.
Think of it this way – would your grandfather, who never played a PC game in his life, be able to understand how to play Call of Duty? Or would he be better offer with a game like Solitaire?
In order to play Solitaire he needs to understand how touch works on a phone, how to drag cards and understand the basic rules. He probably played card games before so there’s no need to explain what they are.
In CoD’s case, he needs to grasp how to interact with the phone, how touch and drag works just like in Solitaire. But on top of this he needs to understand what a health bar is. How to rotate and move the camera. What color coding means.
He needs to identify who the enemies are. He needs to understand how different weapons behave and what those stats and icons are. Why people have to wait in lobbies. How to get ammo. The complexity is much higher.
So that’s why mobile games have a more casual approach. Now, let’s get back to autoplay.
Why do game developers use autoplay in mobile games?
Autoplay is a convenient solution that’s used to solve various problems, beginning with making it easier for players to pick up a more complex game and ending with automating boring and menial tasks. In this chapter, we’ll look at the problems this mechanic tends to solve and I’ll do my best to give practical examples of such usage.
Autoplay as a way to help beginner players get accustomed to the mechanics
One of the problems autoplay solves is combating the difficulty of introducing and explaining more complex mechanics to a beginner audience. In the previous chapter, we explained and showed how your grandfather could have more problems understanding how to play Call of Duty Mobile vs Solitaire.
Let’s take the same situation with CoD but give it a bit of an autoplay spin to it. What if instead of learning how to control the camera and understanding drag mechanics your grandfather starts out by selecting a loadout and then watching what happens?
This way he can focus on learning the symbols, the different weapon types, what the game shoots out and can get a more well paced experience of the process. Soon he’ll even begin to backseat drive by going “No no no, there’s a bogie next to the door how did you miss it?”.
Once he turns autoplay off, he can start playing the game with a much better knowledge pool than if he was just thrown into the game without understanding anything.
Autoplay as a way to automate boring and repetitive tasks
I used to be a huge MU Online player back in the early 2000’s. It’s one of the first MMORPGs I ever played and I sank a lot of hours on it at a local internet café.
When I got my iPad Air 4 I wanted to use it to rekindle my relationships with MMOs, a relationship that I dropped as I started to spend more and more time with my game development business. So, naturally, one of the first games I found was MU Origin 2, a sequel/remaster/re-release of the game I once used to play so much.
After downloading it and seeing that it has autoplay, instead of being put off by it, I was kinda excited. It meant I could keep the iPad Air 4 within arm’s reach while working on my own games. All the boring and tedious monster and loot grinding stuff could happen without my full attention and I could progress and acquire gear for my character as I went on with my business.
And this is one area where autoplay shines. Autoplay is a mechanic that can be targeted at older gamers or people with little time on their hands.
Even though I spend 12- 16 hours per day knee deep in code and design documents I still have an itch to scratch when it comes to gaming. The problem is, I can’t make any progress if I play an MMORPG for 5 to 10 minutes at a time when I get a breather. And autoplay solves this exact problem.
Back in the hay-day of MMORPG-ing there used to be a service offered by other players. They would level up your character for a fee. In some cases they’d just steal your loot, keep the money you’d pay them and that was it but in rare cases they would actually help you progress faster so you can get to the points you would enjoy.
In WoW you’d have to raid once you maxed out your character but all the good raids required specific armor for your character to be considered. You would have to grind those armor tiers before any guild would take you raiding in the good raids.
You can imagine there was a wide open market for people who would pay others to grind the gears for them. Autoplay solves this issue and its targeted to the aforementioned players. Just that you don’t have to pay anything for it.
Autoplay as a main mechanic for simulation lovers
Autoplay isn’t a new thing in our industry. You can say it’s been there since the beginning but only under specific forms.
In my office I have a couple of Arcade Machines for those rare moments when I can get a 5 to 10 minute breather. Old arcade games really allow you to get in and out of a game really fast. What’s that gotta do with autoplay you ask?
Autoplay started out with arcade machines where the game would “play itself” for a little while to show people nearby what the game is about and to attract more players. This is the “demo” mode that became more and more common on early computer and console games.
From there it got adopted as actual main mechanics in sport simulation games. Take a look at Football Manager (Soccer Manager for those of you in the US) and notice that, at its core, it’s no different than an autoplay game.
You mostly interact with the UI, change and re-order your players, perform transfers but when it comes down to the actual game? You mostly sit and wait for the resolve with almost minimal interference in the actual gameplay.
Do gamers like autoplay in mobile games?
There’s a reason we see more and more games embrace autoplay. Our mobile gaming industry is extremely KPI driven. Aka they look at stats and take design decisions for games based around data from players. If the data indicated that most gamers are put off by autoplay mechanics you can be 100% sure that you would see no autoplay in games.
So, it’s a safe bet to say that gamers like autoplay or, at the very least, they are not sufficiently annoyed by it. In cases of older gamers or people with a busy work life autoplay in SOME GAMES can be a godsend, especially when that’s not the only way of interacting with the game.
Let’s go back to Mu Origin as I used it as an example before. In the game I can, at any point, take control of what’s happening and I like to do that a lot. Honestly, in some cases I wish autoplay would skip the dialogues for me as well.
Why is autoplay disliked?
There are quite a few people who hate it and feel like their gaming experience is dumbed down. Or that autoplay ruins the hardcore elite nature of games.
A few chapters above I gave an example on how people used to pay other players to level up their character and grind gear for them in WoW. A common saying from that time period was “Did you purchase your character?” or “You’re so bad you probably paid someone to play for you”.
Even back then this autoplay-by-proxy was shunned upon with some gamers saying that players who engage in it do not deserve to be part of the game.
Imagine playing Call of Duty mobile and grinding your way to the top, learning and becoming better with each match. And then you join a competition and the other team is using bots with better aiming and precision than you. It would feel unfair.
Is there a difference between autoplay and idle games
We recently wrote an article on “Why Idle Games Are Popular” and in the article we talked about similar topics. From a casual observer’s point of view, idle games and autoplay games are extremely similar. But are they the same or is there a difference between the two genres?
The truth is that, although there is a lot of overlap, idle games and autoplay games are two different genres. Or better said, one’s a genre (Idle Games/Clicker Games) while the other is a mechanic that can be implemented across various genres.
Idle games usually feature a single area or central screen that remains consistent and only changes upon levelling up. Idle games also focus on repeating and optimizing the same interaction methods and mechanics while autoplay games allow you to take control and go outside of the game’s mechanical boundary.
Take MU Origins as an example once again. At any point in the game I can turn autoplay off and just go somewhere else on the map and engage in trading with players. Or farming herbs and items. In Infinite Hero: 3D Idle RPG I can upgrade my character and go through different menus but the gameplay loop never changes. At no point can I seize control of my character and go into town or farm other types of monsters.
So that’s an important distinction from my point of view.
Where To Next?
I write extensively about the mobile gaming industry, their tactics and how greed influences a game’s design, subjects which were brought up in this post.
I believe that you might be interested in more articles on game monetization. So if you want to stick around, you can check out “How Do Free Mobile Games Make money“, “Why Do Mobile Games Have Fake Ads” and “Why Do Mobile Games Have In-App Purchases“.
There’s also a monster post (about 4000 words) that answers the question: “How Hard Is It To Make A Mobile Game“. It goes in-depth with actual examples on how Experience, Resources and Financials affect the difficulty of developing and releasing new mobile games!
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