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What Makes Endless Runner Games Successful?
I’ve been fascinated and slightly obsessed by the “endless runner” genre that I’ve seen popping up on different mobile platforms lately. In endless runner games, players control a character that is constantly running forward, and the object is to use swipe and tilt actions to guide the character from left to right, picking up coins and gems while avoiding insta-kill obstacles. This premise may seem simple, but a few of these games have become hugely successful. Temple Run 2 is a widely recognized endless runner, but there are a wide range of other successes on the market (Beach Buggy Blitz, Agent Dash, Jetpack Joyride, just to name a few).
As a game designer, what fascinates me most about endless runner games is a powerful and unique design element that can make an endless runner into a financially successful free app. As developers try a range of different monetization techniques for different free-to-play titles, the endless runner genre has found a system that works perfectly when executed properly, providing countless hours of entertainment for players and sustained income for developers and publishers. The key to this system is the way it forces developers to earn every penny of income through the merits of a game’s design, and not through the brute-force tactics of some other free-to-play genres.
Just One More Run…
I have dubbed the crucial gem of endless-runner design the “just one more run” factor. The reason I chose this title is that this is the phrase I repeat to myself about 50 times in a row after I decide to stop playing. This is the key — when I decide to put down one of these games, the merits of the design keep me plugged in until I forget that I wanted to stop playing a half hour ago.
To really explore this concept, we have to take a step back. One of the fundamental design principles of an endless runner is that there is no “end” or goal for players to achieve. Players continue running until they eventually die on every play. Using procedural generation, the “course” can be put together on the fly, ensuring that no two runs are ever alike.
Why would anyone want to play a game that they can never beat? Because with proper design, these games allow a player to get just a little further down the track each time they play. Coin collection is a key mechanic of the genre, and the best designers create a set of upgrades and bonuses that directly influence players’ ability to make longer runs time after time, taking them to new areas and revealing new content along the way.
I’ll use Beach Buggy Blitz as an example, because this game has sucked so much of my time away recently. In this game, players can’t get far at all when they first start out. But, quickly, players amass enough coins on their runs to upgrade their buggy’s engine, which brings about a noticeable speed difference, resulting in longer runs. Soon players find themselves able to upgrade things like boost duration, tire traction, and the duration of power-ups, in addition to buying new buggies that are even faster or have other bonuses. Players cannot get past the beach area for the first few runs, but after a few upgrades, they can make it past the beach and into the caves, then eventually past the caves and into the jungle, and so on. Each time a player sees a new area, it feeds into the “just one more run” urge.
Every time I play I get just a little further, see just a little more, and promise myself that I’ll just do one more run. And if I do not get as far on a certain run as I usually do, then I definitely have to give it another play.
Earning Income Through Design
Endless runners employ an old-school method of free-to-play monetization, which in my opinion is the most respectable and compelling. Every upgrade in the game can be achieved simply by playing the game consistently over time, but players who want to progress more quickly and do longer runs sooner can purchase the same coins they collect in game with real money. Notice the beauty of this monetization strategy — players are only going to shell out money if they think “I really like this game, and I really want to see how far I can get with this big upgrade!” Designers must make players fall in love with an endless runner before they earn a dime. Players have to be doing run after run so intensely, gaining small upgrades along the way, that they just can’t stand to wait any longer before achieving instant gratification.
The Wrong Way
When an endless runner captures the “just one more run” factor, it can be a great success. However, I would be remiss if I did not point out how I’ve seen some of these games fall flat on their faces. If designers cannot nail down the “just one more run” factor, players will have no incentive to spend money to progress, and they won’t stick around long. It all comes down to the pacing and usefulness of upgrades earned through playing. If a game’s upgrades do not help players to achieve longer runs consistently, or if upgrades are very hard to come by, the game won’t be evoking the urge to continue. If there are no continual incremental improvements, players have nothing to work towards and nothing to look forward to. All they have is a repeatable 30-second experience. It’s ironic in a way — if you design an endless runner in such a way that forces players to buy upgrades, they won’t buy them at all, but if you design it in that magical way that propels them forward slowly but steadily, they will be eager to pay for an extra boost.