What is it that makes a great mobile multiplayer game? It's a tough question, but one I think I'm pretty well placed to answer, since I've played an awful lot of them. It's not a simple equation by any means, but it's one that Rumble Stars Soccer has managed to get right in recent times - that's why it seems sort of fitting to discuss it right now.
There are three things that make up the perfect mobile multiplayer game. Those three things aren't enough on their own, but they're shared by every single online mobile game that's scored highly on these hallowed pages. They're not a recipe for success, but they're things that every mobile multiplayer game needs to succeed.
CompulsionThere needs to be a drive to play the game every day. Whenever you pick up your phone, there should be a part of you thinking - just a quick go won't hurt. It can't just be that there are new chests for you to open when you sign in either - you need to play. Rumble Stars Soccer gives you regular challenges to try and complete, which give you impressive rewards, which make you better.
That's the key compulsion loop in mobile, and getting it right is incredibly difficult. It's a case of balancing the rewards that are on offer, the time that it's going to take to collect them, and how the game monetises players.
The compulsion just to see more isn't enough - mobile games are simple, and they tend not to offer the scope of their AAA cousins. Which leads us nicely on to the second facet that every good mobile multiplayer games needs.
Ease of complexityComplexity doesn't come from controls or difficulty settings, something that mobile developers sometimes forget. It stems from options and possibilities, combinations and experimentation. Just because the core mechanic of a game is simple, that doesn't mean the experience has to be shallow.
Picking up and playing Rumble Stars Soccer or Clash Royale is hardly a challenge. To all intents and purposes in both games you're just choosing which of your characters enters the battle, and when. To begin with that's enough to keep you entertained, but the games subtly let you know that it's combinations of characters that win games.
Now you know what you're doing and you've tasted some victory, but tougher, smarter players will beat you, even if you manage to scrape a couple of points here and there. Things have got harder, but that central mechanic is still exactly the same. You know what you're doing, but you need to find ways to beat other players within the limits the game set at the very start.
Now you're engaged in something much more complex, much deeper than those first forays, and you've not really noticed it. The other players are doing the same as you - using that same, simple mechanic - which means you could beat them if you learn the right moves and combos. Or if you toughen up the right cards. Or if you put a couple more hours in tonight. Or if you spend and get a few gems to give you a boost. There are always options, which is sort of the point.
ProgressionIn multiplayer games, this is the most difficult of the three parts to get right. It's easy to control the direction of a player's progression in a single player game, but keeping that push to progress behind them in multiplayer is a different problem entirely. Clans and clubs help, because it means that your actions aren't just changing your own score, they're changing the score of your friends as well.
Keep too loose a grip on progression and the compulsion fades. Keep too tight a grip on it and things get complex without the ease. Games that have players who are obsessed for a few days and then move on fail - multiplayer games need thriving communities, otherwise they're dead in the water.
Right now the card-and-chest based system is the finest example of how to curtail and encourage progression, but that doesn't mean there isn't a better idea waiting just over the horizon. In the simplest terms, a game needs to give players enough that they feel like they're getting better, without removing the challenge that every fan of multiplayer games is craving.
That's even more difficult on mobile, because there's often the sense when you get to a certain level that the players you're up against have spent money that you haven't. The balance between winning and losing has to be just right, which is a trick that only a handful of games ever get right. It's not just about the sweetness of your victories, it's about the closeness of your defeats.
What to playThere are a few games on mobile that get all three of these things spot on - or as close to spot on as we've seen. So I figured it'd be good to add links to them at the bottom of this article so you can check them out and discover how they do things for yourself. Consider it further reading, but without having to do that much reading. Clash Royale - Click here to find out more
Really the first mobile multiplayer game to come close to nailing the three facets outlined above. You want proof? It came out three years ago and it's barely left the top 50 highest grossing games since.Click here to download Clash Royale for iOS
Click here to download Clash Royale for Android Rumble Stars Soccer - Click here to find out more
A bright and insanely compulsive mash up of football and a MOBA. Pay close attention to how it mixes up the Clash Royale formula.Click here to download Rumble Stars Soccer for iOS
Click here to download Rumble Stars Soccer for Android
The smart thing about this one is how it simplifies the shooter. Short levels are one thing, but this one strips away a lot of frippery and leaves you with the meat of the genre.Click here to download Afterpulse for iOS
Click here to download Afterpulse for Android Shadowgun Legends - Click here to find out more
Another shooter. This one isn't an entirely multiplayer experience, but you can see how it uses the same ideas to build up your interest.Click here to download Shadowgun Legends for iOS
Click here to download Shadowgun Legends for Android The Battle of Polytopia - Click here to find out more
This one looks like a massive game, but it uses the ideas above to create smaller pockets of play that are going to keep you hooked. Just ask half the Pocket Gamer team if you don't believe me.Click here to download The Battle of Polytopia for iOS
Click here to download The Battle of Polytopia for Android Click here to read all of the best opinions and ideas in our features section