Strong, relatable characters are crucial to the success of mobile games, says PlayFirst VP

Having strong, relatable characters in mobile games is becoming increasingly important for app discoverability and keeping players engaged, according to PlayFirst VP of product management and marketing, Becky Ann Hughes.

Speaking to Polygon ahead of today's launch of the studio's latest puzzle-match arcade game, Deep Sea Deli, Hughes said that as the mobile games market becomes more and more crowded, recognizable and relatable characters are fast becoming just as important as fun game mechanics.

"We did an analysis of the App Store a while ago and we looked at all the icons in the store, and most of the top games have strong, cute, compelling characters in the icon and screenshots, which really compels people to click and download the app," Hughes said. "Having a brand and having recognizable characters is going to become more important than less important."

Hughes explained that having a compelling character at a basic presentation level is only a small part of it, though. In order for these characters to play an effective role in helping developers establish their brand and identity, the characters needs to be well integrated into the games and serve a purpose. She cites examples of PlayFirst's top-selling game Diner Dash and the recently released Deep Sea Deli as successful examples, and also points out successes by the developers of Cut The Rope, Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga.

"Having a brand and having recognizable characters is going to become more important than less important."

"For example, Cut the Rope ran a campaign last week developing out the character of Om Nom, and it was really great. The character art in Clash of Clans has some real emotion, and Bookworm Heroes by PopCap is very character-driven," she said. "What we're starting to find is the top apps in the App Store really do have some strong, character-driven brands. Even Candy Crush Saga has a story and a progression model, and it's probably one of the most successful arcades games on the App Store right now."

According to Hughes, the characters in all the above mentioned games feature characters that are integrated into the core of the game mechanic. So in a game like Deep Sea Deli, Narly the Narwhal coaches players through the game and is always present during the puzzles, reacting to the player's performance. The characters at the bottom of the screen requesting sandwiches each have a tendency to request a certain type of sandwich, and they have different personalities and mannerisms.

"What we find is having those characters integrated into the core of the game mechanic is the first thing needed to be successful. The second thing is to make sure the characters are tied to the feedback mechanism in the game so they have some functional benefit to the game instead of just being tacked on," she said.

In Deep Sea Deli, every character that appears on screen plays a role, whether it's the sea creatures ordering sandwiches, or the little fish named Hoover who is used to "clear" the game board by eating up scraps.

Hughes told Polygon that what we're seeing on the mobile game market is a trend that has happened in previous casual game markets as well, especially on PC.

"The PC download business went through the same thing where they started out with more generic, non-story driven games," she said. "Then it started to gravitate toward more character, story-driven games as the market matured.

"We're seeing the same thing in the mobile realm."

Deep Sea Deli is now available on the iTunes App Store. PlayFirst recently launched a "gossip blog" for its game characters.

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