11 Tips for Building a One-Button Game

The allure of one-button games for developers is clear: it’ll be easy! Easy to:

  • Build quickly
  • Onboard users

Both of these can be true, but there’s something missing: developers also want their games to be good. With that pesky requirement, suddenly we’re trying to:

  • Build something fun quickly
  • Onboard users and keep them playing

The result: there are lots of one-button games, particularly on mobile, but few that succeed.

We started building Ready Set Goat as part of a one-button game jam in late 2019, lured by the siren’s song of a quick and easy project. Many months later, we’ve built something we’re proud of (and can’t stop playing), but only after a series of detours. In the process, we collected some tips to share with the next one-button victims. Of course, many of these apply to all styles of game:

Ready Set Goat in action…note the Gondolas for tip #3
  1. One button doesn’t mean one action. In Ready Set Goat (aka RSG), you can tap to jump, double-tap to double-jump, and long-press to jump a little higher, all with a single jump button.
  2. Make your actions context-specific. Press jump when on the ground? Do a ground jump. Already in the air? Do an air jump. After you squash an enemy? Bounce off for an extra jump. Chain together three hits in a row? Something special happens, but I won’t spoil the surprise.
  3. Automate everything that isn’t your primary action. In RSG, we used our one button for jumping, so our goat-agonist moves forward automatically. When the goat hits a wall, it reverses direction and heads back the other way. To add control, we placed two gondolas on the map that you can hit to reverse direction. Voila, the jump button now grants some directional control.
  4. Optimize for performance and fast re-plays. Most successful one-button games are going to be arcade-y. This means fast action and careful timing. If you want players to get hooked, it has to perform smoothly on your chosen platforms, and it has to be easy to replay over and over again. Don’t put unnecessary features or obstacles in your game flow that will slow players down.
  5. Avoid glitch frustration. You face stiff competition for players’ attentions, and with this type of game, early frustration for perceived unfairness is a killer. In RSG, this meant lots of jump forgiveness and careful tuning of the hitboxes.
  6. Script the early game. New players should be able to learn and improve quickly, and at least one scripted early stage helps. Many one-button games end up being “endless” style games with randomized challenges, but this can really frustrate new players.
  7. Show the player how they’re improving. In RSG, we save your high score, congratulate you on every new one, and have a leaderboard. All pretty standard stuff. One less-common piece we added: your average score. Even though you won’t set a new high score every run, you can see your average tick up over time as you improve. Very satisfying.
  8. Make sure you can play for a few minutes or a few hours. One-button games are often used as a quick diversion, but not exclusively. Your game needs to be fun for 5 minutes on your lunch break, 15 minutes on the bus, or three hours at home on the weekend. If you can’t check all of those boxes, you will struggle to attract long-term players.
  9. Hidden depth for more advanced players. New players should feel like they can master the game quickly, while advanced players should constantly find new ways to edge up their scores. This requires hidden layers of strategy that emerge as you improve. In RSG, we included a number of subtle ways to move around the map and combos that become essential to progress. The higher your scores go, the more hints we drop about advanced play.
  10. Cut features early and often. If you want to build a simple game, keep it simple. Avoiding scope creep is key to any kind of product development, but especially so for a one-button game. An example: we toyed with a wall-cling feature early on, but quickly discarded it when the first few iterations just weren’t fun.
  11. Cute art. Well, it made sense for us: RSG is a game about a cute goat. Make sure your art style matches the gameplay, but for broad-appeal you can’t go wrong with cute.

Disagree? Got more tips to share? Hit me up any time at eric@subpixel.net!




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