For my critical play, I played two endless race iOS games: Temple Run (by Imangi Studios) and Tiny Wings (by Andreas Illiger). In terms of mechanics, the two games have extremely simple controls and goals. Both games are endless runners, so they aim to give the user a sense of mindless fun, while also providing fun in the form of challenge (with the goal being to survive in the game for as long as possible). Temple run uses intuitive swipe controls (swipe left/right to turn, swipe up/down to jump/slide) and tilt controls (tilt left/right to move to the left or right of the runway) and forces the players to use these controls to navigate around obstacles as the speed continuously increases. Tiny Wings gives an even simpler format: it’s 2D (rather than Temple Run’s 3D running landscape) and has you sidescrolling along a hilly terrain. You press down to make the bird dive, which you try to line up with the downsides of the hills in order to launch the bird a further distance. After a certain period of time without collecting sun tokens, the sun sets and the run is over. Both games give a simple yet hard to master concept, which makes them exceedingly fun in both a mindless way and in a challenging way.
Theme plays a role in these game in three main ways: it guides the user towards the goals of the game, it changes the target audience, and it provides an aesthetic experience that the games would not offer otherwise.
The first of these three topics was covered in the Plants vs. Zombie talk about onboarding. Effective game design uses thematic tools in order to inform players on the functionality of the game. Temple run is particularly adept in applying this concept, as there is almost no explanation about what the point of the game is. Having a pack of scary-looking demon creatures tailing close behind the player communicates a clear message: the goal is to run away. In a similar vein, all of the obstacles are designed in a way that clearly indicate that they should be avoided. In the image below, the pillars of fire in the air give the player a clear incentive to slide under them.
The second function of theme is less directly linked to gameplay, but does have a big impact on the feeling of the game. Even though temple run and tiny wings are almost functionally identical, Tiny Wings feels much more oriented towards kids and less serious gamers. The colorful backdrop, the more forgiving game rules (ie not immediately dying on the first mistake), and other small things such as just falling asleep at the end of the level instead of dying make the game feel like a more lighthearted experience.
The final function is straightforward, and support both games’ mindless senses of fun. With games like these, the player spends a lot of time looking at the same backdrops and styles, so when games are able to offer a genuinely pleasant layout (such as Tiny Wing’s beautifully colored sky), they are much more fun to sit and look at.