The Doodle Dilemma

Over the past week I’ve been considering using the “doodle” style for one of my upcoming games. I mentioned it on twitter and got a variety of responses, most of them very opposed to doodle games. I completely understand everyone’s reactions, as they’re the same as my own, but it’s a question that I found interesting, because it gets to the roots of why some developers make (or don’t make) some types of games. For this week’s iDevBlogADay article, I’m going to delve a little deeper into the Doodle Dilemma.

What is a doodle game?

If you’ve only played one doodle game, it’s probably Doodle Jump. Doodle Jump is the granddaddy of all doodle games. There were other doodle-style games before it (like Crayon Physics), but Doodle Jump’s 5 million sales are what really brought the style into the mainstream. Since then a bajillion doodle games have popped up on the app store. It’s important to note that “doodle” is just a graphical style, not an actual genre, so there are doodle games in just about every games category. The vast majority are terrible, but there are some truly great ones like Doodle God.

Why make a doodle game?

The first and most obvious reason to make a doodle game is to cash in on some of Doodle Jump’s success. Having “doodle” in your game’s name means it’ll be more likely to come up when users search for Doodle Jump. When doodle games started appearing after Doodle Jump got popular, it was a common reaction to think they were sequels to the original game. I imagine a lot of users still think the same thing upon seeing games with “doodle” in the title and hand drawn visuals.

The second reason to consider making a doodle game is because it’s easier to produce the graphics. Let’s be honest, a lot of us developers don’t have great artistic abilities. Doodle visuals are a great way for us to make passable art pretty quickly by ourselves. Some developers seem to take the opportunity to make their doodle games look as awful as possible, but I really think that even doodle games take a lot of polish and planning to get everything just right. Take a look at the Doodle God screenshot below for an example of a well polished doodle game.

What’s wrong with doodle games?

Nothing, when it comes to the visual style. As long as the hand-drawn looks makes sense for the type of game you’re making, I see absolutely no problem using it. With games like Crayon Physics, the doodle style totally makes sense, but with other games, the style really feels like a stretch. The real problems have to do with using “Doodle” in your game’s name. It just feels icky and unoriginal. It makes it seem like you’re trying really hard to mooch off Doodle Jump’s success. It’s purely a business decision, rather than an artistic or creative one, so it’s pretty much the closest thing in the iOS world to “selling out”. This leads me to the next question:

Why do you make games?

Do you make games to express yourself, or do you make games to make money? These two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but I’d bet most people who read this blog would be slightly closer to the “express yourself” side of the scale. I know that’s definitely the side I was on when I made Trainyard, but as I’ve been working on my next game and deciding its brand, I’ve arrived at the real Doodle Dilemma: is it worth selling out in the short term so that I can make the games I really want to make in the long term?

Decision time

I’ve decided to not make my next game a doodle game, or even in the hand-drawn style. If making a doodle game guaranteed a hit, then maybe I’d do it, but I’d rather not put the reputation I’ve built from making Trainyard on the line. However, it is seriously tempting to set up a secondary “crapware” company, just to see what sticks. I’ve also made a promise that if my next game doesn’t do well, I’ll rebrand it as a doodle game (perhaps under the crapware label) and do some good old a/b testing. Maybe you’ll even see “Doodle Trains” at some point in the future.

Sidenote A: I’ve always wondered if Doodle Jump’s success was influenced more by having ”WARNING: HIGHLY ADDITIVE” in its title rather than its actual visual style.

Sidenote B: Ngmoco just released “We Doodle”, which is basically a rebranded freemium version of their “Charadium” game. I’d say this shows that even the big studios aren’t immune from making doodle games.

Random thoughts: There seems to be a lot of pressure in the indie games world to constantly create new and unique game concepts, and for some reason, along with that, intentional marketing and business tactics are often frowned upon. I get the idea that the devs of some games, like Canabalt, even feel that having a 99c sale would be a form of selling out. I’ve also noticed that indie iOS devs take a ton of flak about things like in-app-payments, often moreso than their big studio counterparts.

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5 Responses to The Doodle Dilemma

  1. Matt,

    I like the way you worked through your decision process. I think it is important to reason deliberately about key choices like you did.

    Doug

  2. I think doing a Doodle style thinking in following Doodle Jump success is still valid, even if there are already tons of crappy Doodle games around. People is used to this term on the AppStore, the same with Stick graphics. Look the top 100, there are 7 stick games, 3 from the same developer – they are extremely simple, but adds humour for this very simplicity – and I think that is the formula.

    Alfred R. Baudisch

  3. Darko says:

    Nice article.

    If you think youre game is fine with doodle style…which also means you target your app to younger people and to those mature Doodle Lovers…then just go for it.

    Sidenote: Doodle Jump success is …take a great game design from a flash/iphone game…Winterbells/Papi Jump …..grab it…tell mom…it’s all yours….modify some elements…have this strange+nice looking Doodle’s and make it a 0.99 game…and updates updates updates. Then..if your’e game has sold 3 Mio. copies…trademark the art and the name.

  4. Bob says:

    So how do you create your graphics? Do you use paper and pencil and scan them in and then cut the images out? Mind sharing your work flow and your tools?

    • Matt says:

      If I were to make a doodle game that’s how I’d do it (draw them and scan them). Right now I use Flash for almost everything when it comes to creating graphics, a lot of my graphics (at least for Trainyard), are just pure code in Flash that gets rendered to a texture atlas png.

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