One-button games — where the player just taps/holds with the right timing to play—have been around almost as long as gaming itself, and in the early 2000s formed a popular genre of online Flash game.
But it was the rise of mobile from 2007 onwards that really put the focus on simple controls; it’s no surprise that most people would rather freely tap/swipe anywhere on a phone to play a casual game than grapple with an awkward on-screen controller requiring both hands.
And this trend affected the web too, of course. Nowadays, if you want your web game to “go viral” it has to work well for mobile users, and that means having controls anyone can immediately pick up and have fun with.
In 2013 I started working for UsVsTh3m, an experimental “fun internet stuff” site set up alongside Mirror Online, and we immediately looked back at the whole history of simple games for inspiration. Almost everything was devised to be mobile-friendly from the start, and some of our biggest hits were one-button games.
Super Tory Boy could’ve offered traditional left/right/jump options, but there were good reasons to pare it down: it was not only easier to play, it also gave the game a relentless pace matched to the music. No one could dawdle, fail or get bored.
How can someone be persuaded to hold down a button for a looooooong time? 1000 Seconds cajoled and teased the player into waiting for the next thing around the corner, and was described as an interesting new example of “attention-based media” (it also noticeably boosted the average time spent on the site).
Other UsVsTh3m one-button games included trying to stop a digital stopwatch on exactly one second, precisely pumping the right amount of petrol, and scoring penalties against badgers (produced in a few hours after a government minister made an unusual statement).
Distilling It Down
Before I joined Distilled, the Creative team was already thinking along the same lines for a music-related client and had a big hit with Got Rhythm?, a test that anyone could take by tapping along.
We then worked on ideas for a parking client, and felt there was something in the idea of (re)taking your driving test, but making the player go through a series of challenges/questions seemed cumbersome and potentially tedious. Eventually, we realised that the simple, interesting nugget in there was the “emergency stop” manoeuvre, and that it could be combined with age data. How Old Are Your Reactions? was played millions of times, gaining hundreds of thousands of Facebook shares and hundreds of links from media coverage.
Many clients are understandably wary of ideas that relate to current affairs or politics, but Swedish financial firm Advisa was happy to poke fun at the UK (in the friendliest possible way, of course) with Brexit Bus. Combining financial data with compelling physics-based gameplay resulted in thousands of tweets comparing scores and techniques. The obvious traditional controls for a game of this type—buttons to lean forward/back, accelerate and brake—were rejected in favour of carefully fine-tuning just an accelerator pedal.
There’s no sign of one-button games running out of appeal or originality, and they’re often the end point once you start reducing a compelling idea to its essence. We occasionally devise new ones, they’re just waiting for the right clients to come along…