BlackBerry Game Development Tips (Part 2) – UI Guidelines

Interviews/Thought Leadership

In part one of this series, we discussed some of the physical features of BlackBerry® smartphones and how you should handle them.  Today, we’ll focus more on how users interact with BlackBerry smartphones.

Tip 4: Use the features of the BlackBerry smartphone!

A) BlackBerry smartphone owners are used to interacting with the device in specific ways.

For trackball and trackpad BlackBerry smartphones, owners will expect to use the trackball or trackpad for just about everything in their games – the keyboard is typically used mainly for typing.  Only power users will use the more advanced keyboard features for navigating the device (such as pressing the ‘M’ key to launch the Messages application or to use the ‘T’ key to jump to the top of a list).

DO NOT rely on the keyboard for game play.  Leverage the trackball or trackpad as much as possible.  If the keyboard absolutely must be used, be sure that the key mappings you select make sense.  For example, on a BlackBerry smartphone with a full QWERTY keyboard, DO NOT use the number pad; all number keys are found on the left-hand side of the keyboard. Using these keys would cramp the user’s hands into one small region of the keyboard and they would not be able to effectively play the game, nor would they want to for very long. Conversely, for BlackBerry smartphones with a SureType keyboard, the number pad might make an excellent choice.  Know your target smartphone, know your keyboard, and make a good choice. Ideally, if you’re using the keyboard at all, you will allow the user the option to map the keys any way they like.  Better still would be to provide a hybrid approach where the user can use the trackball or trackpad for all movement related activities and just use the keyboard for special functions or special moves.

B) Many of the newer BlackBerry smartphones feature high resolution screens at 480 x 360.

Use as much as the display area as possible.  Porting can often be a long process, but avoid using “filler” as much as possible.  I’ve seen many games that only use a small portion of the available display and fill in the rest of the display with a border.  You wouldn’t tolerate a game on your PC that wasted screen real estate, so why would you expect anything different on your smartphone?

C) Touch screen BlackBerry smartphones feature accelerometer and multiple orientation support.

If you can use the accelerometer as a game play mechanic, do it.  This simple mechanism offers a lot of wow factor and provides a unique gaming experience.

If your game only supports one orientation, you’ll need to inform the user. For example, some BlackBerry smartphone games have taken the approach of displaying a message when the user attempts to change orientations indicating that the game doesn’t support that orientation.

Tip 5:  Aim for fifteen minutes of fame.

BlackBerry smartphone users often engage their smartphones in bursts and you may want to consider this when designing your game.  The title of this tip is actually a bit misleading, since fifteen minutes is probably the absolute maximum block of time that you’re going to be able to keep a smartphone user’s attention.  It’s much more likely that they’ll discreetly play for a few minutes at a time, and then put their smartphone down.

A) When launching the game, the sound should be off by default.

It’s easy to imagine BlackBerry smartphone users playing games in a public place, be it at work, on public transit, or while waiting in line.  If they’re blasted by music every time they run the game, they’ll probably avoid playing it for fear of drawing attention to themselves.  The best approach is to have the sound off when the game is launched and provide an option for the user to turn it on.

B) The game state should allow for pausing and saving for future use.

If you’re not automatically saving game state at regular intervals, you should do so any time the app is backgrounded.  As discussed in Tip 1, applications are not explicitly suspended when it receives the MIDlet.pauseApp() event, as background processing is permitted by the platform.  You can use this feature to your advantage.

C)Users might not have the patience for long animations.

Whether it’s a speech bubble or an animation for advancing the storyline of the game, always offer the user a way to skip and/or speed it along.

Tip 6: UI Guidelines

The tips above provide a pretty good summary of the UI guidelines applicable to BlackBerry game developers, but a more comprehensive guide does exist.  This guide includes screen sizes across all models of BlackBerry smartphones, recommendations for icon design, etc.  This document is easy to navigate and contains a ton of useful information.  It can be found here:

BlackBerry Smartphone UI Guidelines

Hopefully the tips provided here offer you that extra little bit of guidance needed to take your game from a two star rating on BlackBerry App World™ to a four star rating.  Remember, there’s no substitute for knowing the target smartphone and knowing what your customers expect from you.

About Brian Z.

Brian joined Research In Motion (RIM) in 2005 working with Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) who specialize in Bluetooth, GPS, multimedia, and gaming. As a senior member of the Developer Relations Team, it's Brian's mandate to not only support the application development efforts for a number of ISVs, but also to act as a voice at RIM for third party application developers. Like RIM, Brian's roots are in the enterprise world, but over the past couple of years he's quickly adapted to the consumer space, and that's where he spends most of his time today.

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