What Is An Endless Runner?
An Endless Runner is characterized as an action game, linear in design with no end, without pauses or breaks for rest and no stages or changing levels. It has one continuous level. The game difficulty starts slow and easy.
Venues include paths, streets/roads and railroad tracks. As the game speeds up, the players character appears to run faster and faster as if on a giant treadmill. Obstacles approach faster and faster, requiring ever faster reactions. The game eventually becomes so fast that even cat-like reflexes and laser-like focus isn’t enough. The player succumbs to the intensity and it’s game over. Ironically they’re called “endless”, because for players they’re anything but that. For most the end comes far too soon.
Game controls consist of swipe left/right, swipe up to jump and swipe down to slide under obstacles. Some incorporate “tilt-control” to swing the game character from left to right.
Why Are They Popular?
Endless Runners are easily accessible for the majority of players. They’re easy to learn, but hard to master. The games are “snackable”, meaning games on average last less than three to five minutes. Fans of the genre are faithful to the game play and will at least give new runner games a try.
Innovators of the Genre
Often credit for the genre is given to side-scrolling games like Jetpack Joyride by Halfbrick Studios or vertical-scrollers like Doodle Jump by Lima Sky. I segment those in this discussion because the difference in perspective from side-view to behind-view changed the game play drastically.
Imangi Studios paved the way for the current wave of runners, developing Temple Run, Temple Run Brave, Temple Run 2 and Temple Run Oz. Imangi teamed with Disney for both Brave and Oz film properties. Each game features the four-way swipe controls and tilt-control, with Brave adding a “shoot” function (archery). The Imangi games are free-to-play with in-app purchases and the Disney games are $.99. Temple Run is geared slightly more towards a mid-core, arcade style player.
Subway Surfers by Kiloo is probably the best runner to emerge from the genre because it took the best from Temple Run and innovated the “lanes” feature. It excels in tight, precise game play, pleasing graphics and colors that pop and engaging background music. The player swipes left and right along three distinct rail tracks, plus jumps and falls along three heights of elevation. This allows more variety and depth of game play. Players can clearly identify how to measure and avoid obstacles. The game was released as free-to-play with in-app purchases for boosts and upgrades. Months ago interstitial ads crept their way into the game. Importantly, the game can be played offline when an Internet connection isn’t available.
Overall, the game difficulty is more player-friendly for casual players. It gently ramps in difficulty before the frenetic pace of action eventually becomes to fast for average players. The game stays fresh with frequent updates of new playable characters, locations and seasonal holidays. I still play this game when I have a few minutes to spare.
Running with Friends by Zynga is very similar to Subway Surfers in game play. It features gorgeous graphics and audio, tight game play and great variety. Unfortunately it gave up ground in some areas. While social games broaden a games reach, they require an Internet connection to create a player match or find a Facebook friend. This game is no different. With an Internet connection the game helps players find Facebook friends to compete with or finds a random “Smart Match.” To push the social aspect of the game they sadly left out a single-player mode.
Notifications inform and remind players when matches are available. Lacking an integrated in-app strategy it monetizes through full-screen interstitial ads that interrupt game play. Criticisms aside, I still enjoy this game and often go back for a quick fix.
Despicable Me/Minion Rush by Game Loft is a cute game hoping to capitalize on the Universal film, “Despicable Me 2.” In an effort to innovate, they added a camera pan to create anywhere from a side-scrolling game, to a 45 to a behind third-person perspective on-the-fly. If that wasn’t enough, an unresponsive tilt device ala Temple Run was included too. Kinda like the “kitchen-sink” approach. Overall it just made the game harder to play. Also, some of the playfield objects players interact with are odd-shaped, unfamiliar and unintuitive, leaving players uncertain how to avoid…or interact with for bonuses. Thankfully the game doesn’t require a constant Internet connection.
Opportunities for the Genre
Runner games tend to have low retention because early engagement and short play times are met quickly with ramping difficulty and barriers to progress. Few things are more demotivating than that. Level progression is linear and repetitive with little variety along the way. This was frequently used in early coin-operated arcade games where storage limitations forced games to be short in length.
Runners typically have high engagement because any success by the player requires sharp focus to the action on hand. They attract players of all levels, but few players have the skill to excel.
Due to breaks in game play and shorter play/session times, developers lean towards monetizing through full-screened interstitial ads. These often have the effect of interrupting the fragile engagement bond that might exist.
Therefore a logical step to improve the genre would be to increase the retention. A step in the right direction would be to employ what Candy Crush Saga/King did for the match 3 category.
They took the concept of seemingly repetitive one-minute challenges to hour-long sessions as players work to move from level-to-level, stage-to-stage. Each stage has a different goal, requiring players to wrap their mind around a unique challenge in order to succeed. Each stage is a nugget of achievement that can’t be underestimated. It’s an intoxicating reward that “eggs on” players. All the while keeping a close eye on the progress of their Facebook friends who also play.
Though competitive, it fosters friendly competition by allowing players to gift friends with lives, tickets and boosts. This opens the door for in-app purchases and less pressure to monetize exclusively with ads. King knows they’re onto a winning formula. Just look at all their “saga” games. Candy Crush Saga has incredible retention and at its peak was monetizing at a rate of over $600,000 per day!
Developing an Endless Runner with these concepts is one path for improved retention and monetization. Hopefully we see some new development in this category soon!
What is your favorite runner? Share why you like it and what do you think is in store for the future.