Modern mobile devices usually have a rectangular screen which one side is wider than the other. This results in a crucial design problem: which screen orientation is the best for mobile games?
This seems to be a rather simple and unimportant issue. However, whether the game is in portrait or in landscape could significantly influence the experience of the players.
Overall, to determine whether a portrait or landscape screen suits your game better, you should ask yourself these questions:
- Where would the players play my game?
- How would I design the game controls?
- Which orientation are the graphics best suited?
I would elaborate the points above later, but firstly, always remember that do not let players switch between portrait and landscape during a game. Just don't! It would be a very awful and frustrating experience if players have to constantly rotate their phones while enjoying the game.
In the book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell states that The places where players play exerts tremendous influence on the design of a game. This is an interesting point to think of when designing games and it is extremely important when determining the orientation of your mobile game.
If your game is action intensive, difficult, and time-consuming (Schell refer those games as Workbench Games), it is better to make your game in landscape. Since our eyes are separated horizontally, landscape screens align the direction of our sights. This means that we would more likely to notice every detail in the screen, even the parts near to the edges and corners. Thus, players would tend to have longer time sessions when playing landscape games since they could get extremely immersed and focused when playing them. Hearthstone: Heros of Warcraft and Deemo are examples of workbench games.
The Reading Nook
Less intensive games which players lean back and relax while playing them are referred to as Reading Nook Games. The screen orientation matters less in those games since they can be in many different forms. Other factors apt to determine the orientation of those games more.
Games which could be played in short time sessions while waiting for bus, traveling on subway and so forth are better in portrait screens. Since the user interface of mobile operating systems are made in portrait, it is very likely that the players hold their phone in portrait before entering the game. As a result, when designing short session games which players tend to quit and enter them very often, screen in portrait means that they would not have to rotate the phone constantly. Furthermore, most of these games are designed to be played one-handedly, so players could keep themselves balanced on the bus or train with one hand, and play the game with the other. Portrait games let the players hold the phone firmer. Temple Run and BBTan are examples of "Anywhere" games.
How would the player control the game is also an important factor to decide whether your game should be made portrait or landscape.
Joystick/Console Simulating Input
If your game uses virtual joystick or virtual console as input methods, it should be in landscape. People generally hold the phone with both of their hands when playing landscape games. By making the game in landscape, people would be more comfortable playing the game with both of their thumbs -- each controlling the virtual consoles on the bottom right and the bottom left -- without squeezing both of their hands on the narrower side of the phone. Minecraft (Pocket Edition) is one of those games.
Single Tap Input
If the only input control of your game is single taps on the screen which position doesn't matter, the game should be made in portrait. Since players tend to hold the phone one-handedly when playing these games, by making the game in portrait, players could hold the phone firmer when playing. Some may say that players could also hold the phone in landscape single-handedly, nonetheless, you can't deny that the phone is more likely to fall when you hold only one side of your phone when it is in landscape. Letting your players hold the phone in their palm in portrait, you could provide your players with a better experience because they would not be constantly balancing their phone to avoid accidentally dropping their phone. Mario Run is an example.
Some games are just better in portrait or landscape because of graphical experiences. Take Plague Inc. as an example, since they have to display World map in their game as well as the fact that it's international custom to draw World map horizontally, a landscape screen suits the game best. Doodle Jump, on the other hand, works better on a portrait screen because it is a game which the main character jumps up and up through the stairs. Displaying the game vertically would be way more intuitive since the game progresses upward.
The points mentioned above are the most important factors to determine whether a game should be in portrait or in landscape. However, there are still many less crucial considerations which influence mobile games to be in different orientations. For instance, if you plan to port your mobile game to a desktop or TV version, it is better to make the game in landscape because modern computer and TV screens are all horizontal. Making the game in landscape could reduce plenty of time in redesigning the UI and game scenes. (P.S. I did not think of that when I make my first mobile game kQq, so I suffer quite a bit currently as I'm trying to port it to a desktop version.)