How do you know if you got a two-player game in front of you? I think the litmus test is whether the action of one player will cause a (partially predictable) reaction of the second player. If two people are merely playing at the same time, like on a split screen, but they're not interacting... then you don't have a real two- (or three-, four-) player game.
Even if you don't have a split screen and even if you are affecting what happens on the opponent's side, it's not granted there's any interaction. Imagine a wild west shooting game in which you destroy the bottles on the opponent's side, and your opponent destroys yours. Will there be real interaction? No, because you will not adjust your strategy of shooting the bottles as a result of which of your own bottles will have been destructed. It may be more fun than shooting by your own, but much less fun, I think, than if there were real interaction.
Now what if your action will force the other player to change their moves, but it does so in an unpredictable way? Say you're each shooting into the center of the board where there's colorful pegs popping up, and when they they're being hit, the impact will cause them to be thrown across the board. If this is mostly chaotic movement, then it won't yield semi-predictable reactions from the other party. Which can be much less fun because the game won't help to create a common story about it being told by the players. A story of tactics, defeat, caution, surprise, revenge, friendship and more (for instance, one story could be "I built a defense line here and then you had to save energy in order to advance the devilish thing you call a Left Side Brute Force Maneuver which you tried for the second time in a row but then suddenly..." etc.). A story which is personal to the players and requires creativity, and which isn't necessarily one written or even foreseen by the game creator.
How can one aid such a story being personal to the players? I think a big part is allowing room to make decisions, allow combinations to explode tactical possibilities, as well as having the game design and story being open and even ambiguous in what it represents.
A word-less interface can be one piece of the puzzle -- it's not only automatically cross-language, but it also allows players to come up with their own names for things. Graphics which are rather neutral and unspecific -- which don't depict happiness or sadness, aggression or peacefullness, male or female, which don't depict "stuff girls like" or "stuff parents in India like" or "stuff boys who are into robot battles like" -- may also help. (Not getting in the way with your story also helps making it more casual; for instance, the lack of a title screen allows to just pull the game out anywhere and start playing immediately, to have it really be yours.) The goal is not to have everyone like the game, but to at least not make people who may like this type of game run away because it's aimed at another group. Admittedly, that's just one aspect, and diversity and experimenting may be better than coming up with too many rules restricting the design. And I'd also just love to create a game which has lots of robot battles in it...
[Thanks to the makers of PhoneGap!]
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