App of the Day: Draw Something

Picture this.

Version tested iPhone

One of the most tiresome criticisms levelled at games is to sniffily point out that you could play it in real life just as easily. Why play FIFA when you can take an actual football to the park? Why click-clack along to songs in Rock Band when you could learn to play an actual guitar instead? Such feeble jabs generally miss the wish fulfilment context of such games but Draw Something, the App Store's latest overnight sensation, doesn't even have that to fall back on. This is a game you could easily recreate with paper and pen.

It really is this simple: you draw a picture of something, plucked from a list of three suggestions. This gets sent to a friend, who must then guess what you've drawn. Then it's their turn to draw something for you, and your turn to guess. And so on, an escalating volley of generally inept sketching and ill-advised attempts to be clever. That's supposed to be Finland, Ellie? Really?

There's a scoring system, of sorts, but nothing too taxing. Coins are earned for successful guesses, depending on the difficulty, but can only be used to buy more colours for your paintbox or bombs to shake out new words, or destroy irrelevant letters in the guessing stage. Neither are essential to progress.

The longer you and your friends can keep making correct guesses, the higher your tally goes. This tally serves no purpose - there are no leaderboards and no "victory" conditions - but it's still disturbingly compelling. It's meaningless, but nobody wants to be the one to spoil the run by passing on a round, in much the same way as nobody wants to be the first one to drop the ball when playing catch.

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You could, of course, cheat. There's nothing to stop you simply writing the answer, but with nothing at stake it'd be like playing hide and seek and standing in plain sight. The compulsion to do well comes from a deeper place, communal play in its purest form.

So what makes it fun? The people you play it with, mostly. This is the sort of game that only comes to life when you know the person behind the squiggles, and can laugh at their ineptitude or appreciate their artistry. In-jokes can be worked into images, or you may decide that a particular friend is more likely to guess the word "sneakers" from a reference to the 1992 Dan Aykroyd movie than a drawing of footwear.

Draw Something's (pen) stroke of genius is that the drawings don't arrive fully formed. Instead, you watch the creation of each picture replayed perfectly, one line at a time, exactly as it was drawn. With a bit of forward planning and practice, you can almost create short animations. In doing so, the game taps into something Rolf Harris understood years ago - it's always fun to ask "can you guess what it is yet?"

There's no denying that Draw Something is thin on gameplay features, but to pour scorn on it for its simplicity would be to miss the point. There are improvements that can be made, certainly - the ability to remove friends from your list when they stop playing, a more robust internal economy for those coins, and a wider selection of words to guess would all be welcome.

But those criticisms don't detract from a game that makes its simplicity a strength. Draw Something may not dig particularly deep into our sense of fun and community, but it understands its own appeal beautifully: you're not playing the game, you're playing your friends.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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