Mobile gamers: this is why we can’t have nice things

Some recent mobile gaming highlights:

Angry Birds Transformers launches. It is a surprisingly good game, retaining the series’s penchant for wanton destruction, and wrapping it in a playable and engaging mechanic where you auto-run along levels and shoot directly at targets. But it’s a freemium game, heavily and arbitrarily gated with all kinds of timers, IAP and ads. People complain: they just wanted to play the game.

The Silent Age‘s second episode arrives, hugely expanding the award-winning adventure title, initially downloadable for free. Those who pay $4.99/£2.99 to unlock the full story are treated to a compelling and beautiful gaming experience. But instead many people complain: they just wanted to play the game—for free.

And now paid game Monument Valley has been updated with a new set of gorgeous Escher-like puzzles to explore. The ‘forgotten shores’ is roughly the length of the original game, at least as visually stunning and inventive, and costs roughly half the price. Again, people complain. They don’t understand why they just can’t play the new levels immediately; the developer is, apparently, “greedy”, and those who bought the game are now busy downrating it on iTunes. Their original four- or five-star experience is now only worth one or two stars, because the developer had the audacity to want income for months of effort, in order to fund further games that those who bought it would presumably enjoy in the future.

On Twitter, developer ustwo half-joked:

Seems quite a few people have gone back and 1 star reviewed Monument Valley upon update because the expansion was paid. This makes us sad. That’s it, we’re giving up the premium game. Next time we’re just going to sell you 500 coins for $2 instead.

It’s hardly surprising everyone took the comment at face value. Why wouldn’t they? Developers take months crafting something, and they need to pay the bills somehow. But too many mobile gamers don’t want to pay; but they also don’t want IAP gating or adverts. They want something for nothing.

I don’t know how this plays out, or how it can be fixed. It’s too late to put the entitlement genie back in the bottle, and I suppose developers have to weather the idiocy storm and just hope enough people remain to make their efforts worthwhile, whether that’s from buying apps with price-tags, or paid upgrades, or from flinging a few bucks into the IAP well in order to make a freemium title less hideous. What I do know is that we’re still seeing the most innovative and exciting of gaming platforms continue to get a kicking, all because of greed—but from consumers, not developers.

November 13, 2014. Read more in: Gaming, iOS gaming

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iPhone and iPad gaming is broken: here’s what we need to do to fix it

In my earlier piece about Flappy Bird, I argued one thing we could do to boost mobile gaming is shout louder about the games that are great rather than expending a lot of energy complaining about (and therefore drawing attention to) those that aren’t. This is the central theme of my latest op-ed for TechRadar, iPhone and iPad gaming is broken: here’s what we need to do to fix it.

Incidentally, for pacing reasons, the editor hacked down the list of games I recommended (which was originally in three blocks), and so here it is in full:

Threes! The Room. Rymdkapsel. Eliss Infinity. Badland. Magnetic Billiards. Ticket To Ride. Slydris. Gridrunner. Galaxy On Fire. Joining Hands. Icycle. Bubble Pets. I Am Level. The Walking Dead. Spice: Tree of Life. Autumn Dynasty. Tiny Wings. Food Run HD…

Mutant Mudds. Death Ray Manta. Contre Jour. Monsters Ate My Condo. Forget Me Not. Pivvot. QatQi. Slingshot Racing. Dark Nebula 2. Super Hexagon. Beat Sneak Bandit. Mos Speedrun. Device 6. World Of Goo. Zen Bound 2. Blackbar. Stickets. Beyond Ynth. Edge. HungryMaster. Monster’s Valley…

Limbo. Critter Panic. Mikey Hooks. Crush. Impossible Road. Year Walk. Saucelifter. Orbital. Boson X. Letterpress. SpikeDislike2, Trainyard. Bit Pilot. Ridiculous Fishing. SpellTower. Lyne. Super Stickman Golf 2. Pinball Arcade. Kingdom Rush.

February 10, 2014. Read more in: Gaming

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What we can all learn from Flappy Bird

So one-thumb survival game and viral hit Flappy Bird flew too close to the sun and got deleted from the App Store by the developer. This morning, writers are aiming to make sense of what happened, such as in Keith Stuart’s piece for The Guardian, where he likens the game’s “cheerful sadism” to 1980s arcade games, worries that negative reactions were xenophobic in nature, and argues Flappy Bird was well-tuned and balanced—in effect, a model other games designers should learn from rather than scorn.

I wouldn’t go quite that far. I played Flappy Bird a bunch of times over a day or two, and I saw nothing that made me think it was anything more than a mediocre survival game. Judging by the response on my Twitter feed, the game was hugely divisive, with some getting totally addicted and others wondering what all the fuss was about. But I do agree with Stuart, in that there are things we can all learn from Flappy Bird’s short-lived success.

If it’s free, people will try anything. There are plenty of people who argue that free gaming will be the death of iOS, but I’ve never seen it that way. Although I will continue to champion great games with a price-tag, the fact is free games remove a barrier to entry. If something’s free, pretty much anyone will try not only something they were recommended as a good experience, but also something they just ‘have to see’. If you can make such an app compelling enough to make money, free can be a good starting point; just don’t gouge your users.

Design for on-the-move play. Some iOS titles, such as the superb Eliss Infinity, are very much sit-down experiences, but many people play mobile games on the go. I quite often get people on Twitter asking me for games that would work during a commute, when they’re standing on a train, only able to interact with an iPhone with a single digit. This is where Flappy Bird got everything right: it worked in portrait; a thumb didn’t cover the gameplay; controls used one digit; and games were short, meaning you could always fit one in. This of course isn’t the recipe for mobile gaming, but certainly a recipe, and there are oddly few short one-thumb titles that work in portrait.

Success is immediately cloned. Flappy Bird was not a remotely original concept—endless avoid ’em ups have existed since the dawn of gaming. But the App Store and Google Play are both cesspits when it comes to IP infringement. As Flappy Bird stormed the charts, a slew of imitators appeared. At the time of writing, various clones were flying high in the charts, having merrily stolen artwork from other developers, shoving ‘Flappy’ in their names, and in one particularly egregious case having welded IAP to the concept. One of the things that first drew me to iOS was the sheer innovation on display; these days, mobile gaming is increasingly full of crappy knock-offs.

People can be really nasty. In an earlier Guardian piece on Flappy Bird, Stuart Dredge said the game had “put the noses of a few gaming snobs out of joint along the way”. He later clarified to me that this wasn’t a response to critics offering a constructive opinion, but people responding in a mean or vicious manner to those who liked the game. Rather than argue about the game’s merits (or lack thereof), some accused others of being stupid for liking it. Worse, the developer has now been getting death threats on Twitter due to having removed the game. It’s depressing what people get so worked up about these days—imagine if all that energy was put into something worthwhile.

Reporters need to investigate more. Another related issue in terms of communication was the slew of reports about Flappy Bird, most of which didn’t investigate but instead assumed. Figures were bandied about regarding the small fortune the dev was making daily, and about him having ripped images from Nintendo titles; elsewhere, accusations of chart-rigging weren’t offered as a possibility, but as facts. The dev himself, freaking out under a deluge of press requests, pled for peace, which only made reporters write yet more about him, adding a ‘mysterious’ label. With writing being the profession in which I now spend most of my time, the lack of research into the Flappy Bird phenomenon, and assumptions and guesswork trotted out as facts, was merely indicative of reporting as a whole—but that in itself is deeply worrying.

We need to champion better games. The final point—and one I explore in more depth in an upcoming piece for TechRadar—is that we need to shout louder when great games come along. Flappy Bird was not an objectively great game; at best, it was a compelling, convenient and free time killer. But iOS and Android both have reputations that are being flushed down the toilet, to take their place among a sea of IAP and freemium effluent. But mobile gaming can be brilliant. Mobile gaming gave the industry a kick up the arse, combining the innovation then seen on Nintendo handhelds with the kind of open audience access only previously available to people working on the PC. Even now, despite the dross, there are titles being released for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices that are wonderful and simply couldn’t have existed on any other kind of system. But devs that succeed in making great games are increasingly failing, because discoverability on the App Store and Google Play is so poor; we need to do more to bring such titles to people’s attention, before it gets to the point such titles are no longer viable, and all we’re left with is the Flappy Birds and Dungeon Keepers of this world.

February 10, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Gaming

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Everything that’s wrong with iOS gamers

The Room Two is on sale today, down to $2.99. On visiting its iTunes Preview page to get a link, I saw a review that pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with iOS gamers, by user ‘Pokerpro#66′. It starts as follows:

First of all, $5.99 was a complete rip-off for the room 2.

Straight in there with six whole dollars being a “complete rip-off” for an ambitious multitouch 3D puzzle game. Also, The Room Two cost $4.99 on launch, not $5.99, so there is that.

Not much more gameplay than the original 99¢ version,

Perhaps the dev is somewhat to blame for this, given that The Room has been on sale for $0.99 a few times, but its default price was in fact $4.99, just like the sequel.

including a “chapter” which literally required one action to complete it.

“Pacing is bad.”

I can appreciate the work that goes into these games but this experience really put me off from wanting to buy any other apps from this company. If you are going to charge more than double the price for your 2nd version, you had better put the value into it.

“I don’t understand that old games are sometimes put on sale, to encourage you to buy new ones.” See also: all media sales, ever. The new Mogwai album costs twice that of the older ones on iTunes. Man, they’d better have put more value into it after doubling the price! Derp.

While the graphics are great, and the puzzles are very creative, it becomes very formulaic after a while.

An actual, legitimate criticism, albeit one I don’t really agree with, given that I’m struggling to think of a single decent game that wouldn’t match that statement.

Consider also that once you have solved every chapter, you have essentially reached the end,

Like with a book. Or a film. Or a TV show. Or countless other games, for that matter.

whereas some 99¢games provide endless, albeit mindless, entertainment far beyond the purchase price.

“Endless mindless gaming is better than a finite shot of magic. Also, I like Candy Crush Saga.”

If you have money to burn give it a try.

If you want an atmospheric, intriguing and interesting—albeit finite—multitouch gaming experience, give it a try. (But buy The Room and play that through first, preferably in a pitch black room, so you can scare the bejesus out of yourself.)

January 31, 2014. Read more in: Gaming

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Why Angry Birds Go! is one of the most depressing games I’ve ever played

A quick look at Angry Birds Go! on Metacritic shows that reviews of Rovio’s latest game—essentially MarioKart with Angry Birds characters—has been broadly positively received. Only Pocket Gamer was really critical, ‘awarding’ the game 5/10.

I didn’t go into the game in a particularly positive frame of mind. Reports had suggested the IAP underpinnings weren’t too bad, but I’ve played relatively few titles where that’s the case, and only a tiny handful where IAP and micro-transactions have worked to the product’s favour. I was skeptical that a fast-paced kart-racer wouldn’t be undone by a freemium model. However, I truly love kart racers, and so I nonetheless wanted to like this game.

Initially, all appears well with Angry Birds Go!, and it gets two things very right. First, it looks fantastic on the iPhone. The courses are nicely cartoonish and organic, and the karts themselves are amusingly ramshackle. Secondly, it handles very nicely indeed. There’s little of the floaty physics evident in iOS kart racers—everything feels pleasingly solid, if still arcadey. It’s only when you play on for an extended period of time that you realise the game is a grindy, boring mess.

The problems with Angry Birds Go! are down to structure and greed. In terms of structure, you’re essentially forced to race over and over on the same small slice of track until you’ve ‘earned’ the right to progress to the next one. But the best kart racers (indeed, the best racers) thrive on variety. This is perhaps why the similarly IAP-infused Asphalt 8 doesn’t rub me up the wrong way—it’s still fun when you’re working your way through the game, because it regularly flings different tracks at you.

But greed is the bigger problem. Angry Birds Go! has a cooldown system for the racers—the conceit being that the birds doing the driving get tired. Naturally, they can be revived by spending one of the game’s two in-game currencies. Infuriatingly, the game also spams Notification Center when the birds are awake:

Your racers just needed some sleep! They’re now feeling fully charged and desperate to take the wheel!

Here’s a better idea, Rovio: how about you don’t place arbitrary barriers such as this in your game, and let me play for however long I want to? That way, I don’t have to make the choice of paying to continue or leaving your app, and you don’t need to spam my notifications!

Additionally, there are the usual walls racers of this ilk tend to throw up: races that need a certain type of vehicle upgrade; painfully obvious catch-up mechanisms; the requirement to have certain vehicles to race certain races; and stupidly expensive karts that you can only buy using real money. Furthermore, power-ups can only be used once per race unless you pay, and they’re also, astonishingly, ad-sponsored. A smaller number of these pungent ingredients wouldn’t have run Angry Birds Go! off of the road, but the combination makes for a truly grind-oriented trudge. And, of course, Angry Birds Go! will make a mint, thereby further justifying this business model, and validating it in the eyes of not only Rovio but also its competitors.

What could have been a minor iOS classic has therefore been reduced to a joyless slog through a business model, an accountant’s leer lurking underneath every angry bird’s feather.

December 16, 2013. Read more in: Apple, Gaming

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