THE DEBATE: “Mobile games need to do more to appeal to ‘proper’ gamers”

Welcome to the Wednesday debate, where we take issues in the games and tech world so big you can see 'em from space and attempt to set the world to rights by arguing about them right here, on the internet, where everyone can see.

This week in the Wednesday Debate, Postdesk writers Jack Bromley and Grant Howitt thrash it out over whether mobile games are good enough for serious gamers to bother playing. Jack is arguing for the statement, and Grant’s arguing against. It may surprise you to discover that neither of them have any formal training in the field of debate.

Sword and Sworcery

Sword and Sworcery is one of the finer examples of the mobile gaming genre

JACK: Mobile gaming is a trend that’s been on the increase for the past few years, and with mainstream platforms like the iDevices targeting their market with gaming as one of its key features, the accessibility and popularity of casual gaming has soared.

This sudden boom has created a new genre of videogames, the ‘casual game’, consisting of the likes of Angry Birds, Draw Something, and Cut The Rope to name a few. The casual game dominates the marketplaces of mobile platforms, with very few ‘true’ gaming experiences seeing the same exposure or popularity as these glorified flash games. But we eat them up. Owners of these platforms settle for such basic games with so little depth when they could have so much more. Why must all casual games focus on a singular mechanic and be so flat and simple, when the platforms they work with are capable of visceral, engaging experiences?

These platforms and their owners don’t get the games they ‘deserve’ simply because their audience is too complacent with quality and substance. But ‘proper’ gamers are not, and so the developers are cutting out a huge chunk of their potential market. I’m not saying simplistic casual games are bad, by any means – they’re great timewasters and every ‘proper’ gamer will have a couple of those installed, – but why not have timewasting, casual games with meaning? Deep, enjoyable and properly interactive? I can name a few examples of games that already achieve this, but most are overlooked in the vast wilderness of 69 pence tat. Developers need to be less accepting and more demanding of producing quality, creating games that are critically credible and not just made for a quick buck. We need to be less accepting and more demanding of quality, not settle for every unoriginal bargain that comes before our eyes, when a highly original and provoking experience is just hiding from view.

Cut The Rope

Cut the Rope is, aptly, a game about cutting ropes. And lizards and sweets, too

GRANT: Let’s talk about The Sun newspaper, before we start: I’m going to make a fairly controversial point and say that The Sun is one of the best newspapers in the UK. I say that because not only does it condense down important events into incredibly-easy-to-read stories, or because of its sub-editors which are amongst the best in the business, but because it sells a whole bunch of copies every day. That’s the point of a newspaper. That’s what it’s supposed to do.

Now frame that argument around something like Angry Birds. Or Cut The Rope. Or Draw Something.

We’re into some dangerous territory in our very first debate, here. I’m not going to start talking over what makes a “proper” gamer – which is a pretty poisonous, exclusion-heavy term – and what doesn’t (I don’t play online multiplayer games except when I have to for reviews; does that bar me from the title?) but let’s assume it’s someone who owns a home console or a powerful PC, stays up to date with the relevant news, and spends a significant portion of their life in one virtual world or another.

No game should have to “do more” to appeal to these people – whether that’s making itself more serious, involving more mechanics, or trying to offer a variety of layers of play. If a title is perceptively simple, or you don’t enjoy playing it in the same way as your favourites, that doesn’t invalidate it as a game.

Angry Birds

Angry Birds remains one of the most popular games in the world

JACK: ‘The Sun’ and ‘best’ do not belong in the same sentence, but I the comparison is just. However, the stories may be incredibly-easy-to-read, like the mentioned games are incredibly-easy-to-play, and its sub-editors may be some of the best in business, but whilst the primary function of a newspaper is to sell copies, the primary motivation should be something other.

The Sun should be able to produce stories they are not only proud of due to achievement of purpose, but also proud of for the quality, reception, and the feat of producing such a story. Sure, they’ll feel good if a paper sells a heap of copies, but wouldn’t they feel better if that paper was comprised of well-written, engaging and time-invested pieces? The same applies to mobile games, of course, that’s what this debate is around, after all. A game like Angry Birds has sold too much to record, but it’s just so basic and flat, surely Rovio would be even further pleased with its success if the game was more elaborate, a greater feat of development, and not a fluffed-up reimagining of Crush the Castle.

You’re right, no game should have to “do more” to appeal to this demographic, but they rather need to. These ‘proper’ gamers experience ‘true’ games on a regular basis, and so they’re not suddenly going to degrade their experiences if they want to game on the move. If developers hope to converge with this rather large market, they do need to give their games more depth, make them more serious if necessary, and come up with original ideas that will get them interested. ‘Proper’ gamers aren’t as complacent as the mass market of children and inexperienced adults.

I’d never invalidate a casual title as a game, but the genre falls into the same group as browser flash games, and not really taken seriously.

Grand Theft Auto III

GTA III was recently released for iPads and Android tablets

GRANT: Here’s a sentence you can use it in: “The Sun is the Best-Selling paper in the UK.

Let’s get away from the Sun comparison, though, shall we? We’re getting off-topic.

Developers are converging with the market; as you’ve said, Angry Birds has sold too much to record (although some people have recorded it, and it’s here). How many of them are in this category of ‘proper’ gamers who enjoy ‘true’ games? I’ve downloaded and played it; not a great deal, to be fair, but a bit. I always preferred Puzzle Bobble, a game which is even less complicated as it involves matching coloured bubbles and watching a pair of dinosaurs operate a weaponised sextant.

And yet the massive downloads (and it is downloads, too, let’s bear that in mind, devs can now put out a game for much less in the way of overheads because they don’t have to worry about publishers, which means no big investments, which means games like Angry Birds can be made without worrying about backing or advertising support) aren’t enough for you. Which is strange.

So developers “need” to engage this market through use of original ideas? Let’s have a look at the biggest releases on the mobile platform, then: there’s physics puzzler game where you shoot a variety of birds at pigs. A game in which you unlock the power of sworcery and engage in a mishmash of samples and pop culture. A game where you have a jetpack that’s also a machine gun. A game in which you play a team of game developers.

And on consoles, within recent memory? Mass Effect 3. Max Payne 3. Gears of War 3. The Elder Scrolls V. CoD: MW 3. Battlefield 3. I think that speaks for itself.

Simplicity is not a flaw, and it doesn’t detract from quality. It allows ideas without an anchoring IP to gain a foothold in the market thanks to a low barrier to entry. How complex does a game have to be until it becomes a ‘true’ game, unlike ‘false’ games such as – say – pretty much anything you can purchase through the app store, by your estimate?
Is Tetris not a proper game?

Mass Effect 3

Do mobile games have to be more like their console-based predecessors?

JACK: You can use ‘Best’ and ‘The Sun’ in that sentence, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its fully deserving of the accolade. But let’s move on, we’ll save that debate.

That statistic is for Angry Birds Space, and I’d argue that Space is heading more in the right direction. The intricacy of the mechanics and implementation of a cacophony of new ideas make it a much improved entity over the original release. Compare the figures, though: 10,000,000 for Space, 500,000,000 for Angry Birds. Granted, Angry Birds is on every capable platform and Space reached that figure in just three days, but there’s not a chance Space will ever reach half a billion sales. Even with all the new additions, people don’t want the same again; it’s so basic that the repetition only means monotony.

There’s no way of recording how many ‘proper’ gamers purchased the game, but do you think that those who have – including yourself – would purchase Space now? Such games can be great in moments of boredom, but they need to evolve into something a ‘proper’ gamer would want to go and play. That they would think ‘I’m looking forward to playing iOS Game X tonight’. They’re for the impromptu play sessions, not the planned ones; but they could be for both.

I’m completely supportive of the accessibility the app store model gives to developers, and would never consider slating that aspect. It’s absolutely brilliant that independent and amateur developers are able to get the same exposure and opportunity as big developers, it’s one of the few things I’d hugely commend the platform on. We can’t do enough, as an industry, to get more people creating games, and I support any medium aiding in that.

Yes, they all seem original ideas, but most are just thin masks over the original ideas of others. As aforementioned, Angry Birds is Crush the Castle: birds replacing rocks and so on. None of those console games are that original, either, but that doesn’t matter with the great presentation, depth and execution casual games lack.

Simplicity is not a detriment whatsoever, and complexity is no defining element; the three-buttoned Rayman Origins was one of my favourite games of last year, and taking that as an example, it sold under half a million copies. But doesn’t that tell you something? ‘Proper’ gamers aren’t buying these simplistic games on consoles, so why would they on another platform?

It’s Sturgeon’s Law: not everything on the app store is ‘false’, but 90% of it is. That 10% holds Infinity Blade, Machinarium, and GTA III; exemplars of what the app store needs more of. Machinarium in particular due to its pick-up-and-play-whenever qualities, but also its sit-down-for-hours-and-enjoy ability.

Is Tetris a ‘proper’ game? Yes. Well, it was. Back in 1984 and for around five years following, it was a developmental feat, an advancement, and an original idea. It may have been simple, but what wasn’t during that era? Tetris re-released on the app store now, which I’m sure EA have done, would fall into the same category as Angry Birds, for me. So is Tetris a ‘proper’ game now? No.

Tetris Boxart

GRANT: Ohhhh, SNAP. You just said Tetris wasn’t a proper game. Gosh.

Is Chess a proper game? Not computerised chess – actual bits of wood on a black and white board chess – is that a game? Well, you’re not going to have room to respond because this is my closing statement, so perhaps me asking what you think is a bit foolish. My point stands though – mechanics are what makes a good game, and they can be as simple as you like.

I think we need to reimagine what the concept of a good game is; there’s no middle ground, and we often find ourselves missing the link between three-guys-in-a-basement Indie titles and massive overblown blockbusters. A good game should draw players in, and keep them playing. A good game should, at the heart of it, be fun.

Saying that mobile developers need to “do more” to bring people in is a dangerous game to play, because it carries a lot of prejudice with it – that the time of a “proper” gamer should be spent playing “proper” games, ones with lots of hours of gameplay and a whole shopping list of mechanics and characters and narratives.

Here’s a closing statement for you – mobile devs don’t need to do any more. What they’re doing is fine. Many of them are creating fascinating experiences designed to be played not as a main event, but supporting something else. In an age where we can find ourselves dual- or triple-screening on a regular basis we need to free ourselves from the notion that quantity, that the exclusivity of experience, equals quality. Welcome to the Wednesday debate, where we take issues in the games and tech world so big you can see ‘em from space and attempt to set the world to rights by arguing about them right here, on the internet, where everyone can see.