Quality Control: Mobile phone gaming – exploitation or excellent?
Mobile phone gaming is often accused of shallow gameplay designed to consistently extort money from gamers’ wallets in the guise of ‘free to play’ – which is anything but. However, as phone technology moves inexorably forward, is this attitude outdated? Northern Soul gamers investigate.
Chris Holmes, Gaming Editor
I found myself approaching the subject of phone gaming with a sneer befitting Kenneth Williams. In the current gaming ecosystem, PC gamers look down at console owners from their ivory tower, while console gamers direct a tutting sniff at the ‘throwaway nonsense’ spewed forth on smartphones.
So it was with trepidation that I decided to investigate this supposed piffle being served up to the masses. To suggest I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. First up was Sky Force Reloaded, a great little vertical shooter also available on PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC. The title worked extremely well on mobile and it wasn’t long before I found myself itching to play another game and level up my craft. Real money could be spent here but only to speed up the levelling process, nothing patience and a little grinding couldn’t achieve. Nevertheless, an arcade-style game of this nature does little to fend off short-term pick-up and play criticism so I dug deeper.
Football Manager Mobile comes at a cost, but £8 is a fraction of a new PS4 game and the title certainly puts any abortive attempt at console football management to shame. Effectively a mobile port of the recent stripped-back mode from its bigger PC sibling, the game provides more than enough depth to satiate a serious gamer and, in some ways, has a retro appeal which makes this my version of choice, especially given the huge appeal of being able to tinker with formations on the train.
When I finally tore myself away from my travails with Tranmere Rovers, Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes proved the final nail in the coffin of any lingering ‘serious gamer’ snobbery. Here the lines of ‘pay to play’/’pay to win’ are more blurred. You’re never going to be in the top tier of gamers without spending some cash to get there and that’s certainly a controversial concept open to accusations of exploitation. However, if you dive into the experience with eyes open and wallet closed, you can find a hugely rich and rewarding community of free-to-play gamers and a title which, at its heart, is addictive as hell. Even more incredibly, SWGOH kept a PS4 controller out of my hand for more than two months without me spending a penny, the highest possible acclaim I can grant on a mobile title.
Even more exciting is the upcoming mobile release of Fortnite Battle Royale, a groundbreaking game which promises the exact same version as on console and PC, even offering inter-platform saves. I await the resultant aftershocks with interest. In the meantime there is no doubt in this old cynic’s mind that mobile gaming is here to stay: why not come and join the dark side?
I’m sceptical of the development of mobile games. Being familiar with the biggest ones and having played a few myself, I’ve found mobile games are very rarely designed primarily to deliver a quality gaming experience. They’re about money, pure and simple. And while you could say that about more or less any medium, mobile games are rather more cynical about it. Almost all mobile games are free-to-play, but the reason they get so much derision is that they’re almost never free-to-win. Quick question: how do you get people who aren’t generally interested in video games to spend money on them? At its heart, the answer’s relatively simple: by making them feel like they have to.
Famously, mobile games deliberately cultivate addictive behaviour, which is the only way their creators see any return. Candy Crush is perhaps the most infamous example, earning (depending on which statistics you believe) well over $600,000 daily. The tactic it mastered – and one now employed universally – was to give players a set number of steps to complete to earn a reward. But unless you spent any money, you’d never have quite enough gameplay resources. It would get you 90 per cent of the way, then stop you in your tracks and encourage you to buy. You only have one more step to go! It’s only a little money, right? Come on, under £1. That’s barely anything. Mobile games like Candy Crush rely on you to think nothing of doing it once, so you don’t think anything of doing it the second time. Or the third. Or any of the hundred after that. Then you’re into the Sunk Cost Fallacy wherein you can’t give up now because you’ve already spent all that money, and if you stop playing then it’s all been wasted.
In short, the vast majority of mobile games exploit their players, and I don’t think that’s ever going away. You are not the consumer. You are the product. By nature, the industry even encourages it. After all, if you can’t force your players to spend, how can you get any revenue from your game? In my experience, that’s the main reason why they’re so universally scorned by ‘serious’ gamers, and I think it would be an impossible hurdle for developers to overcome – even for those who’d want to.
Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
Mobile gaming always meant more to me than the sofa-bound kind. A decade before the Game Boy was even conceived, my school playground rattled and whirred to the plastic clamour of Pocketeers – a series of ingenious pocket-money games and puzzles that cried out to be collected – and having been seduced by their snackable analogue portability, I was primed and ready once their digital descendants were born.
I lusted after Nintendo’s credit-card-sized Game & Watch machines more than I ever dreamt of a hulking great Atari VCS. And although my Mega Drive was fun to flirt with, it was my Game Boy that won my heart. And even now, after having nurtured a family-tree’s worth of PlayStations in my living room, it’s the Nintendo DS that remains my greatest ever love.
Not that I don’t admire developers’ ability to delve ever deeper into the gaming experience as console technology advances and the years roll by. But for every dusk-till-dawn gaming shift I’ve put in at the TV-face (which isn’t many in recent years, truth be told), there have been hundreds of glorious grabbed-at moments playing sensational on-the-go games.
From brilliant bite-sized puzzlers like Tetris to fully-fledged wonders such as Link’s Awakening or Chinatown Wars, there’s simply something magical about their pick-up-and-playability that has always made them more wonderful wastes of time.
You might imagine, then, that the age of the smartphone would have delivered me into gaming nirvana given that it promises endless downloadable riches. And yet…the improbably smooth smartphone touchscreen hasn’t yet given me the tactile thrill that handheld consoles have habitually supplied. And the weak-assed haptic buzzing trends to irritate rather than excite, while the phone’s jack-of-all-trades eagerness to please smacks of desperation rather than commitment to the gaming cause.
So although you might still catch me fiddling with my Samsung on the bus, you can be sure I’m dreaming of unparalleled handheld pleasures gone by.
To read the first Quality Control article, click here
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