Here’s a tricky little conundrum that a lot of developers are struggling with these days: how do you make something that people 1) want to play and 2) want to pay for?
This used to be a relatively straightforward system along the lines of “if you build it (and build enough buzz) they will come,” but with the enormous diversity of the modern market, this is no longer enough. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course — as we discussed last week, the fact that it’s no longer possible for a single person to play and enjoy absolutely everything that is released is actually a very good thing. It’s a sign of an industry that’s maturing and accepting that not everything appeals to everyone; there are niches who enjoy specific things as well as more “mainstream” audiences who enjoy the stuff which is heavily focus-grouped to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible.
But in certain sectors there’s been a not-very-pleasant sense of “racing to the bottom” in an attempt to tempt players in with low-cost or even “free” entertainment, and there are few places where this is more apparent than in the mobile games sector. Oh, sure, we have high-quality games on iOS and Android — stuff like Infinity Blade, Horn, RAD Soldiers and all manner of other things. But for every one of them, there are at least ten pieces of complete garbage that are seemingly purely designed to rip people off.
What’s worse is that these games are among the most profitable titles on the App Store, regularly showing up prominently in the Top Grossing charts — which means people are voluntarily giving them money when they don’t have to.
Note that I’m not saying free-to-play is an inherently bad thing. Done correctly, it can be an eminently suitable business model for a game that has been designed with it in mind. Splash Damage’s RAD Soldiers is a good example of this, as is Robot Entertainment’s Hero Academy (above). Not coincidentally, these are both excellent games first and foremost that just happen to include the option for dedicated players to show their appreciation and/or customize their experience through paying up. That’s fine.
What isn’t fine is when we get unadulterated dross like Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, which I ranted about at length yesterday. All The Bravest was a particularly unpleasant example because not only did it do all the free-to-play things that supposed “core” gamers — people who like computer and console titles — hate, it had the gall to have an up-front cost of admission, too. As well as clearly being designed as little more than a moneysink for the most dedicated and undiscerning Final Fantasy superfan, it simply wasn’t a good game at all.
Take Mobage’s immensely popular Rage of Bahamut, too. Actually, take almost any game published by Mobage, most of which are takes on Rage of Bahamut’s “card-battle” formula, and many of which regularly show up in the upper portions of the Top Grossing charts. You might think that customizable card games are the ideal use of free-to-play and you’d probably be right — that is, if anyone actually made one with any gameplay in whatsoever. Instead, Rage of Bahamut and its ilk consist entirely of tapping a “continue” button over and over again until your energy runs out or you level up, and occasionally participating in battles into which you have precisely no input whatsoever. (Aside: if you’re looking for a free-to-play card battle done right, be sure to give 5th Planet Games’ excellent Legacy of Heroes on Kongregate a spin.)
Or how about Gameloft’s My Little Pony game, pictured below? Fellow bronies will doubtless be aware that the colorful kids’ TV show would lend itself brilliantly to something like a Japanese-style RPG, but instead what we get is a pitifully shallow (albeit beautifully presented) game in which you build pony houses, tap on them every few hours to collect money (tap on them more frequently if you pay up!) and occasionally play insultingly simple minigames that even the show’s supposedly “real” target audience of little girls would find incredibly patronizing.
Contemplating Mobage’s dreadful games is particularly heartbreaking, as parent company DeNA absorbed independent developer ngmoco a while back. Ngmoco, if you’re unfamiliar, were responsible for some of the earliest, best games on iOS – Dr Awesome, Maze Finger and Rolando were personal favorites — and even pioneered the idea of a mobile gaming social network with their Plus+ system. Because these early games were released before the advent of the in-app purchase facility in later versions of iOS, the developer could focus on producing the best game possible and selling it for a price they felt it was worth. Nowadays, the once-great name of ngmoco is now nothing more than a memory, and the titles it helps work on are little more than shallow, pointless monetization machines with very little in the way of gameplay, fun or indeed any point whatseoever.
It wouldn’t be so bad if these free-to-play, in-app purchase-pushing non-games were separated off into their own little ghetto — like how Facebook games are segregated from standalone computer and console games — but because of their enormous success and profitability, it means that developers of more “game-like” games feel obliged to incorporate these mechanics into otherwise-excellent titles. We have the advent of the “Get More Coins!” button, or the “pay to win” store, and it’s ruining some of the best “pure games” out there. I will no longer play the otherwise-excellent Bejeweled Blitz, for example, because it’s become abundantly clear that the highest scores are only attainable if you purchase enough coins to take advantage of the “rare gems” that appear and give huge score boosts. When you make your game’s leaderboards completely pointless because the people who spend the most real money — or who spend the most time grinding mindlessly to get in-game currency — will always win, there’s little point in playing any more. Just charge for your game up front and level the playing field for everyone. (Sadly, this isn’t really an option any more, as many people have become accustomed to this sort of practice, and are now reluctant to pay anything for a mobile game up front — a constant source of frustration for those developers really trying to push the boundaries of what these young platforms are capable of.)
The standard response to this argument that the worst parts of free-to-play mechanics are starting to infest all aspects of gaming — particularly in the mobile market — is that “well, they’re making money, so it must be all right. Deal with it.” To that, I simply say that “profitable” is not the same as “good.” I will happily throw my money at a game that is genuinely entertaining and that I feel deserves for me to show my appreciation. The second I find myself playing a game that markets itself as a complete experience for “free” (or even for a fee, as with All The Bravest) but which regularly stops me from playing completely until I pay up, however, I switch off. That’s business concerns actively getting in the way of my enjoyment of a piece of entertainment, and it’s a really gross aspect of the modern industry.
Mobile gamers deserve better than being bled dry like this. And until they get a better experience, there’s no way that iOS and Android will ever topple the dedicated handhelds among longtime “core” gamers, however niche Nintendo and Sony’s audiences become.