“We are looking at the new arcade, and 99 cents on the iPhone is the new quarter.”
Seamus ‘Father of Xbox’ Blackley’s soundbite on the state of mobile games neatly encapsulates mobile gaming when it’s at its best – snack-sized play, choice, accessibility, excitement and opportunity.
There’s been a goldrush in mobile games over the last few years which has birthed a seemingly endless stream of start-ups, often founded by alumni from the ‘traditional’ dev scene, looking to author the next breakout hit. It's a familiar story. A month after Blackley’s proclamation, Peter Molyneux quit big-budget game development to brave the untamed frontiers of the indie scene. Molyneux’s defection doesn't signal a creative exodus from triple-A - the console market will be just fine without him - but it does feel hugely significant that one of the industry’s most famous visionaries sees his future on PC and mobile rather than any of the mainstream consoles.
The rewards in mobile games, though increasingly difficult to obtain, are clear for all to see. Cut The Rope, Ski Safari and, of course, Angry Birds are powerfully seductive examples of what can be achieved, and the money to be made. Any studio releasing a well-designed, characterful plaything has a chance of becoming the next overnight success. The problem is that quality is no guarantee of sales.
A billion downloads, a huge line of merchandise and a TV series later, even Rovio itself might still stop to wonder quite how it birthed mobile gaming’s own Super Mario Bros. What is it about Angry Birds, of all the many thousands of games on the App Store, that catapulted it into the mainstream consumer’s consciousness?
A simple-to-learn playstyle, a gently addictive sense of progression, and fun, colourful characters all contributed, but you could list plenty of other games on the App Store which meet the same criteria. Yet you won't find many other App Store developers having a theme park built in their game's honour.
It’s this unpredictability, and the sense that mobile is a market still figuring everything out, which lends this expanding space a certain pioneering spirit. A new breed of companies like Gree, DeNA and Tapjoy have swept in to make extraordinary amounts of money where traditional games publishers fear to tread, and where the console business has flirted with true mainstream recognition with Wii, DS, Kinect et al, a small number of mobile games are genuinely achieving it.
Phones and tablets are now the de facto mobile gaming devices for younger players, families and, increasingly, traditional gamers. Anyone in the trade privy to the weekly Chart-Track sales figures can see exactly how many people are happy to pay full price for 3DS and Vita games in the post-smartphone era. Simply put, the game has changed.
There’s been plenty said about the creative malaise in blockbuster console gaming. Does mobile offer the antidote? Mobile studios may be making lower cost titles and smaller-scale game experiences, but the risks are much lower too. Creativity can thrive - providing it can be found, and studios can make enough money out of it.
It’s in unearthing those genuinely new, worthwhile mobile experiences that this fascinating market comes a little unstuck. It's well known that mobile game cloning is a major problem, and one that must be solved quickly, and IAP implementation needs work, too. Some freemium titles barely let you proceed beyond the title screen before asking you to pay up; others could be more accurately described as ‘pay to win’ games.
And too often, console publishers consider their mobile offerings as little more than an afterthought. The nightmarish control schemes found in the recent mobile ports of GTA III and Max Payne demonstrate that even a company with Rockstar’s class and talent can fall victim to the temptation to make a quick buck, rather than truly consider the end user.
As the marketplace develops - and it is developing, at a startling rate - I’m hopeful that the cynics will be found out and quality mobile games will become easier to discover. Edge is doing its bit by hand-picking the likes of Gauge - Game, Saturday Morning RPG and Spellsword and asking its readership to discover these games themselves, but it's still not enough. In this new, regular column, I'll be looking at the business of mobile games - celebrating the successes, offering insight into its problems, and charting the progression of the most exciting (and at times bewildering) spaces in the game industry.