Tag Archives: iOS

1473: Ruined

Oh, EA. Why. Why. Why. Why.

I am, of course, talking about the new iOS version of Bullfrog’s classic Dungeon Keeper, which was released today and is, of course, utter bobbins.

Why? Because it’s a free-to-play mobile game.

And yes, I think we’ve reached the stage where it pretty much is reasonable to brand free-to-play mobile games a universally bad thing, because the fucking awful ones far outnumber the very, very few good ones. In fact, I can’t think of any good free-to-play mobile games offhand, whereas on PC I can name plenty.

Dungeon Keeper does every offensive thing it’s possible for a shitty free-to-play mobile thing to do. It has wait timers, it has premium currency, it has the ability to purchase resources and other things rather than collecting them yourself (by, you know, playing the game) and worse than all the monetisation crap is the fact that they’ve taken a game that was originally an interesting, fun and original idea and made it into something utterly predictable and boring.

Dungeon Keeper is clearly aiming to ride the coat-tails of popular “midcore” strategy games such as Clash of Clans but this isn’t a particularly good thing, either; Clash of Clans is an unashamedly pay-to-win title whose “top players” ride high in the leaderboards for no other reason than the fact they have paid more money into the game. Thousands of dollars, in many cases.

This is the second time EA has trawled Bullfrog’s back catalogue to “re-imagine” them for iOS — the first being Theme Park – and it’s the second time it’s proven to be a complete insult to the memory of a great game. The people behind this monstrosity should be disgusted with themselves — as profitable as free-to-play games are and as much sense as they make from a business perspective, there’s no getting away from the fact that the games themselves are complete shit, being devoid of any real depth and compromising good game design in the name of being more exploitative .

Stop it, EA. The people you’re hoping to court with these games’ names are the people you’re pissing off the most.

1372: The Good Old Days of the App Store

I’d been pondering this a little recently, but I actually confirmed it for myself today: the games on the App Store of today are not a patch on those that were on it when it first went live.

Oh sure, they’re technically more impressive, with all manner of lovely “console-quality” (whatever the fuck that means) graphics and download sizes that will easily fill up a lesser phone, but there’s really something missing from modern App Store games that was there in spades in early titles.

The title that really drove it home for me was a game called Tilt to Live. This was a score-attack action game that some described as “the iPhone’s Geometry Wars“. It’s not quite an accurate comparison, since Geometry Wars is a twin-stick shooter and Tilt to Live doesn’t involve any shooting whatsoever, but they share a couple of important similarities: they’re easy to understand and super-addictive.

Tilt to Live, lest you’ve never had the pleasure, sees you controlling a small arrowhead-shaped… thing as it attempts to fend off the unwanted attentions of its red dot rivals. In order to destroy red dots, you have to pick up powerups, each of which has a specific effect. Nukes explode at the spot where you picked them up, for example, taking anything caught in the circular Missile Command-style explosion with them, while lasers take a moment to charge before firing a broad beam in the direction you’re travelling. As you progress through the game, you unlock more and more different weapons which are then available from the outset in subsequent playthroughs; the more weapons you have, the easier it is to maintain a combo of dot-killing without stopping, and consequently attain higher scores.

Tilt to Live is so genius because it’s built for its platform. It uses nothing more than the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer, tuned to perfection, and all you have to do is tilt your device around like one of those old “Labyrinth” games. Nothing more than that. There are a couple of other modes, but in essence, all you’re doing in each of them is tilting to move your arrow and attempting to avoid red dots. Simple. Addictive. The perfect mobile game.

Tilt to Live was far from the only game from the App Store’s early years I have fond memories of, though. The early stuff from ngmoco was fantastic, for example — titles like Dr. Awesome (essentially tilt-controlled Qix), Dropship (Defender meets Thrust meets Geometry Wars) and Rolando were all top-notch games that were pretty much essential purchases in the early days of the App Store — everyone who had an iPhone downloaded them, and Apple even featured them in advertising for both the iPhone and iPod touch, the latter of which it looked for a while like Apple was attempting to position as a serious handheld gaming device.

So what happened? Why have I largely lost interest in what the App Store has to offer today? Well, this is probably a gross oversimplification of the matter, but essentially I believe things started to go downhill with the addition of in-app purchases to the App Store.

I remember being skeptical about the supposed benefits of in-app purchases when the upcoming new feature was first announced — it sounded awfully like what triple-A publishers were doing with downloadable content for console games, and that was something that a number of teams had proven could be done very, very wrong. Oddly, initially only paid apps could have in-app purchases, meaning that free apps were always just that — free, though sometimes ad-supported.

Nowadays, of course, the words “free” on an app more often than not mean that you can download the app in question for free, but are often then expected to cough up extra, particularly in the case of games. In-app purchases have gotten so out of control on iOS that it’s rarer not to see a game have a “Get More Gold” button allowing you to purchase in-game currency. And, of course, the moment you see that “Get More Gold” button, you have to start questioning whether the game has been deliberately made more grindy and inconvenient — experts call this “adding friction” or “fun pain” — in the name of squeezing a few extra pennies out of you.

Herein lies the issue, I think: modern App Store games are designed to be money-making machines that trick people into thinking they’re having fun, then encourage them to open their wallets to have even more fun. It’s all a ruse, of course; the “fun” is more often than not an illusion created through carefully-paced rewards and ego-massaging, and the “pain” is created by suddenly denying the player access to these rewards that they’ve come to accept. It’s good business design, but bad game design.

Compare and contrast with a game from the App Store’s earlier era such as Tilt to Live, or ngmoco’s early games. These are games designed for pure fun — and more to the point, they’re highly creative, interesting, distinctive games. Not one of them is a predictable “tap on everything, then wait until you get a push notification to tap on everything again in three hours” title; while some are inspired by classic retro games (or even more recent games such as Loco Roco in the case of Rolando), they each put their own twist on things, respecting the player’s time and wallet in the process — in other words, once you bought these games, they wouldn’t ask you for money again, except in some rare instances such as in Tilt to Live where the developers later added a whole new game mode and sold it rather than bundling it in as a free update.

One of the saddest sights in the App Store is, I think, the massive decline in quality that ngmoco’s titles have taken since those early days. Games like the aforementioned Dr. Awesome and Rolando were genuinely excellent games that helped to define the platform; now, however, all ngmoco does is churn out some of the most tedious, derivative, copycat titles in the entire industry, all in the name of exploiting the social gaming bubble. RIP ngmoco; I thought you were going to be the next big thing in creative indie games at one point, but it was not to be.

True creativity and distinctiveness in the App Store isn’t dead; but with well over a million apps and games on the App Store now, and the charts dominated by free-to-play titles that have effectively bought their rankings rather than earned them, it’s getting harder and harder to find them. How sad.

1336: Where’s My Paid-For Version?

Disney released a sequel to its popular iOS game Where’s My Water? recently. Where’s My Water?, if you’re unfamiliar, is supposedly one of the best iOS games out there, and even managed to pick up an Apple Design Award at WWDC in 2012. It’s an extremely popular game that was well received by both press and public alike, and spawned a couple of spin-off games prior to the recently released official sequel.

The official sequel is, inevitably, free-to-play, unlike the 69p original. Said original did have in-app purchases, yes, but they were mostly actual additional content — new levels and so on — plus, until recently, the game was continuously supported with weekly challenges that kept the game relevant over time. (The removal of these weekly challenges in the most recent update has annoyed a bunch of players, incidentally, but surely they can’t expect Disney to continually support a game from 2011 forever.)

Where’s My Water 2 has, unsurprisingly, been torn a new one by App Store reviewers for being free-to-play — and with good reason. Like Plants vs. Zombies 2, there is not one single convincing reason why making it free-to-play is a good thing for anyone except Disney. At least you can play Plants vs. Zombies 2 for as long as you like, however; Where’s My Water 2 adds the ultimate insult of incorporating an energy mechanic into the game, effectively blocking people from continuing to play every few levels unless they pay up.

hate energy systems. They were a fucking pain in the arse when I had to review mobile and social games because they meant I could only play the game for a certain amount of time before having to leave it for several hours (because I sure as fuck wasn’t paying), and they’re a fucking pain in the arse if I just want to enjoy a mobile game these days. They’re a slap in the face to the player, and effectively a sign that the developer/publisher of the game don’t trust their player base to actually slip them some money if they’re enjoying themselves. It represents the absolute worst of everything about free-to-play, and it needs to stop.

I’m glad that App Store reviewers are starting to speak up against things like energy systems and excessive in-app purchases, because it’s getting out of control. I find myself actually wanting Where’s My Water 2 to fail, because it will teach Disney a lesson. This may sound harsh — I haven’t played Where’s My Water 2, so for all I know it could be a great game, and I’m sure the dev team worked hard on it — but this continuing trend of games that hold their content hostage needs to stop. Rather than it being an incentive to download and try something for myself, I will now actively avoid games on the App Store that are “free”. And since most of the games on the App Store are now “free”, this means I’m simply avoiding most of the stuff on the App Store, which is probably doing a great disservice to the few people out there who are doing great work, and who are treating their players with respect.

You want to see how to do free-to-play right? Go play Card Hunter.

1333: Passé

Considering how exciting the iPhone was when it first launched, I’m surprised how unmoved I am by the prospect of the new ones. At present, my 4S is still working just fine, and for the first time in many years of phone upgrades, I’m feeling no particular desire to have the latest and greatest piece of technology in my pocket.

I think part of the reason is what I’ve already said: my 4S is working fine, still — though it remains to be seen whether iOS 7 will kill its performance — and thus I certainly don’t need a new phone. The other part is the fact that smartphone upgrades each year have become so incremental that it’s just not particularly exciting any more — the new iPhone looks much like the old iPhone, and will probably work much like the old iPhone, except perhaps a bit faster, depending on what it is you’re doing.

One reason to upgrade to the latest and greatest iPhone, iPad, whatever would be if you’re a big game player on these devices. And I’ve come to the conclusion recently that I’m just not.

This may surprise you, given the amount of waffling on about games that I do on this here blog, but it’s true: I haven’t played an iOS game for probably months now, and every time I look at the App Store, I have very little desire to even try a lot of the stuff that churns its way through the front page and into the abyss beyond, never to be seen again.

There’s the odd exception; I still have something of a soft spot for the various excellent iOS versions of board and card games, but in most cases I’d rather play the real thing. For the most part, though, iOS gaming carries little to no interest for me; it’s not for me any more. It is, instead, for children, or people who aren’t particularly “game-literate”, or people who don’t mind increasingly obtrusive business models. There’s relatively little with any “meat”, though; nothing you can get stuck into for hours at a time, and in fact an awful lot of games are specifically designed to stop you from playing after a short while by causing you to run out of “energy” or “fuel”, or for your car to require “repairing” — and, of course, you can instantly get back into the game if you’d just hand over your credit card details… No, thank you.

I’m probably painting a somewhat unfair picture of the iOS landscape there, since I know there’s a lot of talented developers working on the platform — some out of necessity, some out of choice — but I’m sort of over the idea of mobile gaming, for now at least. There are too many exciting things going on on other platforms — including dedicated gaming handhelds — for me to muster up any enthusiasm for a platform prone to making really, really stupid collective decisions when it comes to the way games should be made.

Perhaps I’ll revisit mobile gaming if it ever emerges from the free-to-play rut it’s currently stuck in, but I’m not holding my breath for that to happen any time soon.

1298: Far from the Valley

Jeez. I am so glad I’m not reviewing mobile and social apps any more.

I know I’ve said this numerous times before, but I feel like every day I come across something even more offensively vapid and pointless that makes me want to punch everyone involved in the face for thinking it could possibly have ever been a good idea.

Today, I came across an app called “Kahnoodle.” Here it is.

Kahnoodle is a “relationship app” that, according to The Atlantic, “wants to make maintaining your relationship automatic and easy — as easy as tapping a button. Its options include sending push notifications to initiate sex; ‘Koupons’ that entitle the bearer to redeemable movie nights and kinky sex; and, of course, the love tank, which fills or empties depending on how many acts of love you’ve logged.”

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Kahnoodle isn’t the only app of this type, I might add. As the Atlantic piece linked above notes, “couples’ apps” have been around for a while now, and represent some of the most pointless implementations of social media I’ve ever seen: they’re social networks designed for just two people. I reviewed one a while back called either Couple or Pair (I forget which one it was, because they changed the name from one to the other, which made all the App Store reviewers of it disproportionately angry at the developers) with Andie, and we both agreed within a matter of seconds that it was an utter waste of time.

The reason that apps like Couple/Pair and Kahnoodle are utterly pointless, of course, are because there are infinitely better ways to do the same thing already available that don’t require their own dedicated app. You can privately message people via Facebook, Google, AIM, Skype, email, text message, What’sApp, Kik… hundreds of other potential apps, from which you can talk to, you know, other people as well as your partner.

Kahnoodle’s selling point is that it “gamifies” your relationship, and as we all know from listening to Silicon Valley startup tosspieces, “gamification” increases “engagement” and “brand awareness” or whatever bullshit they’re talking about this week. Because these apps, despite appearances, aren’t really about bringing people together and helping them communicate at all; they’re about building up a captive audience who can then be either advertised at or monetised straight up the bumhole — sometimes both, in some sort of hideous business double-penetration scenario.

I apologise for that mental image. But if you need to “gamify” your relationship in order to remember to have sex or whatever, then perhaps you should sit down and have a very serious talk with your partner, because I would suggest that’s a sign that Things Aren’t Going All That Well. A real-life relationship is not like The Sims, where you can get yourself out of the doghouse by grinding the Chat, Compliment and Joke options until the meter climbs out of the red.

Sigh. Anyway.

One of the big reasons the App Store, Google Play and its ilk are such frustrating places to browse these days are because there are so many of these ridiculous apps available that provide nothing of any particular worth to society. The few useful apps that are available for phones inevitably get buried under this torrent of digital sewage, leaving those who are making good things consistently frustrated at the fact their stuff can never get noticed. It’s not just in mobile games this is happening — it’s in all types of apps. I’ve pretty much given up looking at the App Store now — I use my phone for basic communication through Twitter, Facebook, email and the like, and only download something from the App Store if I know precisely and specifically what I’m looking for.

So good job, shovelware merchants; you’ve pretty much destroyed the concept of “discoverability” with your relentless pursuit of the crap. I hope you’re pleased with yourselves.

1179: Open for Browsing

A few days ago, the app AppGratis was pulled from the App Store for specific reasons unknown, but many conjectured it was due to the service that the company provided for developers — specifically in promotion of their apps. AppGratis, it was claimed, was gaming the system and manipulating the charts of the App Store so that they didn’t really accurately reflect reality. I don’t know whether or not that’s actually true, but it’s plausible given the shadiness of some parts of the mobile sector.

What I do know, however, is that the App Store charts are useless anyway, largely due to the huge amounts of miscategorisation (is that a word? It is now) going on, making it absolutely impossible to browse and find something you’re looking for.

But is it really that bad? I decided to do a little experiment to see how accurate the descriptors in the Games category — the only App Store category to have subdivisions — actually are. Let’s take a look at the Top 10 in a selection of these categories and see if the games therein actually belong in those groupings, shall we? Wait, where are you going…?

Huh. Sod those guys, we didn’t like them anyway, right? Here we go, then.

Adventure Games (Paid)

Wikipedia’s definition of adventure games:

An adventure game is a video game in which the player assumes the role of protagonist in an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle-solving instead of physical (e.g. reflexes) challenge.[1] The genre‘s focus on story allows it to draw heavily from other narrative-based media such as literature and film, encompassing a wide variety of literary genres. Nearly all adventure games (text and graphic) are designed for a single player, since this emphasis on story and character makes multi-player design difficult.[2]

  1. Temple Run Oz – not an adventure game, it’s an action/arcade game
  2. Minecraft – not an adventure game, it’s a… Minecraft
  3. Badland – not an adventure game, it’s a platform game
  4. Doodle Jump – not an adventure game, it’s a platform/arcade game
  5. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – not an adventure game, it’s an action game
  6. Temple Run Brave – see No. 1
  7. Dead Crossing – not an adventure game, it’s a shooter/driving game
  8. Eden – not an adventure game, it’s a Minecraft-alike
  9. Clear Vision – not an adventure game, it’s a sniper-centric shooting game
  10. Blue Toad Murder Files – HOLY SHIT AN ADVENTURE GAME

One out of ten is correctly categorised. So that’s not all that good, really, is it? Let’s look at the free adventure games.

Adventure Games (Free)

  1. Gangster Granny – shooter
  2. Temple Run 2 – See No. 1 in the Paid category
  3. The Simpsons: Tapped Out – citybuilder
  4. The Sims: FreePlay – It’s The Sims, but more boring
  5. The Croods – citybuilder/farming game
  6. Frontline Commando: D-Day – shooter
  7. Minecraft Lite – Minecraft
  8. Jail Break Now – vaguely adventure-ish
  9. Tap Paradise Cove – citybuilder/farming
  10. Nimble Quest – Snake with a twist

Nope. Nope. Nope. One out of ten, and that might not even count as it’s more of a stealth game. Let’s look at a favourite genre: role-playing games.

Role-Playing Games (Paid)

Wikipedia again:

role-playing game (RPG and sometimes roleplaying game[1][2]) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development.[3] Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.[4]

  1. Slayin – arcade game with RPG elements
  2. Gemini Rue – THIS IS AN ADVENTURE GAME WHAT THE FUCK IS IT DOING IN THE RPG SECTION
  3. Mighty Dungeons – old-school dungeon-crawler. It counts.
  4. Skylanders Battlegrounds – Sort of RPG-ish, but more action game than anything
  5. Dentist Surgery Game – NO. Not even a little bit.
  6. Minecraft Explorer Pro – Not even a game; this should be in the Reference section.
  7. World Explorer – Made for Minecraft – Crap Minecraft clone. Not an RPG.
  8. Monster Wars – Strategy game
  9. Surviving High School – Visual novel/adventure game, not RPG
  10. Minecraft Papercraft Studio – Not a game at all

Hmm. Slightly better. Still not great. And the presence of Gemini Rue in there just feels like the App Store is mocking me for writing this. Let’s look at the freebies.

Role-Playing Games (Free)

  1. Beauty Dentist – NO. (Also what the fuck is up with all the dentist games?)
  2. Tekken Card Tournament – Vaguely RPG-ish, but no. It’s a card game. There is a card game section.
  3. Mighty Monsters – Pokémon ripoff. Crap, but could accurately be described as an RPG.
  4. Come on, Zombie! – More of an RTS than an action RPG, but I’ll allow it.
  5. Campus Life – Poor-quality The Sims knockoff.
  6. Campus Crush – Visual novel/dating sim, not RPG
  7. Dungeon Hunter 4 – Yes!
  8. My Beauty Spa – No!
  9. Epoch – shooter
  10. Crime City – Citybuilder wanting to be edgy, actually just crap. Not RPG.

Oh dear. (And seriously, people, why all the virtual dentistry?)

What about board games? I like board games, and there are some good adaptations on the App Store, I know that for a fact. So what do the charts look like?

Board Games (Paid)

  1. Monopoly – Yep
  2. Scrabble – Yep
  3. Words With Friends – Yep
  4. Monopoly Here & Now: The World Edition – Yep
  5. Trivial Pursuit – Yep
  6. The Game of Life – Yep
  7. MahJong – Please learn the difference between “Mahjong” and “Mahjong Solitaire”, but yep
  8. Pentix: warning! this developer likes to put stupidly long titles in things in the hopes of making their game look better! – Nope
  9. Doodle God – Nope
  10. Risk – Yep

Much better. Not perfect, but better. Shame all the top-selling ones are crap board games, though. Seriously, people, two different varieties of Monopoly? I don’t mean to sound like a board game snob (actually, I do) but there are far better games out there. But at least it’s actually in the right fucking category.

Board Games (Free)

  1. 6 Numbers – Countdown ripoff. More of a puzzle game.
  2. Lazors – Again, more of a puzzle game, but there is a board game a bit like this.
  3. Bingo – Nope. To the Casino section with you! Away, filth!
  4. Four In A Row 2013 – (Spoiler: it’s the same as Four in a Row has always been) Yep
  5. Words With Friends Free – Yep
  6. Monopoly Hotels – NOPE. This is a shitty Monopoly-themed building game, not a board game. Sadly, there isn’t a “shitty building game” category, but it would better belong elsewhere.
  7. Sudoku – Puzzle, not board game.
  8. Ruzzle – Yet another Boggle ripoff, but yep
  9. Chess Free – Yes!
  10. Friendle — Live Board Games with Friends and Family – The clue’s in the name!

Again, better. But again, crap that has nothing to do with board games (except the name in Monopoly Hotels’ case) is in the board games category.

So the situation varies a bit from category to category. But it should hopefully be clear from that that there are some significant problems there. Imagine you really want to play an adventure game on your iPhone or iPad — something like the excellent Gemini Rue or Broken Sword. Browse through the adventure game category and you may well have trouble finding things that are actually adventure games. That’s a problem.

Sadly, without a complete wipe of the App Store’s catalogue and recategorisation of everything, I think we’re too late to really do anything about this. Developers deliberately submit their titles to the wrong categories to get greater visibility, and this effect spreads as more and more people do it — and in the meantime, Apple don’t appear to care all that much when things are incorrectly categorised. The whole situations is a big ol’ mess, and I’m not surprised independent developers working on genuinely great games are enormously frustrated that it’s impossible to get their stuff seen amid all the other shite.

1173: Am I Missing Something?

Yesterday, game-centric social network Raptr reported that in the month of March, its members played more of King’s Candy Crush Saga than StarCraft II, World of Tanks and Halo: Reach (all historically very popular games) combined.

This is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows that Raptr is getting some pretty wide usage by more casual gamers as well as those who care about achievements, hour counts and whatnot — demonstrating (arguably) that a lot of people playing Candy Crush Saga are “serious” enough about their gaming to sign up for a game-centric social network and tracking service.

Secondly, it shows something we all know: the vast numbers of people playing Facebook and mobile games far outstrips those who have perhaps grown up with the industry and who play what one might call “traditional” video games — players whom mobile and social gaming companies euphemistically refer to as “core” gamers.

The second point isn’t all that surprising; how many people do you know who don’t have a Facebook account? While we’re not yet in a world where every single person is permanently jacked in to the social network via a transmitter in their spinal column, I’m willing to bet that regardless of your age, there’s probably a large proportion of the people you know who have Facebook accounts, and of those people most of them have probably tried playing some games at least once. The exact same situation is true when we consider smartphone ownership these days — of those who have acquired a new mobile phone recently, it’s highly likely that it was one of the two most well-supported platforms out there: iOS and Android. And of those who haven’t acquired a new mobile phone recently, a lot of people are investigating tablets as a home computer solution — pretty much all of which run, you guessed it, iOS and Android.

It’s the first point that surprises me, though. Raptr is the sort of service that is historically only of interest to those “core” gamers we mentioned earlier, as your average soccer mom who only plays games on Facebook has no real need or desire to keep up with industry happenings or the latest stupid thing that a Microsoft employee has said on social media — let alone how their number of hours played stacks up against their friends. So what does it mean when the number of hours racked up on Candy Crush Saga outstrips some of Raptr’s most heavily-tracked, popular titles?

Well, it could mean one of a couple of things. Firstly, it could mean that Facebook and/or mobile gamers are more serious about tracking their playtime and achievements in the games they play than most people thought. I find this rather difficult to believe, to be honest, as the sort of people who only play Facebook and mobile games are typically playing them as a means to fill a spare few minutes rather than as an engaging form of entertainment that they feel particularly passionate about.

Secondly, it could mean that those “core” gamers out there are playing Facebook and mobile games as well as (apparently, more than) “traditional” computer and console games that are aimed specifically at them? Judging by the notifications that pop up on the Raptr client that runs on my PC, this is much more likely; there are several people on my friends list whom I would describe as “core” gamers by that definition, but who are regularly seen playing everything from FarmVille to Marvel Avengers Alliance and Candy Crush Saga.

One question, though: why?

No, seriously, why?

If you’re a “core” gamer by the popular definition, you’re serious about your interactive entertainment. You might play games instead of (or as much as) watching movies and TV shows. Your exact reasons for playing may vary — those who enjoy Call of Duty play it much like a competitive team sport, while people like me prefer narrative-centric experiences that stimulate similar parts of the brain to movies and TV shows — but the fact is, you’re highly likely to make time for your gaming rather than indulge in it as an idle diversion. You’ll sit down, you’ll play a game for a not-inconsiderable amount of time, then you’ll switch off and do something else. Or pass out with the controller in your sweaty mitts.

So if you’re investing time and probably money into what is, after all, a hobby rather than a mindless pastime, why, dear “core” gamers, aren’t you playing anything better? Don’t get me wrong, Candy Crush Saga has performed so well because it’s a polished product that is pretty accessible even to those who haven’t played many games before, but 1) it’s a Bejeweled ripoff, and Bejeweled 3 (or just Bejeweled as it is called on mobile) is a better game with more variety; 2) it’s rammed to the gills with obnoxious enforced “social” features that don’t actually promote social interaction at all (ask for lives! ask friends to unlock levels! brag about your score!); 3) it’s rammed to its other gills with obnoxious monetization — aside from the fact that every so often you’ll run into a wall where it literally just stops you from playing unless you either wait for several hours or pay money, there’s one powerup in the game that costs £35 and can be used once per level. Thirty-five pounds. Bejeweled 3, which, as previously mentioned, is an infinitely superior game that doesn’t bug you every five fucking seconds to insert coins or invite friends, costs £14.99 — less than half the price of that one powerup in Candy Crush Saga – on Steam (and is regularly reduced in price in sales), and sixty-nine pence on mobile phones.

“But Candy Crush Saga is free to download!” I hear you cry. “Surely people aren’t dimwitted enough to repeatedly spend money on this when they could just buy a copy of Bejeweled outright and then never have to pay again!” Wrong. Candy Crush Saga is, as I write this, the number 1 Top Grossing app on the App Store. Note: “app” not “game”. (It is also the number 1 Top Grossing game, but that shouldn’t be surprising given its other position.)

Let me reiterate that. Candy Crush Saga, which is free to download, is making more money than apps that cost money. By a significant margin. It is making more money than high-quality productivity apps for professionals, which typically carry a relatively hefty price tag. It is making more money than high-quality “pay once, play forever” games. It is making more money than Bejeweled, which is basically the same fucking game for the price of a packet of Chewits. It is making more money than anything else on the App Store.

It is at this point I throw my hands up and say I absolutely do not understand why this is the case. It absolutely boggles my mind, because can see why I wouldn’t want to repeatedly and indefinitely churn money into a game that isn’t noticeably better than another game I’ve already paid for once (Bejeweled), so why can’t these hundreds, thousands, millions of other people? It does not make any sense whatsoever. And this isn’t even considering the question above of why on Earth “core” gamers are apparently playing this game so much when there is so much other good stuff out there – too much for one games enthusiast to ever hope to fit into one lifetime, even if they became hikikomori in order to try and do so.

I am so, so torn about this sort of thing, and have been for a while now. On the one hand, it’s great that more and more people are embracing video games as a pastime, form of entertainment or even hobby. On the other, the swathes of people who are coming to gaming as a result of free-to-play mobile and social games are perpetuating a business model that, while immensely profitable, is not particularly friendly to the consumer and is actually quite unsafe to people who don’t keep a tight rein on their finances. More people playing games? Good. Sending the message that charging £35 for one powerup is okay? Very, very bad.

1155: The Tablet Revolution

Page_1I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a dusty old bastard who is set in his ways like an old man. That or everyone else is just plain wrong. Or perhaps a combination of the two.

I’m specifically referring to the “tablet revolution” — that futuristic gubbins that supposes everyone is going to replace their computer/console/handheld/everything with a tablet such as an iPad or whateverthefuck the bajillion Android tablets are called these days. I even read an article earlier where someone from Zynga said that tablets are “becoming the ultimate game platform”.

I must respectfully disagree — at least for my needs and wants, anyway.

Our house has three tablets — an iPad 2, a Motorola Xoom and a Nexus 7. The Nexus 7 is currently in for repair, but got a fair amount of use by Andie, largely for free-to-play mobile games and Kairosoft titles. The iPad 2 also gets a fair amount of use by Andie for the same reasons. My Xoom gets barely any use, though the fact I have SNES, Mega Drive and various other emulators on there ready to go at a moment’s notice is pretty cool.

But yeah. The fact stands: I hardly use these devices at all. Why? Because for my purposes, they don’t offer a superior experience to other bits of kit. For gaming, I have consoles, dedicated handhelds, a laptop PC and a desktop PC. For work, I have my Mac, the aforementioned laptop PC and the desktop PC at a pinch. For browsing the Internet, I have… you know how this goes by now. For me, all of these devices offer a considerably superior experience to all of the tablets we have in this house.

Oh, sure, tablets can ably perform several of these functions, but they don’t do any of them as well as the pre-existing devices. About all they do offer, really, is the fact that they’re incredibly quick to turn on (assuming they have some charge left in them, which my Xoom in particular rarely does) and are a lot more portable and lightweight than many other devices.

But personally speaking, the fact that, say, the iPad is thin and lightweight isn’t enough to make up for the fact that it’s a lot more difficult to type on than an actual physical keyboard. And yes, I know, you can pay through the nose and get an iPad-compatible wireless keyboard (or a generic one for Android) but not only does that remove one of the main benefits of a tablet — its all-in-one portability — there’s other issues too: the pain in the arse it is to access the file system (on iOS, anyway; this is one area where Android is marginally better), the fact that proprietary iOS and Android apps rarely play nicely with established formats (just try getting a Microsoft Word file with any formatting or layout whatsoever to look even a little bit right in Pages for iOS), the fact that some of the work I do requires the precision of a mouse rather than the cack-handedness of a touchscreen, the fact that some websites I want to use are designed for use on a computer with a keyboard and mouse rather than a touchscreen and a virtual keyboard.

And don’t get me started on the games. “The ultimate gaming platform”? Don’t make me laugh, Zynga. While mobile and tablet games have been enormously successful in getting more and more new people into video games, and that’s a good thing for the industry as a whole, there is no way you can say with any good conscience that tablets are an adequate replacement for more established systems — and better-designed control schemes in particular. Have you ever tried to play a first-person shooter on a touchscreen tablet with no buttons? It is one of the most bewildering experiences you’ll ever encounter: why would anyone want to put themselves through that? There are certain genres that work well, of course: strategy games, board game adaptations, word games and adventure games are all good uses of a touchscreen interface… as are the never-ending throng of isometric-perspective building/farming/dragon-raising games that are little more than vehicles for monetisation. There are very few tablet-based games that hold my attention for more than a couple of minutes, in short — the last was Ghost Trick, which doesn’t really count as it was a conversion of a Nintendo DS game.

I guess that’s sort of the point, though. The main benefit of tablet devices (and smartphones, for that matter) is their immediacy — you turn them on, you tap a button and you’re (almost) straight into a game, and you can be out of it again within a matter of minutes if you just needed to fill an awkward silence or wait for someone to come back from the toilet. And that’s good, in a way; it just doesn’t really fit with how play games. As I noted in a reply to Anne on yesterday’s post, I play games as my main form of entertainment. I don’t watch much TV, I don’t watch movies, listening to music is something I tend to do while engaged in some other activity, and so games are my main “relaxing time” activity. I want to sit and play something for an hour or two (or more) at a time, and between freemium energy please-insert-credit-card-to-continue bullshit and the “bite-size”, disposable, forgettable nature of most mobile/tablet games, I just don’t get a satisfying experience from them.

Meanwhile, the laptop I bought a short while back is easily my favourite piece of kit in this house. It’s powerful enough to play pretty-looking games like TrackMania, yet portable enough to carry around in a bag. Its battery life is decent (though not a patch on a tablet) and it has a nice screen. It’s a good means of playing visual novels without having to tie up the TV, and it copes well with anything I might want to throw at it while working on the go. In short, it’s an all-in-one device that does absolutely everything I want it to without making any compromises or dumbing the experience down at all. Sure, it takes a bit longer to turn on than the iPad, but it’s also infinitely more useful and fun to me.

Fuck the tablet revolution, basically. Long live the laptop. And the games console. And the desktop PC. And the dedicated handheld. And, you know, sometimes, just a piece of paper.

1152: Gaming on the Go

I play a lot of mobile games for my day job. Some of them are great. Some of them are fucking atrocious. Very few of them hold my attention after I have reviewed them. I’ve been trying to pin down why this is, and it comes down to a variety of factors.

Firstly, and probably most seriously, is that I don’t get any real feeling of “accomplishment” (or perhaps more accurately “fulfilment”) from playing them for the most part. In the vast majority of cases, I find myself drawn to games that have a bit more “structure” to them, usually in the form of a strong narrative. So many mobile games — particularly those with social features, or which purport to be a “mobile MMO” — completely eschew any sort of narrative in favour of a completely open-ended experience with no discernible end and no real “goal” save for the short-term objectives set by the ever-present quest system. If I have nothing to aim for, I have no incentive to play. And no, “reach level 50″ isn’t enough of an incentive for me — I know it is for some people, just not for me.

Secondly is the fact that it’s often difficult to shake the feeling that in many cases, there are plenty of better games I could be playing. I play something like Candy Crush Saga with its obnoxious £35 in-app purchases and just feel that I’d rather be playing Bejeweled 3 on PC; I play something like Infinity Blade and feel that if I wanted to play an extended Quick-Time Event, I could just play Fahrenheit or Heavy Rain and have a decent story to go along with my occasional carefully-timed button pushing; I play a slot machine game and I’d rather slit my wrists.

Thirdly is the frequency with which in-app purchases ruin everything. If they’re not throttling your play sessions (hello, Real Racing 3), they’re unbalancing the gameplay so that you need to pay money to progress — that or grind the same level for three thousand years to earn the money you need for the slightly better gun that is always just out of your reach. I also just get a bad taste in my mouth any time I play a game in which I have the choice between using my skill to progress or simply paying up to bypass anything that might be a bit difficult. Again, I know there are people who are fine with this; I’m just not one of them.

Fourthly is the fact that so many mobile games are so fucking completely clone-tastically identical to each other that I have absolutely no need (let alone desire) to play them in my free time. I have no desire to ever play another bubble shooter, Bejeweled ripoff, slot machine game, text-based “card battle RPG”, isometric-perspective citybuilder or “hardcore” (hah) strategy (hah) game. I wouldn’t mind so much if these developers were ripping off good ideas, but as far as I can tell they rip off the lowest common denominator, “most likely to make idiots pay through the nose in IAP” ideas, flooding the market with complete turds and making the genuinely good games utterly impossible to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

What this leaves me with is a significantly reduced proportion of mobile games that I can actually find enjoyable. If you discount all the directionless free-to-play crap in which the sole purpose of playing is mindless busywork with no long-term goal, there’s significantly less in the way of quality interactive entertainment. But thankfully there are still developers out there who cater to people like me, even though people like me don’t necessarily lead to obscene monthly profits.

Today I reviewed a title from an indie studio called Vlambeer. The game was called Ridiculous Fishing and has been in development for two and a half years, which is an incredibly long time for a mobile game. The reason for its incredibly long gestation period is that shortly after the team started development, they discovered that a large mobile game publisher called Gamenauts had completely ripped off their game idea (from an earlier Web-based version of what would later become Ridiculous Fishing) and released their own iOS game before Vlambeer could even officially announce their own offering. Understandably demoralised, they put the project on the backburner and almost cancelled it, but this week it finally hit the App Store and has been doing very well. It’s a $2.99 paid app with no in-app purchases whatsoever. I bought it immediately without hesitation; I like the developer, and I was sorry to see how bummed they were when their game was cloned. I also want to support the survival of the “pay once, play forever” business model, because it’s a dying breed in the mobile sector.

Ghost Trick. Chaos Rings. Sword of Fargoal. Anything by Jeff Minter. Anything by Cave. Support these developers and the great work they do, because if you don’t, mobile gaming will become a wasteland even more devoid of creativity than it already is. Fuck it if the price of admission isn’t “free” for these games; “free” doesn’t mean “free” any more. Forgo a latte and a sandwich from your local coffee house and support the hard work of developers who have brought you quality creative entertainment rather than regurgitated clonesville crap.

1112: Freebies

Page_1It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mobile game which carries the price tag of “free” must be in want of the contents of your wallet.

There are exceptions, of course, but it’s pretty rare to find something that you can download for free that actually is free these days.

It’s even rarer to find one of these games that doesn’t suck, as the market becomes increasingly-flooded with appalling “card battle” games and gameplay-free tap-fests in which you do little more than log in every few hours for a shower of coins.

The last free-to-play mobile games which really captured the public’s imagination came from Nimblebit. Their game Tiny Tower in particular got an alarming number of people hooked, despite the fact that there really wasn’t actually very much gameplay there at all, and there certainly wasn’t enough strategy to call it a successor to Sim Tower, like some people were. Their follow-up Pocket Planes captured people’s interest for a while, too, but by that point a lot of people were starting to get wise to the fact that these games were little more than fairly mindless diversions rather than anything which required something more than the very minimum of brainpower.

It’s been a while since Pocket Planes, and a whole ton of free-to-play mobile games have come and gone since then, many of them bloody awful. So it’s only fair, then, that I pay a bit of attention to some which aren’t complete crap and which are even actually — hush, now, don’t tell anyone – quite good.

Here they are. They’re free, of course, so you can try them out for yourself and see if they’re worth bothering with for more than a single session.

Pixel People

IMG_2147This new title published by Chillingo has more than a little bit in common with Nimblebit’s games. It’s populated by oddly-endearing pixelated people, there is no real hard “goal” as such and the majority of your time is spent making sure your income stream is as efficient as possible. You don’t have any expenses to worry about — it’s just a matter of how quickly you can make your pixelated town earn the spondulicks required to level up and expand your territory.

The basic gameplay in Pixel People revolves around genetic splicing. You’re building a Utopian colony of clones, you see, and in order for it to run smoothly you need clones in appropriate roles. When clones are delivered to your colony — which will happen regularly so long as you have houses available for them — you are able to pick two “jobs” that you already know and splice them together to hopefully make a new one. The interface gives you feedback as to whether or not the combination you’re trying will make a new job, so you won’t waste clones or time, and there are various ways to unlock hints (including, yes, paying up) as you progress through the game.

The thing I like about Pixel People is that as you play through, you’re constantly discovering new neat little things. You’re never doing much more than picking random combinations of jobs and tapping on buildings to keep them producing money, but every so often you’ll discover that tapping on a certain building performs a special function. Tap on the police station, for example, and you’ll find your achievements list — the game doesn’t even log in to Game Center until you’ve discovered this for yourself — and be able to claim rewards for challenges you’ve already completed. Tap on the observatory, and you can change the background of your colony — and also score yourself an achievement. While none of these things vastly affect the way you play the game and certainly don’t give it any “strategy,” they’re a nice touch that keeps you wanting to play without resorting to the usual Skinner Box tricks of using experience points and showers of gold.

By far the best thing about Pixel Peoplethough, is that it just looks like one of those awesome gigantic pixel art town pictures. Despite the fact that the placement of your buildings and roads doesn’t matter in the slightest — and you can move anything around at will, anyway — I’ve found it oddly compelling to just want to arrange my buildings into an aesthetically-pleasing, vaguely “realistic” arrangement rather than just clustering them all together haphazardly like I did when I first started playing. So now my cloning centre has a road running from it with shops and other facilities down it, running around a corner (on which the L-shaped university building sits), past a large park and into a residential district. Beyond the residential area is some natural forest land, which is where the sheriff and his deputy live, next to the Utopium mine.

I’m overthinking it. It’s not that good, really, but if you liked Tiny Tower you’ll probably enjoy Pixel People – and, like Nimblebit’s titles, you never feel like you need to pay up to make satisfying amounts of progress.

Book of Heroes

IMG_2148I remember trying this for the first time a good few months back, and I remember quite liking it then. Book of Heroes is a role-playing game specifically designed to be played in short, bite-sized instalments on your phone. It’s largely text-based, its interface is designed for touchscreens, and it’s not trying to be World of Warcraft or anything.

Since I last tried it, what I believe used to be a single-player experience has gone full-on MMORPG on your ass. Now you can compare your characters with your friends, chat in real time with other people, join guilds and go on “raids” together in an attempt to prove your own supremacy.

Mobile MMORPGs of this type are often utter garbage, usually falling into the “card battle” category and being completely free of any sort of gameplay or strategy whatsoever. Where Book of Heroes differs is in the fact that it actually demands some interaction from its players; rather than following a linear line of quests, you gradually open up a large number of areas in the game world to “explore” (well, fight a string of battles in) and complete various objectives before returning to town to spend all that hard-earned loot.

Combat is the main area where Book of Heroes differs from its rivals. Rather than taking all control away from the player, as happens frustratingly frequently with this sort of game, Book of Heroes allows the player to control their character’s actions in a quasi-turn based format. Each action takes a set amount of real time to perform — we’re talking seconds here, not “pay up to do this quicker” — and while an action is “charging” the enemies are doing the same thing. It becomes a matter of weighing up whether or not it’s worth using the slow-charging super-powerful attack or whether you should try and get some quick hits in before the enemies have a chance to attack. It’s a fairly simplistic system, but it works well in the context of a mobile game.

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The thing with both of these titles is that they understand how mobile players treat games — as a diversion to dip into for a few minutes at a time, not a massively compelling experience intended to keep them hunched over staring at their tiny screen for hours. They’re both eminently suitable for toilet play, and they’re both simple to pick up but provide plenty of long-term… I hesitate to say “challenge” because neither of them are difficult in the slightest… umm… content, I guess, for players to check out over time. So, in short, they’re at least worth a look.

Grab Pixel People here and Book of Heroes here.