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.