I backed the highly promising-looking project Republique on Kickstarter recently. Despite it looking like a high-quality endeavour from a reputable team (including former Halo 4 creative director Ryan Payton, no less) it’s struggling to reach its goal of $500,000 — as of the time of writing, it’s sitting at $86,477 with 16 days left to go.
For the unfamiliar, Republique is a bold attempt to create a “triple-A” game experience on iOS. The goals that the team hopes to achieve include designing a game specifically for touch-based devices; creating an intense action game without a focus on killing; creating a game with a believable, non-sexualized female lead; exploring “heavy” topics and saying something “meaningful”; and pushing cutting-edge graphics on mobile devices.
All reasonable ambitions, you might think. The thinking behind the game’s design is that “gamers will embrace iOS when more games are made for them.”
That, unfortunately, is where the problem lies — a lot of people are still resistant to the idea that a mobile device can play host to a “proper” game — i.e. one that you play for more than five minutes at a time, that doesn’t feature a three-star rating system on every level and doesn’t offer the possibility of purchasing in-game currency for faster progress. (That said, the ever-greedy EA has been sneaking the latter mechanic into some of its recent games, much to the chagrin of people who hate that sort of thing, particularly when they’ve already spent $60 on the game itself, but that’s beside the point.)
To look at the popular titles on the App Store, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these naysayers had a point. Of the top free iPhone games at the time of writing, pretty much all of them are either casual or social fare, riddled with microtransactions and designed more as a moneymaking “service” than anything with meaningful gameplay. (Yes, even the ridiculously popular Draw Something falls into this category.) Paid apps don’t fare much better, either, with the super-casual (and a bit rubbish) Angry Birds Space topping the charts, closely followed by numerous other lightweight titles.
This isn’t to say there are no “core” titles on iOS. Far from it, in fact — Square Enix, for example, has put out some excellent role-playing titles including Final Fantasy I, II and III, Chrono Trigger, Chaos Rings and Final Fantasy Tactics. Sega has rereleased a number of its old Genesis titles including strategy RPG classic Shining Force. EA has put out mobile adaptations of its popular franchises such as Dead Space, Mass Effect and numerous others. But why do these titles flounder — relatively speaking, anyway — when compared to more casual fare?
It’s a simple numbers game. Not everyone who owns an iOS device is a “core” gamer. Angry Birds et al have their place among those of us who don’t know what RPG, HP, MP or FPS stand for, or who think “bullet hell” refers to driving through a particularly unpleasant part of Manchester in the middle of the night. As it happens, these more casual players probably outnumber the more dedicated “core” types to whom “triple-A” titles such as Republique might be marketed to. As such, they appear to dominate the charts on a regular basis.
Does that mean that “core” developers should give up and not even bother trying to put together something impressive on mobile platforms? Absolutely not, though they should be aware of what they’re getting into and the problems they will have to overcome in the process.
Firstly, one of these “core” titles probably isn’t going to top the charts. The Angry Birds series, for example, has enjoyed well over half a billion downloads in its lifetime and made developer Rovio a worldwide phenomenon in the process. Its simple gameplay and premise mean that anyone can pick it up, play and have fun. (Unless you’re me. I hate that stupid game.) Conversely, a “core” title likely has a barrier of entry — “you must be this familiar with video games to ride”, if you will. Not only that, but its audience must be people willing to sit down with a game for more than a few minutes at a time while they’re waiting for a bus, waiting for the kettle to boil or waiting for their bowels to evacuate.
Secondly, iOS players are curiously resistant to what they see as “high” prices. Square Enix’s titles, for example, have caught frequent flak for being anywhere between $8.99 and $17.99. Compared to a new release on PC, console, Vita or 3DS, however, these prices are still eminently reasonable — but they’re expensive compared to the $.99 you pay for Angry Birds, and the fact that they’re deeper, more impressive, bigger-budget experiences than Rovio’s avian-flinging nonsense isn’t often taken into account.
The problem here is that in order for a “triple-A” iOS title with high production values to be successful, it will need to overcome that particular resistance that players feel to paying more than, say, $5 for a game. The Kickstarter for Republique will provide those who pledge $10 or more with a copy of the full game when it’s released — and going by the pattern of other successful video game Kickstarters, the full version will likely cost more than this “backer’s rate”. We’re likely looking at $15-20 at least, and that’s a price point that takes the game well and truly out of “impulse purchase” territory.
Or does it? Consider Thatgamecompany’s recent PS3 release Journey. This game costs $15 and lasts approximately two hours. People have been willing to part with this much money for what they already know is a two-hour experience simply because other people have said it is good. In many cases, people have done this without a second thought — going into the game with “beginner’s mind” is regarded as an important part of the experience. Does the virtue of the fact that Journey is a game presented on a large television screen make it inherently more valuable than a portable title for a multipurpose mobile device? It’s certainly perceived that way, but why on Earth should that be so?
As the Camouflaj team say on their Kickstarter page for Republique, though, developers need to take more risks if “triple-A” gaming on iOS is to be taken seriously. Lengthy, deep games can and do work on the platform, even if they don’t chart very highly compared to casual and social juggernauts. The most important considerations for any developer thinking about doing this, however, should be designing it specifically for the device. That means building a game around a touch-based interface, not putting in crappy virtual joypads with no tactile feedback. A game with touch controls needn’t be shallow — games such as Undercroft that recreate what would have been the mouse-driven interface of old PC games work well, for example, so there’s plenty of scope there.
From what I know of the team behind Republique, I believe that they have a good idea of what they’re doing. I believe that their game could prove to be an excellent example of what mobile platforms is capable of for “core” gamers. And I simply believe that the project should be supported, not because I want to see an end to the casual titles on mobile — they have their place — but because as a format, mobile devices’ capabilities are more than broad enough to cater to more than a “lowest common denominator” audience. It should be supported because it’s a worthwhile project that, if successful, will benefit mobile gaming in general in the long run — not just iOS. That means you embittered Android types upset that this title doesn’t mention your chosen platform at all should consider throwing a few quid their way, too. Vote with your wallet, as they say.
Check out the Republique Kickstarter and pledge a donation here.