Mobile Games: The Good, The Bad, and the Worst

In the last few years mobile gaming has become a phenomena and it’s not hard to see why. With mobile giant Supercell – makers of Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, and HayDay – making over 1.55b in revenue in 2014, (Factoring in conversion rates!) most developers would have to be dummies not to want a slice of that juicy, juicy pie.

The reason for the success of mobile games is painfully simple. Almost EVERYONE on the planet has a mobile device at this point. That is an ENORMOUS potential customerbase. And with every device having one of two operating systems and the same basic specs, it is super easy to design simple games for such a small platform variety. Add into that the cost factor. If you make your game free with in app purchases, people are going to think, “FREE!” and go for it. On the other hand, if you set up a $1-2 price tag, most people are going to think, “That’s not too bad, it’s only a dollar.” and buy it. It seems small at first but when millions of people share that logic, suddenly you’re swimming in RIVERS OF MONEY. Flappybird is/was a really good example of this. In summary, the effort to reward ratio for mobile games is staggeringly good.

Nowadays it seems like most people are developing an app or mobile game. Programming or developing a game with as simple a mechanic as: “jump on a platform, now jump on a higher platform” as a hobby can potentially net someone a few extra dollars if 1,000 people download it a month. And honestly, outside of certain issues with the app store, mobile game development is probably one of the most fair and direct developer to consumer markets in the world. You don’t need an agent, you don’t need a CEO. You have an idea, you make it, you list it, you earn money. If you’re ridiculously lucky the game goes viral and you make enough money to fill a swimming pool with chocolate coins and swim around in it Scrooge McDuck style.

All that being said, I am what game marketers and developers refer to as “The Unicorn.” I am an adult with disposable income and a credit card that is willing to purchase whatever I want. I am not prone to the impulse purchases that cause other consumers to get frustrated and turn brand assassin – rather I space my purchases out over time and end up being a repeat customer. Through this I spend a lot of money in a sustained way. I do not have a specific genre of game, I will buy anything that catches my eye. If your game has an interesting hook, I will play it and I have bought currency in almost every free to play mobile game I have played for more than a month.

I realize that last line risks bringing the ire of people who think freemium games are the devil. I respectfully disagree. I think freemium games have their niche and are fine just the way they are. To me there is a difference between freemium and pay to win:

Freemium – The base game is free, and all components are accessible for free. You can spend real money for in game currency to get small advantages such as a shorter build time on a building or more pulls for a slot machine. But these are things all other players have access to as part of the base game. Examples of this would be Clash of Clans, Puzzle and Dragons, or even the dreaded…Farmville!

Pay to Win – MOST of the game is free. Accessing certain portions of it costs money. Acquiring gear, new characters, or items costs money. If you attempt to play the game without spending money, you will likely lag continually further behind and be stomped by other players that have spent money. Examples of this would likely be a metric fluffton of free to play grinder MMOs that sell weapon upgrades in their cash shops or mobile trivia games that charge you for extra turns to boost your worldwide score. I don’t consider these games worth my time and will uninstall them immediately when I get a whiff of something shifty.

Free to play mobile games also have three basic systems in common:

Stamina – Stamina is what it sounds like. You burn your stamina bar to do things like run dungeons or do gameplay. Stamina slowly returns over a set period of time, like 1 stamina every 2 to 3 minutes. Usually you can pay premium currency to have your stamina refilled immediately.

Gachapon/Slot System – The game has a slot system which is commonly referred to as a “gacha” which is short for “Gachapon.” In Japan, Gachapons are little slot vending machines where you put money in and get a capsule toy in exchange. The capsule toys usually come from a line of toys, like characters from a popular game or anime series. Certain toys in the pack are rarer than others, and you end up spinning the gacha more and more in hopes of getting the rare toy you want. This translates into almost exactly the same thing in games. You pull the slot, usually using premium currency, in the hopes of getting something rare to use. Gacha systems are primarily used in non-PVP games, which I find perfectly fair because you’re not screwing up someone else’s good time with your level 3940933492 super rare monster.

Time – It’s as basic as it sounds. “Time is money, friend.” isn’t just a silly quote. So now you’ve upgraded your base, but you have 2-3 hours before it’s done. You can certainly wait, but you want to play NOW! And for $5, you can! Other players, however, are fine with that upgrade taking 2 hours because they can go do other stuff in the meantime.

Most games use one of these systems, or even a combination of two or three of them. It’s how they usually make the big bucks.

Now, here is my logic with freemium mobile games: If I have played and enjoyed your game for over two months without spending a dime and I can clearly see I am making progress, the door is open for me to spend real money. I find this logic has served me EXTREMELY well in avoiding impulse purchases and also allows me to reward myself with a treat from a game I clearly enjoy. The other added benefit is that it allows me to avoid the dreaded “buyer’s remorse” when it comes to my purchases. Anyone who has spontaneously dropped $30 on a game only to say, “That really wasn’t worth it.” knows what I am talking about and a lot of the time those people stop playing the game to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

As an example, I have played Clash of Clans since October of last year. I don’t usually enjoy PVP style games but Supercell sucked me in with the clan war mechanic and I really enjoy playing with my friends and coworkers, so I’ve stuck around. I’ve purchased their cash currency, gems, a couple of times. Once to add an extra builder for productivity, and a second time to get my barbarian king hero character. I could have gotten both of these things had I waited a bit, but I chose to bypass that and reward the developers with money while getting something for myself along the way.

I also play…or played…Puzzle and Dragons. It’s a monster collection game with RPG elements and a matching game as its base gameplay mechanic. I was SUPER into it for a while. This game has a gacha system, and the developers are EXTREMELY GENEROUS with handing out the premium currency required to pull the gacha. They also regularly adjust and increase drop rates during festivals, insuring players usually have a better experience. Again, I applied my mobile game purchase logic and eventually spent money to get some extra gacha spins. I wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but you still usually get something decent with the odds increased.

‘Well with systems like that, how could a company go wrong?”

I’m so glad you asked, imaginary person! I just happen to have an example!

Final Fantasy: Record Keeper is the new “it” game right now. And it deserves to be, it’s an amazing game. It hits on the key elements of fun gameplay and is a love letter to 20-30somes everywhere who grew up on the Final Fantasy series. All the nostalgia is there in the form of the characters, music, and dungeons. Sounds like a game I’ll be shelling tons of money out on, right?

Nope!

The game uses a gacha system in the same way as Puzzle and Dragons. You spend currency (either mythril earned in game or premium paid gems) for a spin at their relic gacha. This awards you a potentially rare item. However, the developer team made the mistake of having most of the drop rates pretty baseline or even rarer. What this means is that unlike Puzzle and Dragons where I can pay to spin and the increased drop rates means I’m MORE likely to get something good, I can spend $30 for 11 relic pulls in FF:RK and end up with all mediocre items. There is always some luck involved with a gacha system, but setting the baseline to “good” stuff rather than “generic things you can get in the easy dungeons” tips the scales in the player’s favor and makes them likely to be repeat customers.

I admit, the idea of me spending money on these games is purely selfish. I want something good, and the plus is that the developers are rewarded with money. If you don’t offer your users something good, they’re not going to spend money anymore. There are tons of posts about FF:RK all over the net from people dissatisfied that they spent $30 and only got “meh” items. How much do you want to bet that those people aren’t going to be repeat customers? And it also encourages other customers like me to stay the heck away. Sure, the company is going to get that initial money boom from the impulse buyers, but the sustained model just isn’t there and eventually the profits will drop off a cliff.

So ultimately I think properly designed mobile games have their place in an ever-expanding market. As long as you have a good hook and don’t screw up your mechanics or cash shop, there is a good probability you will end up with some money. You don’t even necessarily need to be from a huge publisher to rake it in, either. And that’s fantastic. I LOVE this market because its scope is absolutely enormous and potentially infinite. I think this and indie games in general are the breath of fresh air the gaming subculture needs because it allows a lot of homegrown developers to take the reigns and create things that go directly into the hands of players without being bogged down by company politics. To those that think mobile games are a dumb or casual market, I’d say consider the benefits to indie gaming developers as a whole and don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.

***************Also something something Hearthstone something something.I know someone is going to ask me why it wasn’t mentioned so here you go. HEARTHSTONE HEARTHSTONE HEARTHY STONEY STONE! It’s free and has cards that MOVE sometimes!*****************

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Gimme Gimme Gimme These 5 Upcoming games

This has been a bit of a dry year for me in terms of gaming; – mostly due to my tighter budget and the lack of titles that interest me. I have really eclectic taste in games, so there are periods where nothing I’m interested in is on the table, and then other periods where the stars align and shower me with new titles. And honestly, when you don’t have as much disposable income to spend – you become really conscious of what you’re buying and how long it may or may not last.

There have been a couple games that I liked enough to spend money on, Wildstar being the most recent. But this Autumn into Winter has a lineup of games that I’ve been keeping a close eye on while drumming my fingers together going: “Soon. Sooooon.” I figured I would share a list of 5 of them in case there are any other eclectic gamers like me. Most of these games are for the 3DS, so don’t be surprised. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that handheld/traveling gaming is much more convenient when it comes to non-MMOs.

1) Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse by Wayforward Games – release date TBA Q3

I came across the Shantae series by pure happenstance in the 3DS e-shop one day. I wish I had known about it waaay before then because it is SUCH a great platforming series. It really takes me back to the oldschool NES/SNES days when I would sit together with my best friend and our babysitter and try to beat whatever game she had brought over. We would fight over turns until we came to a particularly hard part and begged our babysitter to beat it for us. She was good, too. She was the reason we were able to see the ending of Super Mario Bros 2.

The initial Shantae games focused on her being a half-genie and using shapeshifting powers to plow through beautifully designed levels and fend off her rival, the piratess Risky Boots. The latest game takes it in a different direction by removing the magic from the equation and instead focusing on feats of weaponeering that achieve the same kinds of effects.

Also, look at the art. LOOK AT IT. In the worlds of Molly Shannon from one of my favorite SNL skits: “I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT.” *kicks legs off chair* I have a weakness for well-done spriting and this is just…I mean, not in my wildest dreams could I hope, as an artist, to achieve this kind of work. If you want to reward good art and fantastic gameplay then these people deserve your money. I know they deserve mine. *throws dollar bills at the screen*

2) Harvest Moon The Lost Valley (Natsume)/Story of Seasons (Marvelous USA)-  release date TBA Q3 for both

(As a note, I sure would love to link actual company pages for these two games but neither Natsume nor Marvelous interactive have them listed on their official NA/English websites, so I settled for the biggest HM fansite instead. If anyone FINDS an official link so I can source it, please post it. Otherwise shame on you Natsume and Marvelous for not promoting your own games on your own websites.)

I’ve been a fan of the Harvest Moon series for literal years. It’s one of the few series that I will purchase new games from without even questioning. I love the simulation aspect of it as well as the time management requirements. The series is a micromanager’s dream, and that is me so helloooooo entire HM series.

Story of Seasons originated in Japan under the title “Connect to a New World” due to its heavily emphasized street pass farm visiting functions. During its localization in the US, the name swapped and as far as I know – some of the connectivity features are being done away with as well. SoS is what I would consider the next general step in the HM series. It’s not really bringing anything new to the table. It’s just a new Harvest Moon to play with a new town and new characters. And since I like that kind of thing, I’ll be buying it.

The Lost Valley was created from the ground up by Natsume to bring a new style of gameplay to the Harvest Moon series. People at E3 called it a combination of Minecraft and Harvest Moon. Initially that didn’t seem appealing to me, but I’m willing to give it a shot. The art style is a little…stylized…even for a Harvest Moon game. But hopefully the new worldbuilding features will make it a fun experience.

3) Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire by Gamefreak release date November 21st 2014

I mentioned above that I am prone to buying series games that people think are otherwise repetitive and Pokemon is really no exception. Game Freak has nailed the pet RPG battle formula and just continues to tweak it in ways that make it seem familiar but fresh. That is why I will forever preorder Pokemon games as soon as they are announced.

Obviously Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are remakes of the original Ruby and Sapphire games. While those weren’t my favorites in the series, I’m looking forward to the revamp with the updated 3D battle graphics and other general improvements as well. Out of all of Nintendo’s developers, Game Freak are the ones who have made online connectivity the most accessible, which makes trading, battling, or just farting around watching your pokemon have tea with friends fun as ever.

The coolest part of OR/AS is the complete overhaul of the secret base system. If you ever wanted housing in a pokemon game then welp. You got it. If anyone invades your base, your can set up your character to battle them with a specific team of your choosing. You can also recruit people from your friend list to “guard” your base as well. The major pitch for the new bases is that it’s a way for players to FINALLY make their own “gyms” in a sense. You can set traps, theme your pokemon, etc.

Also mega-sceptile okay. Just…mega-sceptile.

4) Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS by Sora Ltd. – release date October 3rd 2014

Hello yes ask me how long I’ve been waiting for a game like this on a portable console because the answer is “a while.” I DON’T mean “game like this” as in a fighting game. I mean an easily accessible fighting game that emphasizes playing with your friends at a distance through wireless connectivity.

The Smash series is notoriously easy to pick up but difficult to master, much like a lot of Nintendo’s multiplayer games. The ease of access makes me hope that my friends who have a 3DS will be picking this up as well so I have as many people as possible to play with.

I never thought they would port Smash to a portable console. Not in a million years. I guess that’s why Nintendo is considered one of the biggest revolutionary companies in gaming. When I see all the features they’re adding to the 3DS version all I can do is marvel that they can fit THAT MUCH into a single game.

Also I am going to pretty much kick everyone’s butt using Charizard. JS.

5) Warlords of Draenor by Blizzard Entertainment – release date ????? “Soon”

I mean. Come on. You had to see this coming.

Warlords is. Ah. Hm. Well.

Let’s just go with “Savage” and call it a day.

Ultimately I’m looking forward to a jampacked Q3 and Q4 in terms of gaming. I can’t wait to dust my 3DS off and really fall into that land of gaming where you’re so into it that you don’t realize it’s 4am. I just hope my wallet can handle it!