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Casually Yours: Mobile Games are Boring Too

Recently, Brie Code, a 14-year veteran of the gaming industry, issued a clarion call to game developers and gamers everywhere.

In her tour de force piece, she posited that all video games are boring and asked: what if everything developers know is wrong?

It’s a compelling question and one worthy of further thought and analysis. In short, Code wrote that because games are made by a mostly homogenous group of people in terms of race, gender and, critically, their own status as longtime gamers, what ends up being created is unappealing to most people who have never played games or aren’t currently interested in them.

To wit:

“When my friends talk about why they don’t like video games, they are talking about three things. The most important thing is that they think video games lack depth. They say things like, “Unlike books/films/podcasts, with video games I don’t learn anything or change as a person”. Secondly, on a surface level, they are also often just flat out repulsed by video games. Few women, for example, are going to play a video game with terrible portrayals of women. They say things like “they insult me/my demographic.” And thirdly, they don’t find their own cultural references or interests in video games. They say things like “they ignore me”, and “I’m failing at things I didn’t care about in the first place.”

Other things they just really don’t care about: Realistic graphics. Action.

This last one in particular is something we have talked about a lot on Unconsoleable. Because we are primarily mobile gamers, the obsession with photorealistic graphics is genuinely foreign to us. Having grown up during the NES era, we truly don’t grok why people need fancy graphics.

Okay. That isn’t entirely true. We do get it, but the obsession with graphics and other similar things is one we simply don’t relate to. And why? Because so many more issues are of greater importance to us. Gameplay. Accessibility. Not being brutally punished for not doing well. And yes, representation of marginalized groups like women and people of color. These are the the things that matter to us and they are what matter to all the “non-gamer” friends and family members Code talked about in her piece.

For instance, she describes a close relative, her cousin Kristina, who started expressing an interest in games and asked for recommendations.

Of course I recommended Journey. It seemed like the natural fit. To my surprise, she didn’t finish it. She didn’t like that there is a snake that can kill you. It’s not that it is too hard, it’s that she is deeply uninterested in being attacked in a game.

I feel cousin Kristina’s pain.

All too often I’ve started a game with an interesting story or a compelling gameplay mechanic and then I can’t get through it, because it’s too difficult to play or I’m too frustrated to persevere. This happens so often, and toreal gamerstoo. If someone has loads of free time to try to master a difficult level or learn how to play an overall difficult game, then it all works out. But how many of us have that kind of time? How many of us want to spend those precious hours feeling impotent and ineffectual? And how many of us wish we could experience the full narrative arc of a game without being punished and tested?

Code wrote that she spent a lot of time talking to friends and family, like her cousin, about what sorts of games they would want to play.

…when I listen to Kristina describe the video games she says she wishes she could play, the video games she says she wishes existed-games that would sound extremely boring to most gamers but interesting to most of my friends-I realize that I too would love those games so much more.

And later:

When I talk with my friends about what they would like in an interactive experience, it doesn’t fit conventional games industry wisdom about what makes a good game. When I think what I would like in a game, it doesn’t fit conventional games industry wisdom.

***

Naturally, one of the things that interested me most was the impetus Code mentioned that first got her friends and family interested in games. A lot of them had started buying tablets, she said (and getting hand-me-down consoles), and this was a turning point for them.

This is not purely anecdotal. Mobile gaming has drastically widened the pool of gamers, whether or not they refer to themselves as such.

Suddenly, and on an ongoing curve upwards that continues to grow, a huge new group of people were playing games who hadn’t played them before. They didn’t have dedicated devices for games, but they had their phones with them at all times. And what were developers serving up to this new and broad audience? RPGs, platformers, roguelikes, simulations, RTSes, top down shooters, and other tired gameplay tropes.

Monument ValleyOf course exceptions existed and continue to exist. Games like Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, Threes, Monument Valley and The Room games didn’t become blockbuster hits because they had killer graphics (though some did). They became hits because they created new genres in and of themselves and they were games perfectly suited for mobile and only mobile in many cases.

They also became hits by not relying on gaming mechanics and lingo that someone would be familiar with only if they’ve had a controller or keyboard glued onto their hands for the past 25 years. There’s no XP in any of those games. No skill trees. No leveling up, at least not in the conventional sense. No combat.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things, by the way. But as Code wrote, they are a huge turnoff to many people who could be gamers if only there was something for them to play.

This huge potential for everything games can be must be realized first and foremost in mobile games. Most non-gamers will not buy a console or a gaming PC. They have no reason to. But most of them have a smartphone and many have a tablet. If these people don’t discover a passion for games on mobile, they likely won’t discover it anywhere else. The value of a huge, untapped market like that is immense. Nintendo understood it when they made the Wii. Mobile developers have got to get a handle on it too.

DownwellThis is not to say that catering to niche markets with games like Bloodborne and Downwell is wrong. But what if even the broader market is a niche? What if most games are not interesting to non-gamers? This is the revolution in thinking that Code is espousing and it’s one we must adopt if our industry and beloved hobby is to grow beyond its current borders.

On mobile, we have a more granular problem too.

Developers at some level understand that they are dealing with a player base that’s inexperienced and so they try to keep things very simple. It’s this thought process that produces an endless parade of mindlessly boring puzzle games with simple mechanics, just about every Ketchapp or Appsolute or Boombit game, and almost every match-3.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with making or playing games like these. We all need a good time waster now and again. But if that’s all you dish out, a player will never graduate to something more complex, will never become more enmeshed in games as a medium. Imagine if most films were 10 minutes long and offered zero depth, character development, etc. This is an accurate metaphor for far too many mobile games.

So, what are some things we need more of to make games realize their full potential?

As Code points out, we need a more diverse industry making games and we especially need people involved who are not gamers.

Especially on mobile, we need games to be playtested by people who aren’t gamers or who wouldn’t normally play the type of game being developed.

We need game designers to not just think outside the box, but imagine a world where no one has ever heard of a box or knows what it is.

We need developers who understand that even if they are making a game in a well-established genre, it can still be huge with nongamers if done right.

We need the message to get out to the broader public that games aren’t just Call of Duty or Clash of Clans. How would the average person know any different since that’s all they see in TV commercials?

We need all this and so much more. And if we can do it, the rewards will be massive.

Anna Tarkov
Anna Tarkov is an émigré from the former USSR who has been taking America by storm since 1989, failing at or washing out of everything she’s ever tried. Most recently that included working in journalism which was fun, but paid slightly more than minimum wage. Currently Anna is a stay-at-home-not-by-choice mom to an adorable, little autistic preschooler, a casual gamer extraordinaire and the co-host of Unconsoleable.
1 upvote

Anna Tarkov
Anna Tarkov is an émigré from the former USSR who has been taking America by storm since 1989, failing at or washing out of everything she’s ever tried. Most recently that included working in journalism which was fun, but paid slightly more than minimum wage. Currently Anna is a stay-at-home-not-by-choice mom to an adorable, little autistic preschooler, a casual gamer extraordinaire and the co-host of Unconsoleable.

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