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Casually Yours: A Conversation With Barry Meade of Fireproof Games

NOTE: Sadly, this will be my last column for remeshed; if you’ve missed any of my pieces, you can find them here. I’m currently trying to find a new home for my writing–if you have any leads, please drop me an email. In the meantime, you can contribute to my Patreon and of course keep listening to Unconsoleable and telling everyone you know to listen as well 🙂

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In my last column, I talked about how Super Mario Run’s release and the media reception to it reveals the problems with the way mobile games are covered. What I didn’t mention is that I used to not notice these huge issues at all. I just assumed that this is the way mobile games are talked about and I didn’t question it.

All that changed when Barry Meade of Fireproof Games appeared on Unconsoleable. Fireproof, if you don’t know, is the studio behind the incredible Room games, and now some other projects as well.

On that episode, Barry spoke passionately about how the gaming industry has failed mobile games and suddenly I had a whole new perspective. It is a perspective that I believe is essential to understanding the state of mobile and that it doesn’t have to remain exactly as it is now.

After my last column was published, Barry and I started talking further about these issues over email and I asked if he wouldn’t mind expanding our conversation and me sharing it publicly. He agreed and this is the (slightly edited for clarity) result. My questions are in boldface.

As I told you when we chatted about my last column, you were the one who opened my eyes to how mobile games are covered so problematically. I’ve been aware of it ever since and try to make others in the industry aware of it in hopes of things changing someday. For anyone new to this discussion and who hasn’t heard your Unconsoleable episode, can you sum up the problem?

We spoke about how the mobile industry, and often its press, seems to be mainly interested in earnings, which means paid games are counted out of the picture without considering how well they do in their own right, or even how good they are as video games. Is this really surprising? Perhaps not. Does this affect the range and depth of games exposed to the audience? Absolutely so.

Now, all this cuts close to the hoary old art vs. business tension that games has always had. Surfing that tension has always been part of a developer’s job but it does seem that mobile gaming, which is somewhat adrift from the history of console & PC games, has gone over a cliff on the idea that videogames is just and only a business. With mobile games we have a situation where you can build an actual retail shop into the middle of your game, in fact you have to because you’ve decided to give that game away for nothing. That very quickly leads to the idea that if you’re not building a game around a shop, you’re not trying to make money for your partners–ergo you are not a ‘serious’ developer.

Mobile games was infected early with the dreams of investors who missed the dot com and tech boom, and they brought the same expectations as running a corporation: investors want to see certainty before release, then regular income, then constant growth, the lot.

In truth this is all to be expected–F2P is a new way of doing business and so the terms change for everyone. But the unthinking nature of monetisation has meant it serves as a clamp on what’s possible with the platform. And that matters. What we achieve creatively is the central reason any game gets traction. Developers have always been lead by our business side–we all want to sell–but the counterpoint to that has always been the wide ocean of possibility we can dip into to come up with winning ideas.

Ideally, we can make any game we want as long as it’s ass-kicking to play and impresses the shit out of everyone who touches it. What has changed now is that the way a game is sold–in this case a free-to-play model–reaches right into the creative process itself, even down to dictating game mechanics. On top of this investors often indirectly insert themselves into what games get to be made, and their wish for certainty further skews the games that go out. Moreover, the application of data on top of creative decisions has enabled investors while disabling designers. The net effect of all this is that the mobile games our audience gets are the ones which please business people not just first but foremost, and are no longer built to engage the dreams of our audience enough.

People in our industry love to blame the audience for this–“data shows it’s what people want, they don’t want ‘new.’” I want to go out on a limb and say that we as consumers don’t know shit about anything until we get to try it, and further, that maybe the people who make games are responsible for the games that get made.

Wow, a lot to unpack there and think about. I think your point about blaming the audience is especially well made. We often hear people in gaming circles and the gaming press castigate mobile gamers and all mobile games in fact. But my stance has always been that people can only play what you give them. If all you’re giving them are shallow, exploitative experiences, then that’s all they know. When something new and amazing comes along like Monument Valley, like The Room games, like Prune, like Alto’s Adventure and countless others, the audience flocks to it. Since all these examples exist, why do you think we still have so few developers trying to make more unique or deeper experiences? Why is there still so much of a herd mentality? Or is this not unique to mobile do you think?

The Room

Well, we should state that it’s hard to have a hit regardless. The examples you give above are pretty exceptional examples, hard to reach even in a healthy market. I think the spectrum of releases on mobile is actually pretty wide, but it’s struggling. The issue is whether the games that aren’t free, monetised genres of a certain type have access to serious partners in the industry.

But also it depends on your definition of “flock.” You and I might consider 3 million players a straight up triumph but the industry knows that monetised free games of a certain type make unreal amounts of cash. The gravitational pull of that much money is extraordinary and so it gets all the attention.

You touched on this a bit in your earlier response, but how do you think we ended up here? Why is there so little attention paid to mobile games beyond the business aspect and how might we reverse this trend?

I hope you don’t mean just you and me can reverse it 🙂 As a developer, all you can do is push things as much as possible in the direction you want to see happen. It comes down to the decisions you make. At Fireproof, we know we’ve had good fortune so we use that to make decisions a lot of devs in our position don’t or can’t make. These are the kinds of decisions we would have dreamed about making when we worked in big studios.

All we can do is live up to what we believe should happen, where we can. That’s all anyone can do but you still have to decide it, just thinking or wishing it is no use. But it’s hard, the fear grips everybody.

I read recently that in an EEDAR study, of all people who play mobile games, 24% of them play JUST mobile games, meaning they don’t play on other platforms. Do you think it would help matters at all if these people began to see themselves as gamers? What would have to happen for them to take on that identity?

You have to see things that entrance you otherwise you won’t take it on, why should you? I mean for me and I assume other people who really enjoy games, it’s one of the things in life that makes us amazed to be alive. It’s what anyone gets when they experience just kickass times. So can you get that kind of life-affecting moment from a mobile game?

If you can get them through communication, then of course. We’re a fickle bunch as developers. We have such respect for games we adore but will go a whole career without ever applying the same level of respect to what we can do.

What do you think the platform holders–Google, Amazon and of course, mainly Apple–could do to promote a broader variety of games on their platform and nudge developers in certain directions? Or will it never happen since they stand to gain a lot from the more exploitative F2P games that makes millions?

I think the market is as it is, and even platform holders have to live in the worlds they are in. But yeah, technically companies like Apple wholly control their market and could rearrange it into whatever they find more pleasing. But they want to follow where the market goes like everybody else. It’s working stupidly well for them all.

As for the stores, I think all developers have their own pet ideas about what annoys them on the stores. Years back I moaned about about the grossing charts being visible and how that made it painful for un-monetised games. It seems weak and kind of sad now in the face of how things ended up for premium. But in the end I just think games will get better.

My problems with the mobile industry are mainly to do with the pace of it. It’s so damn slow relative to the market size. We move things along less on bravery or insight and more on mass. We rely on 50,000 releases a month to bring the increments of change that, were it a better functioning market, would have a lot more actual gamers and a lot more healthy developers.

I’ve heard people in the gaming press say that, well, we don’t cover mobile games, because no one clicks on those articles. No one cares. What would you say to that?

It’s true. It’s the byproduct of there not being many gamers who love mobile. But video is changing that slowly too. Twitch and YouTube are doing God’s work for us.

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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