I’d seen it on Apple’s year-end list of best games of 2014 and wondered what could possibly be so special about it. The App Store description didn’t grab me and neither did the screen shots. There was no gameplay video included as there is with many games. I don’t know if it would have swayed me even if there was.
Finally I played the game out of a sense of obligation. It was so often featured by Apple that it seemed omnipresent on the App Store. I figured there must be something about it that warranted my attention.
Turns out, there was. I was hooked pretty quickly by the game’s incredibly clever puzzles and board game aesthetic. It was so charming and had so much character and personality for a puzzle game. The characters’ dress, the impeccable arrangement of every level, the beautiful, cinematic way that the camera panned over each scene before the player was able to start playing the level. It was all so perfect.
Did I mention I had no clue then that Hitman, the console series, existed and that this game was an offshoot of it?
When I found out, I was delighted. The tagline I say each week on Unconsoleable might be “We love games, but consoles scare us,” but I don’t actually have anything against console games, of course. Console games badly ported to mobile, now that I don’t like.
Hitman GO was and is the polar opposite of all that and it’s not an accident. As recently as this past week, Patrick Naud, the head of Square Enix Montreal, talked about the deliberate manner in which Hitman GO and the subsequent Laura Croft GO and Deus Ex GO were conceived and marketed:
“We’ve heavily invested to make the best premium games out there,” he says. “This helps us get press coverage, Apple and Google coverage, Editor’s Choice, Game of the Year, Apple Design Awards. It establishes our products as games that people need to play on mobile. That has always been our strategy, and that will be our strategy going forward.
It certainly worked on me. The game was everywhere and eventually I felt I had to play it.
Beyond the unmistakably high quality of the game itself though, I was heartened by the fact that a major publisher like Square Enix thought highly enough about mobile to make original games for the platform. Original games which were incredible, built from scratch, and with the strengths and weaknesses of the platform clearly in mind. The fact that the IP was a console series was perfect really. It proved that you could make an amazing mobile game from an idea born on another platform and do it beautifully and in a way that made it completely unimportant whether the mobile player ever played the console versions.
When Hitman GO came to PS4, I was tickled. A mobile game ported to a console? It usually goes in the other direction and typically very badly.
Naturally, when Lara Croft GO (iOS & Android) was set to come out, I was excited. I couldn’t wait for more ingenious puzzles, but this time in a different setting. What I got, what we all got as players, was that and more. The setting was different, yes, but so were so many other things. It was a brand new aesthetic, a gorgeous low poly art style, and Lara was animated! Enemies were animated! There were treasures to find! New and imaginative mechanics!
The game was, in short, another remarkable achievement. It was a recipient of Apple’s prestigious design award, given every year to only a handful of apps and games out of the hundreds of thousands submitted to the store. Apple also named it the iOS Game of the Year. Predictably, it was on many lists as one of the best mobile games of the year, including Unconsoleable’s. All the accolades were well-earned.
Slowly though, and maybe only for me, the fault lines began to show.
First, there was the expansion. Destructoid called it sadistic and they weren’t wrong. I did a few levels before giving up in frustration. The issue wasn’t just that the level of difficulty was high, but that it was ratcheted up so much from what you experienced in the original levels.
Why was this done? As it turns out, it was because some reviewers, namely at IGN, complained that the game wasn’t challenging enough. I know what you’re thinking. IGN is hardly known for appreciating mobile games (quite the opposite in fact) so who cares what they think? The answer is that Square Enix cares. Here’s Patrick Naud again, from the same article I mentioned earlier:
“We always knew that Apple would support high quality products. In a survey of our players, we found that half of them discovered our games through the app stores. But one quarter still came from the press: because of our IP, because we talked a lot to the gaming press, because we are at all of the events. We get that extra reach.” [emphasis mine]
Square Enix cares about the gaming press because, as he explained, a large chunk of the customers for the GO games are “real gamers,” i.e. the sort of people who read Polygon, Kotaku and other gaming sites. They know the IP from the console games and are incentivized to pay for high-quality, premium mobile experiences that capture the feel of the characters and stories they love.
But it’s really more than that. Having the gaming press on board elevates these games above mere mobile games and confers upon them the status of terrific games that just so happen to be available on mobile devices. It sounds like a small distinction, but I assure you it’s a major one in the minds of some console and PC gamers who don’t want to be seen as “filthy casuals.”
By making the Lara Croft GO expansion extremely difficult, Square Enix bowed to IGN’s criticism and also demonstrated which masters they were most concerned with serving. Despite “real gamer” customers comprising only 25% of sales or quite possibly less, Square cast their lot with them and with the reviewers they read. Despite often talking at length about how devoted they are to mobile, Square showed that they held the interests of some players above those of others.
There were problems right away. First, there were mechanics early on that the game didn’t adequately teach the player how to use. Bad game design, or was I supposed to know what to do because I should have known this game universe from console or PC? It could very well be the former, but it left a bad taste in my mouth nonetheless.
I was then startled to discover that the game included story elements. Not a bad idea in principle, but in a mobile game that’s primarily a puzzle game, it felt entirely misplaced and shoehorned in. I had to wonder why. Was it to make it more appealing to “real gamers” who are used to cut scenes in between the action? Was it to make it feel more fully a part of the Deus Ex universe, especially with a new Deus Ex game launching? In fact, was that why Deus Ex was the IP chosen for the next GO game, to coincide with the launch of Mankind Divided?
Then there was the news that playing the mobile game would help players of Mankind Divided. This information being included in Polygon’s headline is extremely deliberate. It telegraphs to their readers that hey, this is more than “just a mobile game,” playing this will help when you play the “real” Deus Ex. Mobile games which are companion apps to major AAA releases are hardly a new idea and while Deus Ex GO does still stand on its own, including an element that ties it to the main game is very telling.
To be fair, barring some early hiccups and it being an enormous drain on your battery, the game itself is excellent. Everything is once again executed to perfection. The puzzles kept me riveted for over 50 levels until I put it down to focus on other games.
I don’t begrudge Square Enix these choices. They are doing what they feel is best for their bottom line and I can’t argue with that. But I can be sad about it.
At the end of the day, there are two kinds of mobile gamers. Those that play games primarily on other platforms and occasionally play mobile games, and those that mainly play mobile games and barely ever touch a PC or console. Square seems to have chosen to focus on the former group and that is, in my opinion, a shame.
Casually Yours is a bi-monthly column by Anna Tarkov focused on mobile gaming. See previous installments here.