Extra Punctuation Transcript
What the hell happened to mobile gaming? Well. Money is what happened. Shitheads flooding the digital stores with cheap knockoffs in the hope of making a quick return, exactly the same thing that caused the ’80s video game crash. Fuck the one percent. There, that’s the requisite capitalism bashing out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of it.
Recently on my streams and videos I’ve been talking up Unpacking a lot. It’s a wonderful example of a game that focuses squarely on one interesting mechanic, in this case the act of unpacking all your stuff after moving into a new home, and uses it to covertly build a rich setting and story under the surface. The sort of thing Lucas Pope does very well. But what’s really soured the pleasant air surrounding the game is that some git hashed out an obvious clone of it called Unpacking Master and released it for mobiles, free to play and more wallpapered with ads than the average rally driver. It was brazen enough to rip off some of the room layouts, to say nothing of the title, and before complaints caused it to be pulled from stores it was sitting right at the top of Apple’s free to play chart.
The whole situation makes me depressed for several reasons. Firstly, as the Unpacking devs themselves said on Twitter, it’s very demoralising to see something truly creative and lovingly made so soullessly and opportunistically shaken down by money robots with no vision beyond the next quick buck. And secondly, it threw once again into sharp relief what an absolute hell hole mobile gaming has become. You think the indie game deluge on Steam is bad, mobile is currently demonstrating what might become of Steam if it lost what little quality control it still has.
‘Cos I used to love mobile gaming. Not even that long ago I genuinely thought it was the future of gaming. A platform with no buttons, only a touchscreen and ideally used one-handed, it required a complete ground-up rethink in the way you made games. It practically demanded elegance of design. Plus, everyone has a phone, there was a gigantic guaranteed audience all crying out for something to keep them distracted on the bus. The ground was fertile for innovation. But the line between fertile ground and compost heap only gets thinner over time.
I used to play all kinds of different games on my phone. The first legit breakout mobile gaming hit that I remember was Canabalt. One of the first of the infinite runners, where you’re a pixel dude running through a city that’s undergoing some kind of disaster. There was artistry to it, intrigue. Who was this man? What was happening to the city? What were those weird robot crabs in the background? But that was just the first one I tried. Doodle God, Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope, Tiny Wings, even Angry Birds at first, simple, innovative, cutting edge game design with heart and soul. I would just browse the apple App store and try out random games on a whim.
Today, there’s only a few games I play on my phone. Solitaire, crosswords, Picross-style puzzles. Mainly because each round of such games usually takes a while so I don’t get constantly deluged with ads. Most of the games I try on a whim because the ads made them look sorta fun are based around very short levels so that ads can be plugged in at the start and end of each one. Levels usually of some mindless but viscerally satisfying task like sorting coloured balls. And all the ads that bookend them seem to be for an infinite number of games with slight variations of the same thing and almost no theming to speak of. Sorting colours seems to be the evergreen trend. I just searched for the word “sort” in the Apple app store and turned up Water Sort Puzzle, Ball Sort Puzzle, Sort It 3D, SortPuz, Sort Water Color Puzzle, Ball Sort Color Water Puzzle, Soda Sort Puzzle, Bubble Sort Color Puzzle, Color Ball Sort Puzzle…
See, the whole Unpacking thing was just a rare case of the standard operating procedure for mobile gaming spilling out into the real world. Most of the time mobile games just eat each other in a constant cannibalistic free for all where the moment anything proves even the slightest bit successful a thousand barely distinguishable imitators are hacked out with such speed that you’ve got to assume some kind of algorithm is involved that automatically tracks download numbers and feeds data into an automatic cloning device. That’s why all the ads for these games are exactly the same, as well. Always brief clips of the gameplay being played completely abysmally in a way that makes you frustrated and want to have a go so you can show them how it’s supposed to be done, the way you teach your grandparents to type.
And always with a fake quote over the top along the lines of “I’ve played level 3 519 times and I just can’t beat it!” because I guess trial and error determined this to somehow be the most effective wording.
Hacking through the jungle of free to play mobile games all I see are constant reminders that none of this exists because its intention is to amuse you or enrich your life. It’s all coldly and emotionlessly designed purely to sucker you in with the promise of quick scores for the rodent brain, so that they can add you to the big juicy number they use to lure in advertisers. It feels like being around at the tail end of a gold rush. After all the big claims have been made and the smart miners have already cashed in and pissed off, so all that remain are the latecomers still holding onto a shred of hope for a payout, and the whorehouses that were set up to exploit them. And now everyone’s lined up shoulder to shoulder at the riverbank desperately panning away, ready to start slitting throats at the first sign of glitter.
Probably because it was a gold rush, really, but it might be generalizing too much to blame it all on the corrupting influence of money when I’d really like to blame Flappy Bird a little bit. Flappy Bird, created in a matter of days by indie developer Dong Nguyen, was simplicity itself on a platform that favoured simplicity very much, but even so no one anticipated its sudden explosive popularity, and it set a foreboding precedent. So alarming was it that Nguyen took the game down himself basically because he was frightened of the monster he had created. An appreciably human thing to do, and yet, perhaps not the best move, because it immediately created a vacuum that emboldened the torrents of imitators that were already pouring in, having now learned exactly how much effort was required to get a big payout.
And now that’s what every game on mobile seems to be – nothing but dirt-simple gameplay and bland art offering quick dopamine hits, pounded into endless horizons of homogeny by algorithms, and the platform has no incentive to change or improve things because these games make too much money for the cunts who run the world. And it wasn’t actually Flappy Bird’s fault. I think Flappy Bird just inadvertently exposed an uncomfortable truth about mobile as a platform. I thought it was a new world of gaming. But what I think of as “games” are things you have to focus on. You stare exclusively at the screen and control it with a device you have to hold with both hands. You get immersed.
But most of the guaranteed audience for mobile games doesn’t want that. When the platform is a tiny screen usually used one-handed while the user is only half paying attention to make sure they don’t miss when their train passes through their station, you don’t want immersion, you want mindless distraction. You want quick highs, not difficult challenges or emotional engagement. And that’s precisely the demand that over the years mobile gaming has carefully refined itself to exploit. It’s sad, but complaining about it is like complaining that people are still sniffing glue in a world where perfectly good heroin exists. Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to leave before I start thinking about whether or not that analogy made sense.