Mobile games come in all shapes and sizes, but what could they have looked like?
Do you remember Infinity Blade? Developed by Epic Games, it was an action RPG where you would play as multiple nameless heroes, each descendants of one another who are repeatedly killed by the antagonist known as the “God King.” Its main purpose was to demonstrate the capabilities of—at the time—the new iOS version of Unreal Engine. The gameplay was honestly just fine, with basic touchscreen controls that weren’t very engaging. Technically impressive it might have been, it didn’t feel like it really reached the heights of what mobile gaming could be. Then only a few months after Infinity Blade’s release, Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP came out.
Sword & Sorcery EP is probably the game that has had the biggest impact on what I think games can be. Released in 2011, it’s an immaculately designed pixel art game with some point and click influences—although being a mobile game this came in the form of taps. It also had an incredibly varied score by Jim Guthrie (who, fun fact, once gave me permission to use a track from the game in a short film I made [no, you can’t see it]).
The eclectic title from developers Superbrothers was my first experience with an indie game. Being 14 when the game came out, the kind of games I would play were more like Ratchet & Clank or Uncharted—more action-oriented games. I didn’t grow up during the height of the point and click era of gaming, so S&S EP was something unique to me entirely. But it wasn’t just my unfamiliarity with the genre that caused the game to resonate with me so strongly.
The main character, known only as the Scythian, is a woman, something that is aggravatingly rare even today. The score also really was impeccable, with some strong late 70s/ 80s synth-horror influences throughout the soundtrack. And the controls felt perfect for the device; the game was mostly in landscape, but you had to rotate to portrait for combat, or to open a mystical book called the Megatome, where you could read the thoughts of your companions. It was simple, but it was clearly designed to be on a mobile device. On top of all of that, all of the dialogue boxes were written within 140 characters, for a specific purpose: you could tweet out any of them. From top to bottom, the game was designed for your phone (or iPad).
Seeing such a perfectly designed phone game makes the current state of mobile gaming all the more frustrating. There can be a lot of misogyny that comes with the way people talk about mobile games; even if it’s not by much, more women play games on mobile devices than men do. And it would be ignorant to say that there are no good games on the Play or App stores—games like Monument Valley and Florence prove that wrong easily. It’s the biggest titles that concern me.
Genshin Impact is easily the mobile game at the moment. It has a huge, beautiful open world to explore, simple and tight controls, and an array of characters to play with. Most importantly, it’s free. Except that comes with a cost—it’s a gacha game. You want a specific character? You’re gonna have to roll for it. Didn’t get the banner character you want and there’s a deal on primogems? Why not spend a little bit of money. Overall, Genshin is an incredibly accessible game. Many people won’t have a home console or powerful computer, but most will have a smartphone, meaning anyone can play Genshin. But the predatory nature of gacha games puts a huge damper on it.
Gacha games can literally ruin lives. But somewhere along the line, freemium games came along, with titles like Farmville in the west and Dragon Collection (arguably the origin of gacha games) from Japan giving people the promise of a free game, but with much more baggage than they might have expected. It’s honestly amazing that games like Genshin can exist, but if you as a developer want to make a similar experience without the fear of addiction and the weight of microtransactions, the only solution is something like the Apple Arcade. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, said of his latest title Fantasian that “there were no plans of any kind before Apple Arcade.” With something as ambitious as that title, with all of the backgrounds being physical dioramas, it’s unsurprising that it was thanks to the Apple Arcade the game got made.
When I say “what mobile games could have been,” I don’t mean they all should be like Sword & Sorcery EP. What I mean is they didn’t have to be something that constantly lures you back in, asking you to spend more and more money. They could have been short, affordable experiences (S&S EP is only £3.99 on the App store and only 4 hours long).
S&S EP came out about a year before Indie Game: The Movie. That film is a divisive one, as it only focused on a small group of developers (all of which were cis white men), some of who developed some of the earlier examples of what we know as indie games today.
Mobile devices could be the perfect home for indie games, but when you’re competing against games that are literally free, developers who plan to make a mobile game essentially need to decide whether they want to prey on future addicts or take the risk of their game being a paid-for title (although any which way, releasing a game is almost always a risk). It’s great (and impressive) to see games like Fantasian or The Pathless available to play on your phone, and £4.99 a month is generally quite affordable. But it’s still early days for the subscription service, so who knows if it can last forever?
Mobile games have come a long way since the days of Tap Tap Revenge and Fruit Ninja, but I think they still have a ways to go yet.