The mobile gaming industry has always been fascinating to me. However, many people don’t consider mobile gaming to be ‘real’ gaming, associating it with mindlessly playing Candy Crush or Subway Surfers to kill time while waiting for the bus; obnoxious notifications, or feeling
forced to pay for ridiculous microtransactions just to actually enjoy the experience. Indeed, the latter are issues that plague the industry. It’s practically built from the ground-up on anti-consumer practices!
First, let’s address the elephant in the room with regard to the industry’s problems:
microtransactions. The majority of popular Android and iOS games employ microtransactions in their revenue model. Most are “freemium” games, which are free to download and start playing, however are designed in such a way that paying money, usually through these small payments, is the most optimal way to advance. Often the player will be showered with useful items and various in-game currencies upon starting the game, but once the player puts some time in the supply of free items and currencies will begin to dry up. In this way, the game subtly manipulates players to keep spending money to continue gaining new content. In addition, many games of this type employ an energy system or wait timers, which restrict the frequency that the game can be played, unless of course the player pays for extra energy or a timer bypass. This serves the same purpose: to squeeze as much money from the player as possible. I do not have a problem with all microtransactions, however. If the game is available for free, the developer should be able to gain income from other streams. By all means, charge for cosmetic items or bonus content, but once you create an objectively worse experience for the player unless they’re willing to cough up some change, that’s when I get mad.
Another hallmark of free mobile games are the intrusive ads. These can range from small banner ads to full popup ads which the player is forced to sit through. Like microtransactions, I don’t have a problem with ads in principle; but when a game is designed so the player spends more time staring at ads than actually playing the game, and is also expected to pay for microtransactions, well, there will be blood.
It’s not all doom and gloom on the Play Store and App Store though. There are positives that can be attributed to this style of play. PC and console games can be sprawling, immersive
experiences that are intended to be played for long periods of time. Mobile games on the
on the other hand must use the characteristics of their platform to their advantage. The pick-up-
and-play nature of mobile games mean they must capture the player’s attention as soon as
they start a gaming session – no long unskippable cutscenes to be found here. This positions mobile games perfectly as excellent time fillers for when the player can’t commit to a long session. In addition, the method by which a player uses a mobile device in contrast to a traditional console or PC forces the player to interact with the game in a different way. Touch and gyro controls – when implemented well – can really feel like a novel experience, though I’m sure most people have experienced the horrors of poor implementation…
Furthermore, mobile games are less demanding of hardware than their PC and console
cousins, presenting a lower barrier to entry for new gamers. There’s no need to spend a pile
of money on a gaming PC or console when most people already own a decently capable
smartphone. On top of this, mobile games tend to be lighter on mechanics, which lowers the
barrier further and is appealing to more casual gamers. One of my favourite examples of
this is Minecraft Pocket Edition which allows anyone to play Minecraft on the go and enjoy
most of the features of the primary edition.
In 2020, there are more terrible and manipulative mobile games than ever, but equally,
there are more fantastic mobile gaming experiences to be found than ever before! Hidden
beneath the mess of the top charts – and the obvious cash-cows – lie some absolute gems;
you just have to do a little digging. Here are some of my top picks:
My favourite by far is Alto’s Adventure. It’s the only mobile game I’ve played consistently for any length of time, having first downloaded it back in 2017. To me, this is a perfect mobile game. It’s very simple: you control a lone figure snowboarding down a procedurally-generated snowy mountainside. Holding a finger to the screen causes your character to tilt backwards into a flip… and that’s the only control (for the most part). As you fly down the slopes you gradually pick up speed; launch over chasms; grind on lines of bunting; pick up various powerups and collect coins, as well as increasing your ever important high-score. The game’s greatest strength is its simplicity; the core gameplay loop is just fun. The ambience the game creates through its gorgeous stylised visuals and delightfully peaceful soundtrack lulls you into an almost meditative state and the time just flies by. There are some microtransactions, but the game is perfectly playable without paying for any, and ads only appear after each run. For the price of a cup of coffee, you can remove ads from the game entirely, which I opted to do to support the developers. A sequel named Alto’s Odyssey was released in 2018, and even after only making the switch to it recently, I already anticipate I’ll be spending just as much time with it as its predecessor.
Switching gears to something a little bit more involved, another excellent mobile title in my opinion is Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires’ Conspiracy. This is the
seventh entry in the well-known and loved Professor Layton series of puzzle games and was
the first to be released both on mobile platforms and the 3DS concurrently back in 2017.
The game features the titular Katrielle Layton as she solves various mysteries around
London with the help of her assistant Ernest, as well as a dog that can speak – talk about a
setup. Progression takes the form of investigating several distinct cases, unlike previous DS
titles which had a single narrative. Along the way, you meet a diverse cast of characters, and
are faced with a myriad of puzzles to solve. The puzzles are the real meat of the game,
and while some are perhaps less difficult than in previous entries, I still found them very
enjoyable. Unlike Alto, Layton’s Mystery Journey is not free to play, commanding a price of
€18, which many may find to be steep for a mobile game. Personally, I find the game to be
well worth the price due to the amount of content the game offers, as well as the
presentation – It truly feels like a console-level experience. My only gripe with the game is
the loaded DRM, meaning the game can’t be played without an internet connection. This of
course creates difficulty in playing the game on the go; unless the player has a data
connection or can find a WiFi source, they’re out of luck.
The last of my top picks is Call of Duty: Mobile. To say I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this game would be a massive understatement. I’ve never played any of the main series games before as they’ve just never been appealing to me, but after a suggestion to try the mobile version, I thought why not? I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoy the game so
much, but like Alto, the game is just simply fun (the fact I keep topping the scoreboard in
what I assume are lobbies full of twelve-year-olds may also have something to do with it…).
Running around some random warzone racking up frags and deploying killstreaks is
intensely satisfying, and it’s made even better by the controls. I was shocked at just how
intuitive I found them, and while they’re no match for a mouse and keyboard when it comes
to accuracy, they’re some of the best I’ve found in a mobile game. The experience is by no
means flawless, suffering from a cluttered UI as well as the aforementioned overabundance of microtransactions, but like I said in the last issue, a game doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun.
If I wasn’t limited by word count, I could go on and on about many excellent titles that can be enjoyed on smartphones today. But alas, I am, and so I will leave you with a few
• The very well-known Monument Valley.
• The masterfully-ported Dead Cells.
• Among Us – I shouldn’t need to elaborate.
• The equal-parts calming and stress-inducing Mini Metro.