How Mobile Cash Grabs Trumped Core AAA Titles

Surviving, growing, even thriving. Mobile money grabs are nothing new to the video game industry today, yet in their limited success lies a game design approach forgotten by many core game developers.

On my ascent into the gaming industry I’ve worked on my fair share of mobile games. And yes, I do mean those very “games” that one can sincerely describe as “money-grubbing” without any hesitation or fear of insulting anyone’s efforts, since the extent of cash grabbing in such titles is so excessive that even their developers and publishers couldn’t possibly argue against it with a straight face.

Tap the screen and receive XP points. Tap it again to receive some more. Tap it a third time, and you’ve leveled up! Oh, but it seems you’ve run out of energy. You could wait for it to regenerate on its own, or...

Well, you get the picture.

However, developers of all sorts, including rather sizeable companies with considerable portfolios, continue releasing these “games” without a single second thought, and they certainly aren’t doing so out of the goodness of their hearts. Quite strangely and against all odds, these blatant cash grabs with the production values of a rhino’s posterior continue to succeed enough to justify their ongoing existence.

Hard to make the dreaded in-app purchase window look appealing, isn’t it?

What is it that makes these sorry excuses for games potent enough to actually attract players? What could such lackluster products possibly offer anyone? Ironically, the secret is in the game design.

Evidently, mobile games lack the magnificent graphics of modern AAA blockbuster titles for the PC and major consoles. More often than not they also completely lack any story to tell. And needless to say, they can’t possibly compete in terms of quality controls or overall “game feel” with anything that’s been out on core gaming platforms for the past two decades. So what gives?

The answer is that quite a few of these mobile games utilize the one element that, sadly, many major modern game developers releasing titles for major home consoles and the PC have all but forgotten: immersive game mechanics.

Or to be more precise, one specific game mechanic. Clearly, were mobile games designed with the use of a variety of sophisticated mechanics and fancy gaming tenets, they wouldn’t be the obvious cash grabs that they are. However, mobile game developers aren’t out to impress the existing core gaming market. They’re treading in the steps of the game developers of old who didn’t have a massive, unrestrained target demographic or guaranteed sales as long as the graphics were cutting edge. The irony is palpable.

Well, that one mechanic I’m alluding to is dynamic content generation. And by harnessing its power, certain mobile game developers are capable of actually convincing people to not only keep playing but even spend real money within the confines of their creations.

The magic of % chance drops brings depth to even the simplest of titles.

This simple yet genius mechanism is more potent than any graphics, more immersive than any story, and generates more play time and replayability potential than any DLC. So while these mobile creations certainly lack a great many important details (let’s be honest, they lack just about everything that makes a game worth playing), they are still capable of staying afloat thanks to one specific design principle. Think about that for a moment.

It’s a shame then that game developers across all major core gaming platforms have turned a blind eye to this particular approach, casting it aside as if some relic of times they wish to forget. Perhaps they were traumatized by the lack of guaranteed success on the market a decade or two ago. Or perhaps they simply aren’t aware of this tricky yet amazingly effective mechanism altogether, never having witnessed it in its prime?

Whatever the case, mobile game developers know full well that they can’t possibly compete with core gaming in terms of sheer amounts of static content, graphics, voiceover work, and production quality in general.

To compensate for this, they don’t work hard, slaving away for hundreds of extra hours. No, instead, they work smart.

Instead of giving the player total control over and knowledge of everything the game has to offer, these mobile games utilize the exact opposite approach: a lack of control and a lack of knowing what to expect next. Be it randomized item drops, low special reward chances, or unexpected NPCs showing up at unpredictable times, these mobile games immerse the player not into an intricate fantasy world with top-of-the-line graphical fidelity, but into a world of mechanics that inspire surprise and awe, which in turn leave a far more deeply rooted sense of enjoyment than any graphics, sound effects or cinematic cutscenes... even if the rest of the game makes Pac-Man look like the pinnacle of game design complexity.

Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata is known for speaking out against the simplification of games.

As a result, core games for major platforms and mobile games continue to move in opposite directions, towards two opposing poles in the game design spectrum. While the former continue to rely on static content, the latter place their bet on dynamic, self-perpetuating game mechanics.

And truly, both have their victories and their losses, but the sad reality is that they both lack vital aspects from the other side of the scales, stubbornly treading further along their chosen paths, too narrow-minded or set in their ways to look back and see what they’ve forgotten.

After all, no mobile cash grab will ever be called Game of the Year, yet neither will an eight-hour interactive movie ever gain the kind of cult following boasted to this day by games of the past, games that were developed in times that embodied the intersection of the two major aspects of game development: design and production quality.

That era was truly a marvel of ingenuity. With the rise of 3D graphics, game developers were pioneering new territory, yet because the use of 3D graphics in video games was still only in its infancy, the pivotal importance of complex game design was still sharp in developers’ minds.

You can almost feel the tipping point between 2D and 3D.

This resulted in 3D graphics often meshing with 2D art, all while utilizing creative game design to not just create a simple mechanism that would carry the player from Point A to Point B, but to provide the player with their own, unique experience, engaging their imagination, passion, and hunger for the unknown. Of course, replayability was also still a major concern. After all, the market wasn’t nearly saturated enough to actually justify creating a six-hour roller coaster ride. Why, a company could go bankrupt doing so.

Alas, today these two pillars of game development have been moved so far apart that developers with a firm grasp on them both are few and far in between. Yet even the most prominent player in the industry today to remain focused on unifying both of these facets, Nintendo, faces the grim inevitability imposed upon the gaming world by the relentless advance of the 3D graphics war machine.

And make no mistake, it is very much a war machine! Left unchallenged, it will devour all remaining game design complexity, leaving nothing but truly shameless interactive films to be watched on home consoles and computer screens alike.

The symptoms are already here and clear as daylight. But will anyone have the courage to answer the call to battle? Will anyone realize the importance of balancing both design and production quality to avoid pushing out either interactive movies or terrible looking and sounding indie games? Or will flagrant cash grabs for mobile devices become the last surviving examples of a once proud and powerful industry standard?

I ponder this question with every new AAA release to find its way to store shelves and digital distribution platforms, and every time the light at the end of the tunnel seems to grow just a little bit dimmer...


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