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Please Stop Complaining About Free Mobile Games Now. PLEASE.

The war is over. Clash of Clans won. Let us wander the smoldering wasteland and find what we have learned. Or just play 9000 hours of Hearthstone. Either works for me.

Jeff Vogel

May 14, 2014

15 Min Read

God. When did Indie game developers start acting so darn superior all the time?

Like many self-declared oh-so-serious gamers, I've long been irritated by casual mobile free to play games. I finally managed to get over that. I don't know what was wrong with me. Things now are just fine.

Ok, yeah, we know, we've all heard the arguments. Mobile games are too dumb. Too brightly colored. Too greedy. It's irritating to see ads, to be asked for money. They make too much of their money from compulsive "whales." We're nerds, and grannies are sneaking into our seekrit kewl gamer basement. Mobile game developers are too obsessed about money metrics and not enough about creativity. (As if the Indies are blameless on that score. "But my new tower defense game is really groundbreaking!" Please stop talking to me now.)

Mobile games are not what gamers and Indie developers want gaming to be. And this is the Internet, so, if anyone likes something different, THEY MUST BE DESTROYED.

Yes, you've had your say. You don't like mobile games. We got it.

So please give it a rest already?

So Jeff, What Got Up Your Butt?

Lots of things, but this tweet was kind of the final straw. In my butt. #mixedmetaphorpromode

Sure. I'll get right on saving mobile gaming, as soon I finish this Hearthstone match. Then I'll ... WHAT? RELEASE THE HOUNDS AGAIN? I HATE HUNTERS SO MUCH!!!

I feel a little bad picking on Notch here, because he's a decent guy and critiquing tweets is already a waste of time, but his tweet bugged me for two reasons.

First, "save mobile gaming?" From what? Being crushed under a giant avalanche of cash?

Second, this is a smug dismissal of a huge chunk of the game industry that keeps a lot of developers employed making games that a lot of people really like. It's also the most emotionally manipulative argument possible: OH, won't someone think of the CHILDREN!?!? ("Honey, are you letting little Billy playing Clash of Clans?" "Yes." "You MONSTER!")

By the way, in my observation, the younger generation isn't playing mobile F2P. The kids are spending all their time in Minecraft. Somehow, I think they'll be fine.

(Actually, if you want a better example of the Indie Developer sense of superiority, this recent article in Polygon is the gold standard. His attempts to use mathlogic to prove that these immensely popular games are actually hated are genuinely amusing.)

While we're all relieved that Indie gaming is ready to swoop in and save us from what we want, those of us who hate mobile games should take a moment to consider why we do. Speaking to gamers here: When you viscerally hate something that has never hurt you personally (or even affected you, really), it is possible that the true problem is really somewhere inside your own head.

So let's examine some of the reasons why we fear and hate our new Mobile F2P masters.

"Hearthstone doesn't count. I don't consider one of the bad free games." Yeah. Everyone says that about the one they like. 

One. "The People Who Make Them Are Soulless Business Drones. Not Cool Arteests Like Us."

Yeah, pretty much. I've been to casual/mobile game trade shows, and, man, that is so not a nerdy place. It's a bunch of NormalPeople and MBAs, with nice clothes and haircuts, tossing around weird business terms like ARPU and ARPDAU and AMPU and DILDONG. And sure, they all like Game of Thrones, but they don't like it in the correct way we do.

Sometimes I think that the gamer hate for mobile is not because it's unsuccessful (because it's massively profitable) or because they provide people with mind-boggling amounts of leisure fun (because they do), but because they remind us of the grade school bullies who laughed at us and took our lunch money. But this time they're doing it inside OUR industry.

People who write free games, from Candy Punch Saga to Hearthstone are doing what we do, but better. (And yes, Hearthstone has "Casual" appeal too, whatever that means. Ten million registered accounts says so.)

The people making those games may not being doing it our way, by our metrics, but they are passionate about giving lots of people something they like. Hell, they care about how many people play their games way more than I do. They'll lose a week's sleep over increasing their player base by 0.01%, because that might be the edge they need to stay employed.

The sheer scale of the entertainment they provide is mind-boggling, and they're doing it mostly for free, with, by the way, game systems that mere mortals can actually understand.

Why did free games take over the world? Well, you can pick up the entirely of Hearthstone in five minutes. Think you understand the rules to Magic: The Gathering? Nobody does. Look what it takes to understand that game.  It's madness.

Maybe accessibility is our problem. "Hey, man, I was wasting my life stressing about impenetrable rules systems before it was cool."

Two. "They Write Simple Cartoony Games For the Most Casual."

And they're rich. Aren't you just angry you didn't think of it first?

What people seem to ignore is that these games provide the most challenging hardcore experience available in games today. Want a rough time? It's simple: Don't spend money.

(A common logical error made when analyzing mobile games is seeing that only a small percentage of people spend cash and concluding this means people don’t like the games. This is a huge mistake. I’ve never paid a penny on free games, including several I love. This just means that I’m awesome.)

Free games, even the more casual ones, solve the great problem in game design. They thread the needle between Casual and Hardcore. Want a light, easy experience? Spend a little money. Want a punishing experience that takes lots of time and care? Play for free.

Yes, if you pay for free, they'll put a lot of time blocks in your way, both arbitrary waits and levels you'll lose a lot of time. But that's what serious gamers want, right? To do something hard and finally succeed? And this time it's even more fun, because you did it for FREE. It feels like you got away with something!

Hay Day, and enormously popular F2P game. I only put up this image because I think it'll annoy gamers.

An Aside. You Think You Know Hardcore? You Don't Know Hardcore!

People who ask for and play tough games are really full of themselves. We all know that. You won Dark Souls? That's nothing. I have a friend who beat Candy Crush Saga without spending a penny. Took months. You want strategy and grueling persistence? There it is.

And she's not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination. She's as casual and casual gets, and she's a more dedicated, obstacle-toppling gamer than you are. Even if her game involves hitting a spastic teddy bear with clumps of purple gumdrops, or whatever.

Three. "If You Don't Pay, You Have To Spend a Lot of Time Getting Power."

Sure. And this makes it different from non-free games how, exactly?

People have a problem with this now? Well, I don't remember gamers having a problem when we all burned up our youths in the twin furnaces of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Used to be, in Everquest, every fifth level was a "hell level," where they doubled the number of experience you needed to pass it for no reason. It was arbitrary, obnoxious, and ridiculous. I still have nightmares about level 45.

If you complained about it everyone jumped down your throat and called you dirty names. Players just spent the hours grinding. With great concentration, you could convince yourself that you were having fun.

Now, the worst thing that happens is the game, to advance, forces you to pay or get this to stop playing for an hour. You don't even need to spend that hour killing the same goblin over and over again. You can go do something else!

Seriously. Whatever ridiculous hoops free games make you jump through to advance? Hardcore gamers have gone through ten times worse. And we did it to ourselves. And we convinced ourselves it made us cool.

An Aside. Of Course, It Can Be Done Badly. Of Course.

It's not hard to make a F2P game that sucks. A recent instructive example of the Internet Anger/Entitlement Complex was EA's free Dungeon Keeper game.

Now, I never played it. And neither did 19 out of 20 of the people who complained about it. From what I heard, it committed the cardinal sin of making people wait too long to do anything and forcing them to spend money to see any of the game's cool stuff.

And they were punished for it. Even in the ancient shareware days, we knew that the free version had to be enough to addict your customers. Dungeon Keeper didn't do this, and it messed up in the harshest, most unforgiving of markets. Result? Don't bother to look for it in the top sales charts. It's not there.

But that has nothing to do with the bizarre level of screeching that accompanied its release. To hear gamers talk, it's like EA defiled some sacred institution of modern society.

Dudes, I was there when Dungeon Keeper came out. I bought it with real money. And ... It was fine. Halfway decent. And that's it. Look at it this way. If it was such a hot property, why was the license allowed to lie fallow for fifteen years?

(Bonus Young Developer Advice: Looking for a game idea? The apparent desire for a new version of Dungeon Keeper might be something you can profitably take advantage of.)

"I have two jobs, three kids, and four minutes to rest." Why don't you spend that time pretending to have a miserable, meaningless life? "Because I don't hate myself."

Four. "These Games Are Shallow and Don't Provide a Rich Artistic Experience."

Yes. Thank God.

I've lost count of the number of indie developers who cursed these games as being mere time-wasters and dopamine-generation buttons. Why wouldn't you instead play an iphone game that provides a varied, rich artistic experience, like ... like ... Yeah, I don't know either.

Look, don't listen to indie developers. We all may be, oh, I don't know, a tiny bit in love with ourselves? I missed it when the world elected us the High Princes And Arbiters Of Leisure Time.

Candy Crush Saga fans aren't sheep or Muggles. They are making highly rational choices about spending limited time and/or money for maximal rest. Papers, Please! is a great game, but it's also stressful and depressing. If you look down on someone who prefers Pet Rescue Saga, you may have lost the plot on this whole "game" thing.

Some may have forgotten that, most of the time, all people want is a painless way to escape stressful reality for five minutes while waiting for the bus.

Five. "Casual Games Monetization Isn't Ethical."

The best evidence is that a tiny fraction of mobile games players make up a huge chunk of the income. These super-players are called "whales." It's really interesting.

I used to be concerned about it. Not so much, now.

I was uncomfortable with a business model of coldly extracting most of your earnings from a tiny percentage of "whales" in your user base, but it could be WAY worse. There's a hundred casinos within an hour's drive of my house, and those icehearted bastards will take your house, smile, and sleep like a baby afterwards. Who is protesting them? At least nobody ever lost their kids' college money playing Candy Crush.

I hate to get all Robert Heinlein on you, but unless Zygna agents are sneaking into your house in the middle of the night to load Epic Bakery Candy Saga Pony Plus on your phone, the reason people play these games is because they like them. They picked them out of a market that provides a million places to hop to if their current game irritates them. I'm sorry if it angers you if someone chooses to play Flappy Bird or 2048 instead of your soul-enriching art piece, but that's the breaks.

(Of course, when these games have actual gambling, it'll be a moral apocalypse. Argument for another day.)

Fun Still Matters. Games, Remember?

My wife has a serious love/hate relationship with these games. When Candy Blast Mania hits her up for cash, her eyes glow incandescent with rage. And yet, she's burned through hundreds of levels, exterminating bosses with robotic efficiency. Not paying for it only makes it more fun.

I won't embarrass us by revealing how thoroughly Hearthstone has occupied our brains. Again, not costing a penny.

I'm always in awe of people's ability to take a cornucopia of wonder and upend it, pawing through the treasures within in the hope of finding a dried rat turd or something. We're getting an awesome deal here, people. Perhaps too awesome. There's probably a big business shakeout approaching this market in the next few years, but it's nothing compared to the apocalypse small Indie developers are about to face.

(Don't believe me? Go here and watch the first minute. This is the way the world ends.)

Daily earnings for the top ten mobile games. I think my favorite thing is that some people think the war isn't over.

The Peace of Letting Go

So you might as well be cool with it. Because, well, look at this sales chart. Those revenue figures are per DAY.

This isn’t competition. This is implacable domination. This is the Huns stampeding over the border, driving the survivors into the caves, and salting the earth. Except that the Huns, in this case, were us.

The people have spoken, the bastards. For Indie developers to say to gamers, “No, you poor, lost little lambs, this isn’t really what you want. Let us saaaave you,” is getting more than a little embarrassing.

Indie was, is, and always will be, niche. Add up all the earnings of every Indie game last year, Minecraft included, and it’s probably still less than Supercell’s monthly Snapple budget. All we can do, going forward, is find a way to deal with it.

In our house, dealing with it will include a lot of Hearthstone. And, of course, gathering colored candy into easily extracted clumps.

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