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Going Mobile: Winning Qualities

In this 'Going Mobile' column, originally written for Gamasutra, Foci Mobile lead analyst and former GameSpot Mobile journo Steve Palley identifies just how the cellphone game industry has painfully moved beyond tedium. Things can only get better? Apparently so!
Title If you’ve been reading this column for the last several months, it may seem as though I have taken my old profession as a mobile games ‘criticalist’ (has anyone coined a better term for the position of critic/journalist?) several steps further in a fit of pique, and morphed into one of the medium’s more committed skeptics. Please allow me set the record straight: I like mobile games, as well as most of the people who make them, and I believe wholeheartedly in mobile gaming’s future.

I know that these articles have devoted considerable verbiage to pointing out the medium’s many serious issues. Consider it tough love. In my opinion, two of the most glaring problems are also very straightforward: complacency on the part of the industry, and simple ignorance on the part of everyone else. A tonic for both is a stiff dose of independent journalism, which is why I am coming to appreciate sites like Quickly Bored, bombastic commentary and all.

But still, giving credit where it is due is just as important as doling out criticism--and for every regressive business practice and worthless piece of shovelware the mobile games industry has produced, there has been a corresponding bright spot.

Things Can Only Get Better!

A great example of a real industry triumph has been the publishing sector’s embrace of the quality ideal in product design. Many who observe mobile gaming in a professional capacity agree that overall quality has improved greatly over the past year. At first glance, this development would seem to be perfectly natural, given the level of improvement in the industry’s technological and business positions. Thank you, Mr. McObvious! But the story goes deeper than that.

In fact, the change I’m talking about is purely volitional, and it comes as a result of several years of experimentation on the costs and benefits of mobile game production. Until recently, the jury was out on whether making the highest quality mobile games would also make a company the most successful mobile games publisher.

In the bad old days, it wasn’t easy to assemble enough talent to make a run at producing a quality game. Even if you had the right people, there was no guarantee they’d be able to find a way to turn your amazing concept document into a product.

Making Do Doesn't Cut It

Making the games everyone would have wanted was expensive and risky, so we went to war with the games we had, so to speak. Instead of all those products that were supposed to ‘unlock the unique potential of the mobile platform,’ consumers got three straight years of games that come free with Windows, shoddy knockoffs, branded garbage, and retro ports that should have stayed in 1982.

Worse, a lot of these games were shipped with show-stopping bugs and other gaping design holes. One game I reviewed crashed every time you performed a command necessary to win a match. It’s one thing for an industry to produce an endless stream of games that aren’t any fun; if they’re also broken, that’s insult to injury.

And yet, even as we handed out our equally endless supply of mediocre to middling scores, we got the sense that there was a greater design lurking behind the rush for short-term gains. Although they were making derivative products, some companies were clearly trying harder than others, and if you looked carefully, you could see holes in certain games where features and levels had been removed to meet a budget or a deadline.

I remember many cases where the capability to make a great game had clearly been present, as had the desire and the plan...but the execution wasn’t quite right. Something was missing, and that something was expertise.

Getting Things Up To Scratch

When reviewers refer to the elusive quality of ‘polish,’ here’s what they actually mean: five percent more effort, applied in exactly the right spots. Needless to say, figuring out where those spots are is much, much more difficult than simply spending more money. Indeed, the process is largely experimental, especially when publishers are entering a brand-new medium like mobile phones. In retrospect, many of the steps on the path to the new threshold of quality seem like no-brainers, but they actually weren’t obvious at all at the time.

For instance, take the inclusion of a sound on/off switch at the beginning of a mobile game. It makes sense that someone playing a mobile game in public might want to silence the game before it can produce any embarrassing noises, right? Not to designers who had worked on console games for their entire careers. In fact, I didn’t see a game with this simple feature until late 2004, and it took a full year after that to become commonplace.

How about guided, step-by-step tutorials designed with non-gamers in mind, or one-handed controls, or simplified, high-contrast graphics, or gameplay symbols that are readily identifiable on tiny phone screens? There are a million of these seemingly trivial design tweaks (here’s an excellent preliminary list, compiled by UK reviews site Pocket Gamer), and more are being discovered and tested out every day. In aggregate, they are hugely significant.

Best Practices - Much Better

It’s now clear that the industry has evolved at least a basic set of conventions and ‘best practices’ for making mobile games. Publishers finally have a good idea of which features work well and which ones don’t, so they don’t have to spend lots of resources reinventing the wheel; they can simply make a decent mobile game right out of the gate by copying their neighbors.

However, now that quality is the watchword, nobody wants to make games that are merely passable--now that they know where and how to direct their energies, practically every publisher is falling over the others to be first in line. They are spending money like crazy to improve their review scores, compete for awards, and hire the best design talent. It’s all gravy for the consumer.

Conclusion

The enforcement mechanism for the new regime, as always, is distribution. The carriers have gotten in on the act, to their credit, and will now summarily reject any game that doesn’t meet their swiftly rising minimum standards. I saw this happen a few times at MGC’s “LivePitch” event a month ago, where developers hawked their wares in front of a carrier panel, and believe me, it wasn’t pretty.

At the same time, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Now that the industry has become obsessed with raising the quality of its games, the next step will be for it to apply that same fire to thinking up entirely new game ideas. All the polish in the world can’t make an old design into a novel product.

[Steve Palley is the Founder and Lead Analyst of Foci Mobile, a mobile games consulting firm. He was previously Chief Editor for Mobile Games at GameSpot and Wireless Gaming Review.]

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