Mobile Gaming Apps Are The Beanie Babies Of Our Age

Remember Beanie Babies? Anyone old enough to remember the 1990s can probably remember the stuffed toys that became not only a craze, but a phenomenon.

They were everywhere. Small children, old women, and a whole great swath of the American population in-between knew all about them. Collectors fought over rare ones on eBay. The little toys were in every store, and smaller versions were distributed in Happy Meals. There was even a special princess bear made after Diana died.

I also remember the moment I knew that Beanie Babies had well and truly jumped the shark: I was a teenager working my first job, as a clerk at CVS, and had to stock an aisle full of "poseable plush toy" knockoffs. $US5.99 for a fake Beanie Baby? Clearly, the fad had run its course. Sure enough, within 18 months, Ty Inc., the original manufacturer, stopped making them. Though they did start again a year later, and continue making Beanie Babies to this day, the magic that allowed them to dominate culture for a time was gone.

Close to fifteen years later, I found myself thinking of the day I realised Beanie Babies were over thanks to a strange experience at Chili's. I found myself dining in one recently, for the first time in several years. And the times, they have changed: the focal point of our waitress's entire spiel, and the focus she kept coming back to on repeat visits to our table, was not mixed drinks or fried cheese. It was the touch screen sitting at the end of our table.

The device was a Ziosk, and I understood its purpose as a way to get a drink refresh or pay the bill. But its useful features weren't the ones that the server kept highlighting. No, she kept trying to convince us to read USA Today or play $US0.99 "premium" apps on the screen.

After she left the table, my husband remarked that one doesn't usually go out with others just to play Solitaire anti-socially on a single-player touch screen. I pulled my Droid out of my purse and added that if I did place a priority on gaming apps, I had my own with me.

That, I realised, was the moment for me where gaming apps became like so many dollar-store Beanie Baby knockoffs. The idea, and the execution, has reached full cultural saturation. From gas station pump to restaurant table, the apps are everywhere. But, like Beanie Babies, Tamagotchi, Pogs, and every other questionable fad I can remember in my lifetime, even a child can spot the difference between the real deal and the cheap knock-off.

We may not be able to hold Angry Birds in our hand to feel its workmanship, but we know that the game Chili's wants us to buy is no Angry Birds. We may know in our hearts that Words With Friends is essentially a Scrabble mod, but what makes it tick is the large pool of asynchronous "friends," something that no grubby clone can bring to the (literal) table.

The app has become the cultural artifact of our era. It is everywhere, it is oversaturated, and it is unsustainable. Not every surface needs a game on it, and just because mobile and social gaming are successful markets doesn't mean that trying to turn everything into a game will, in turn, make those other things successful.

Personal touch screens — phones and tablets — are immensely useful, as are the programs we run on them. The juggernaut of thoughtless lookalike casual games, though, must soon run into its point of diminishing returns, and begin, as a scene, to contract again. From where we stand now, it's just getting silly.

In the meantime, Chili's: please stop trying to sell me your terrible games. If I pay $US0.99 for something on my phone, at least I can take it with me everywhere I go. Focus on getting the food to the tables while it's still hot, and the rest will follow. And if it can't, well, Solitaire won't save you.


Comments

    There's a big difference. Beanie babies settled into a niche, they're still around but *HORRIBLY* priced. Mobile gaming will eventually at some point likely merge with or take over from console gaming given the power the devices are now starting to get. But that won't be for years yet. If ever. Games like NOVA3 are getting hard to ignore, and THE WALKING DEAD series now being on the tablets and iPhones, being a *perfect* port, means these games aren't going to settle into a niche... to say it is unsustainable is highly incorrect. Beanie babies were horribly overpriced and continue to be so, apps and games on mobile platforms are sold at generally super low prices in comparison to console games (I just bought the new Rovio Pig game for 2.99 and its fantastic for instance). I get what you're trying to say but this sort of device can be equated to the arcade machines of old, where you pop in a dollar and play a game. No more, no less. You select your game, pay the money and have a go. (40c here in Australia, then 60, then a dollar). While apps are severely lowly priced, they're unlikely to see a diminishing return, for the popular ones at least. Given they cost bugger all to develop in comparison to fully fledged pc and console games. It's why a lot of studios such as EA put out Apps alongside full games, to rake in the cash. Anyhow, /rantover.

      The original Arcade games were 1 penny.. but they were not as we know them.. even when I grew up they were 10 cents.. and the technology on detecting what coin was put in was not very good.. you could easily fool the machine with a 2 cent coin.. even when games were costing 20 cents per play, you could still fool it with a 2 cent coin. 40 cent games were later on... now it is what? $2 minimum per game for current gen and $1 for old school games?? Ridiculous pricing and why not many people play them any more.

      Those places, in the cities, used to be PACKED WITH PEOPLE.. PACKED!!! These days.. there's usually only a handful of people. It was actually quite a social thing to do back then in the hey days of arcade gaming.. very much like when people pile around a Nintendo Wii or when the Karaoke and Dance games come out at the family BBQ day etc

      Last edited 03/10/12 1:00 pm

        Indeed. In Australia the only modern games are really skilltesters and occasional shooters in the arcade. True old arcade games are few and far between. But I digress. People have gone from the arcades because consoles, PC's and phones with apps provide the arcade experience. Infact I would go as far as saying that the mobile phone provides the closer experience to the Arcade than the console or the PC does.

        SACRILEGE I hear you scream. BULLSHIT. NO WAY. Hear me out.

        In the arcade, games were designed to be of simple gameplay, of a basic nature, it was only in the later stages of arcade life that fighting games came out and became a bit more complex. Games were designed to give 5 - 10 minutes of gameplay per paid game. Difficulty was designed to give maximum payout. A lot of apps offer this very thing. Angry birds, is bloody hard and addictive. Repetitious gameplay that arcade games had. Not the apps that are games ported over from consoles etc but the games like AB (since ported everywhere), that are designed for 'quick fix gameplay'. Arcade games were exactly the same. I worked for Leisure and Allied Industries in the 90s, I helped open the Timezone Arcade in the queenstreet mall in Brisbane in 1997, we had to attend conferences that had developers from places like Capcom etc who would talk about their games. Statistics such as gameplay time vs payout time (when the next 60c would be pumped into the next machine etc) were thrown about very frequently. It was amazing the research that went into these games. App development I imagine is amazingly similair, hence paid transactions. This is why I feel Apps are not going anywhere. I think microtransactions will become more dominant, and we'll see a rise of them in standardised gaming over the next ten years, because they're a tried and proven method of gaming, for as long as we can remember, just in a different set of clothing.

    Back in my day, Cabbage Patch Kids were the big thing. You young whippersnappers and your dang fangled technowhatsits taking over our cafés and hellophones. Back in my day, we had one computer, no internet and games with pixels as big as your head! *shakes cane*

    Until people are committing riots over apps, they will not approach beanie babies or cabbage patch kids or similar. Scarcity drove them in ways apps can never match. ;)

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