There's a lot of excitement around the games to come in 2015 in most spaces... except mobile gaming. There's a lot that's broken around mobile games, and not a lot of solutions in sight.
I recently had to set up a new iPhone 6, and rather than doing what I've done for years by grabbing my iPhone backup from iTunes and restoring as a new image, I decided I'd start afresh. At the time, I figured it was a good move because the image I'm talking about dates all the way back to the iPhone 3G, which is an absolute eternity in gaming terms.
One of the big decisions I had to make as a result of that was picking which games to throw onto the iPhone 6. This wasn't so much an issue of outright storage space, as I've long held that there's little point in buying the entry level storage tiers, but more keeping things sensible in game terms. After that many years, there was a lot of clutter to contend with.
When I'd finished, I stepped back to look at the games that I'd selected to install on my iPhone 6, and a single thought struck me.
There wasn't much "new", or for that matter "innovative" sitting on the phone at all. Yes, there were newer titles, such as Crossy Road, but that's just a twist on the endless runner concept, so it went into a folder along with games like Zombie Tsunami, Tiny Wings, Giant Bouder Of Death and Canabalt.
Similarly, many of the games that I chose to install were titles that have more than a few years on them already, if they'll still run. That's a different kind of problem, but it's undeniably irksome that, for example, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 no longer loads under iOS 8 at all.
This got me to thinking about what had happened in mobile gaming in 2014, and what was likely to happen in 2015. The more I thought, the more depressed I got.
Don't get me wrong. I love gaming. Always have, and always will, and the ability to pull a smartphone out of my pocket and play a little Bioshock, Goat Simulator, Raiden or Kingdom Rush isn't something that I take lightly.
It's just that the market has spoken, and what it's spoken doesn't bode well for mobile game development into the future. Free to play with IAP elements predominates the charts, and any time that a "full price" title comes out — full price in this case often only equating to a few dollars — there's an outcry over developers overcharging for games.
Meanwhile, of course, console games still hover anywhere from $50-$100 as new releases, and even on the more discount-prone PC side of the fence, we all go nuts when there's a Steam sale and titles are available for under $10. I don't entirely buy the "but mobile games are casual and simple and should be cheaper" argument, partly because it's entirely feasible to put "full" game experiences onto mobile devices. But only if people will pay for them.
So what happens is that there's a rush towards two things. Firstly, endless clones. Iteration in and of itself isn't automatically bad. Consider all those endless runners I mentioned previously. I'm happy to play each and every one of them, even though they're all just iterations on a core theme.
The problem with endless clones is that they clutter up app stores with very little imagination. Want proof? When Flappy Bird — a game, for the record, that I never really cared for — went off market in 2014, the clones were endless. The clones were tedious. The clones also spoke to a genuine lack of originality in game design, because it was easier to make an object flap between pipes than come up with a new concept that'd probably be buried underneath that self same endless cavalcade of Flappy Bird clones!
The other problem, and it's not a new one, is the heavy push for free to play. 2014 only saw F2P for mobile gamers get worse in my opinion, with everyone pushing for time-based games that aggressively pushed IAP in favour of actual gameplay. Consider what EA did with Dungeon Keeper, for example. I love Dungeon Keeper as a game, and I'd pay EA real money right now for an actual "full" copy of the game. But the IAP destruction of Dungeon Keeper made me both upset and angry.
So what's the solution? I'm not sure there is one.
It'd be nice to think that somebody will come up with, for want of a better term, the next Minecraft for mobiles. A game that redefines the landscape and the pricing model such that developers are actively encouraged to think, take chances and create compelling gameplay experiences.
Instead, I fear, we'll probably just get the same old games, endlessly cloned and sold to us for "free" with timers that make IAP all but an inevitability. Was that what anybody really wanted?