After our review of Super Mario Odyssey for the last Tanuki Talk, Ashley Harrison and I are going to the other end of the video game spectrum and looking at the state of the mobile game market. Why now, though? Mobile games have been a big talking point in the industry ever since they rose to prominence on the App Store, with many gems but also an overwhelming quantity of cynical and poorly-crafted titles. The release of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery on iOS and Android, developed by Jam City (official site here) may have gone to a new extreme in terms of manipulating players into paying additional costs, however…
William Robinson: The mobile gaming landscape has recently seen both good and bad. Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds have done a great job at translating a PC/console experience to the mobile platform, but on the other hand, Hogwarts Mystery – once talked about as, like, Pokémon GO meeting Harry Potter – has shown just how far the attempts at coercing money from players can go. Before we get to that, though (I’m expecting you have a lot to say about it, Ash!) – what’s your experience with mobile gaming? Which titles have captured your attention?
Ashley Harrison: There’s only one mobile game that’s ever actually captured my attention, with that being WWE SuperCard since I’m a massive wrestling fan. Mobile gaming isn’t really for me though to be honest with you, it’s a fun time-killer for journeys, but I’d rather just load up Spotify for those and stick to console gaming.
WR: What’s the basic pitch of SuperCard? Also, you’re telling me even Pokémon GO didn’t suck you in? That and Fire Emblem Heroes are the two games that come to mind for me.
AH: The basic pitch of SuperCard is that it’s essentially WWE Top Trumps. There’s a few different game modes based on actual wrestling matches, and a team game inside it, but at it’s core it’s as simple as Top Trumps. And nah, I never was sucked in by Pokemon GO! To be honest with you though, that’s more because I had an absolute trash phone that couldn’t run it during The Summer of Pokémon GO when everyone was playing it, so I felt I’d already missed out by the time I’d gotten a decent phone. Otherwise, I’m sure I’d have spent an absolute ton of time playing it with friends from college.
WR: I think it is worth taking a longer look at mobile games, rather than the impulsive “not as good as console or PC” judgment. But, when we get games like Hogwarts Mystery, it doesn’t help. The pitch is pretty positive; you set off on your own personal adventure to Hogwarts, making your way through the school years and seeing the world of Harry Potter in a new way. Uninspired game mechanics aren’t even the worst of it – that accolade is reserved for the energy currency. This is needed to engage in the tasks, and the game constantly interrupts you to ask for real-life payments to progress – unless you are willing to wait extended periods of time for your energy to recharge. Have you seen the game in action?
AH: I’ve only seen the Jim Sterling video you sent me about the game, and I have to say, that’s as much as I’m willing to look into it. It seems every little thing about the game is designed to pry as much money as possible from the wallets of players. I’d even argue that’s what the game was designed around first, and then they added the game itself second.
WR: Pretty much. It isn’t even new in mobile gaming – paying/waiting has long been a tactic, but it’s the severity of it here that makes it stand out (and not in a good way). The game literally opens the sales pitch by showing the child character being strangled by Devil’s Snare, and the only way out is to pay money for more energy. Or, alternatively, wait as the child gets strangled continuously. It’s a form of mental abuse, playing with your morality to entice you to pay up. Personally, what really concerns me is that this is where serious compulsive mental issues – such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – can form.
AH: Which, considering this is a children’s game at its heart, is a pretty shi* way of doing things. Of course the age demographic it’s mainly targeted towards isn’t going to want the characters to die, so they’re likely to open their parent’s wallet. It’s things like this that make me wish there were some kind of universal laws to prevent it from happening.
Ashley Harrison: It’s things like this that make me wish there were some kind of universal laws to prevent it from happening.
WR: I think we’re getting closer to that reality all the time. After the whole loot box explosion last year, we have seen governments take note – Belgium is even banning loot boxes now! This kind of thing is predatory in nature and remarkably unrestricted. As you alude to, through games, a younger and perhaps more unaware audience can be reached. Lots of games do it with more care, creating a good game and hoping that your enjoyment will lead to you buying more stuff to continue that feeling. Occasionally though, you get one that just throws any subtlety out the window and tells you you won’t have any fun until you pay up. In that sense, Hogwarts Mystery is the Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017) of mobile games.
AH: I’d go as far as saying that Hogwarts Mystery is worse than Battlefront II, personally. At least Battlefront took note of the controversy and removed microtransactions, even if it was at the expense of having to work even more to unlock the previously purchaseable characters. Whereas Hogwarts Mystery, because it’s a mobile game, will be allowed to continue sucking money out of people’s wallets because, let’s face it, it’s what the majority of people expect from mobile games nowadays.
WR: That’s the problem – it’s already raking in millions, being top of the Google Play Store in over 30 countries. An estimated $4 million was made through in-app purchases in the first four days, and that’s only going to continue rising as time goes on (source: androidheadlines). Part of the reason this happens, however, is that it’s so much more lucrative than the model of one payment up front. Nintendo valiantly tried it with Super Mario Run, with a free download but a price of $9.99 for the full game. It was downloaded over 200 million times as of last October, but didn’t meet Nintendo’s “acceptable profit point” (source: destructoid); that’s likely to do with people thinking it’s too high an entry fee, despite it being a lot less than the amount small payments add up to elsewhere. It’s all psychology.
AH: It’s all up to psychology, yes, which means it’s also possible to change the mentality that micro-transactions are better than just one payment up-front. It’ll take time to do so, but it’s certainly possible – and I hope it happens. The thing I don’t understand though is that people are more than happy to drop £9.99 on a single microtransaction within a game, but suddenly when it’s a up-front payment for a full game it’s “too expensive”?
WR: I hope you’re right. Recently released high quality titles that have upfront payments – like romance story Florence – need to be supported. Florence is only £2.99, but even that could be too much for people who demand everything be “free” when they download it. Games press and fans can help by spreading the word – perhaps instead of giving oxygen to the likes of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. Honestly, if you make a decent Harry Potter game with the option for microtransacrions, ala Fortnite or Pokémon Go, people will turn up and pay for more post-game. It’s an easy win, but they just can’t leave it at that, can they? They have to go for every last penny.
AH: I get that game development companies are businesses first and foremost, but it just hurts to see games designed around gabbing as much money as possible. As opposed to being designed for the players, with microtransactions being nothing more than cosmetic or something, like in Overwatch.
WR: Do you think there is a world where the mobile gaming market can improve the ratio of hits and misses? Or is it so flooded, like Steam, that it’s hard for any singular experience to thrive?
AH: I definitely think it’s becoming too flooded like Steam, it’s already a lost cause at this point.
WR: Going back to your earlier point, I think it’s a case of people really trying to recommend the good stuff rather than spending the majority of the time criticising the bad. It’s good to know what to avoid, but it’s perhaps even more crucial to know what to play instead?
William Robinson: It’s good to know what to avoid, but it’s perhaps even more crucial to know what to play instead?
AH: Definitely. Stay away from the bloatware riddled with unnecessary microtransactions, and I’d imagine that there’s some pretty decent games hidden in the mobile game market.
WR: I think this ties into our previous Tanuki Talk on the console and PC market though. As games as a service start to fill more and more of the gaming market, it’s looking like it may go the way of mobile. The traditional model of paying once for a game like Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War am exception rather than a norm. The markets are becoming more and more similar…
AH: And it’s a dangerous world we’ll be living in if that becomes a reality, if you ask me. The mobile and console markets should always remain separate.
WR: At this point, what would it take for you to be interested in a mobile game? An existing property, like with the aforementioned WWE, or can unique experiences appeal to your interests?
AH: Honestly, I just want good games that I don’t have to pay a fee for every 20 seconds. It doesn’t bother me whether it is an existing property or a new game, just don’t make it like the Harry Potter game we were originally discussing, and I’ll give it a go.
WR: Finding the quality is the hard part, but yeah, I’m potentially up for it. However, for me, a big barrier is the platform; it’s the same reason I don’t play PC games much, as looking at a computer or phone screen isn’t as relaxing to me as a TV monitor. I am much more likely to buy these games once they come to consoles, and that tends to filter out a lot of the less impressive ones as well. For example, I recently downloaded A Normal Lost Phone on Switch and have been enjoying that.
AH: I see where you’re coming from, and I agree that looking at a phone screen isn’t as comfortable as a TV. However, I think of mobile gaming as nothing more than a quick time-waster, and want (and expect) games I can just pick up and play for 5 minutes. Although that doesn’t mean I want to sacrifice quality either.
WR: I think that’s possible – take Super Mario Odyssey, which can be played in small bursts and still feel fulfilling. That’s a very high target to reach, but a model like that is what could bring me to a mobile game – Fire Emblem Heroes did that well, with the same gameplay of previous entries in the series but in levels that are a lot quicker to get through. That upcoming Mario Kart Tour mobile game could be something, too.
AH: Yeah, Mario Kart definitely feels like a perfect fit for a mobile game, and Nintendo have smashed the mobile market so far if you ask me, so it’s definitely something I’ll be taking for a spin.
WR: Pun intended?
Ashley Harrison: … Mario Kart definitely feels like a perfect fit for a mobile game…
AH: Pun fully intended.
WR: Nintendo seem to have made games that are high quality and have a massive initial social reaction, but quickly lose that mass conversation. Games such as Fire Emblem Heroes clearly continue making money, but they tend not to be talked about for too long – look at Animal Crossing, or the end of Miitomo.
AH: I think the thing with Nintendo’s mobile games is that, whilst they do get that initial buzz with everyone playing, it’s only the hardcore Nintendo fans that stick around. In the case of Miitomo, I think that was always destined to come to an end sooner rather than later. I mean, let’s be honest, that was clearly Nintendo’s way of getting it’s feet wet on mobile, rather than jumping right in.
WR: Yeah, it was barely a game; more of a social app. Would you like to see Sony, Microsoft or another third-party to tackle that market in a more significant way? The Last of Us Part II mobile exclusive?
AH: … Get out.
WR: Sorry. Seriously, though? A smaller Uncharted, for example?
AH: I personally don’t think an Uncharted game would work, but I’d be willing to be proved wrong. I’d be up for a Halo-inspired Tower Defence style game if Microsoft wanted to get in on the action though.
WR: Halo Wars mobile, perhaps? Then again, Microsoft need to focus on their big Xbox titles at the moment.
AH: That they do. But yeah, Halo Wars Mobile sounds good to me.
WR: As a summary, though – we always somehow manage to find some gem from our ramblings – there is plenty of awful mobile games, but the way to change that is to give more exposure to the good’uns; whether that is small-scale efforts like Florence, or Nintendo’s noble attempts to bring legitimate gaming practices to the platform.
AH: Definitely. There’s an opportunity to save the mobile gaming world, but it’s gonna be a long process.
WR: Ending on such a positive note, after we started talking about virtual children being strangled for money, is pretty impressive if you ask me. Until next week!
AH: Indeed. Until next week!
Tanuki Talk is posted every Monday; for our previous discussions, you can click here!