Tuesday, November 16, 2010

App Disillusionment

I am quickly becoming a disillusioned iPhone gamer. When I first got my hands on the device, I reveled in the myriad of games playable literally at my fingertips. I lauded Flight Controller for its addictive gameplay and charming aesthetic. I joined the chorus of praise for Tiger Style’s Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, in which a compelling story occupied the background of web-construction game. The iPhone 4, with its beautiful retina display, raised my iPhone gaming expectations to new heights. But now my mobile device is drowning under a flood of monotonous puzzle clones. Are iPhone game designers all out of innovation?

Like everyone else in the world, I too had an Angry Birds phase. The puzzle game that has players slinging various types of birds into destructible towers is currently the best selling game on the iPhone - and for good reason. For just 99 cents, Birds comes packed with levels and enough depth to keep players returning for higher scores. It is a great game. It is also just another puzzle game with only the shell of a story attached. In fact, it’s very much like Cut the Rope in that regard, the iOS’s second highest selling game.

I am growing even more tired of never-ending games. Fight Control is great, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I want to actually beat a game, master its mechanics and put it down once and for all. I want to feel like I have accomplished something. Now matter many times I play Canabalt, Doodle Jump, Mega Jump, Train Conductor or any other endless-movement clone, I never feel satisfied. On the contrary, I am beginning to feel toyed with, even exploited. Intoxicating colors fly by while I sit there, waiting for absolutely nothing to happen until I die. I can levy the same complaints against the endless iterations of tower defense games.
Interestingly, I have been finding iOS franchise spin-off games more appealing than most “indy” offerings on the app store. Mirror’s Edge from EA is decent, as is Civilization Revolution. I am not the only one who appreciates traditional games on the iPhone. Sims 3, Oregon Trail, Need for Speed, Madden NFL, Tiger Woods, Assassin’s Creed, and the aforementioned Civilization were all amongst the highest selling iPhone games of last year - the first five in order. These games are likely riding the coat tails of their larger franchise counterparts, but there is something to be said for the reassuring comfort of a traditionally constructed game.

I am hesitant to write off any technical features as an inherent design boundary, but maybe the iPhone/iPod are just not suited for the type of play experiences I miss. Perhaps the iPad will break through the limitations of touch-screen devices. Until then, or until Tiger Style releases their next as yet unannounced game, I will bide my time landing planes, over and over again and over again.


  1. I absolutely agree. I've been oddly addicted to iPhone games for the last few months, but almost every one of them least with an unsatisfied feeling. I have yet to stumble upon anything quite as good as Spider, though oddly, "The Incident" has come pretty close.

  2. My interaction with the iPhone had a similar trajectory. I started with quick, quirky and delightful puzzle games and the like. However, after a while I got bored with them and for a while have been looking for something more. Recently I have turned to some RPG's (Dungeon Hunter, Rhimelands, and the FF remakes) for additional depth. Now I am early awaiting the two promised games from id (Rage) and Epic (Infinity Blade). I hope both games really push the hardware and explore new possibilities for the device.

  3. This post and Richard and Patrick's comments are interesting in light of our recent 3DS conversation. Maybe this means that Nintendo doesn't have as much to worry about as we thought regarding the iPhone platform? That, or perhaps it will become the "hardcore" portable system and settle for smaller, yet dedicated market?

  4. @Scott - That is such a great point. Though, I still balk at buying and carrying around a 3DS when I have the iPhone. I think the reason is that I simply don't NEED all that much portable gaming, since I'm not away from home and bored enough to tire of the iPhone games. Plus, I find that those times are a good opportunity for reading, whether via Instapaper or an actual real live book.

    I suspect that in the near future portable gaming will be seen as a mere distraction while people will view console gaming as the place to find more substantial gaming experiences.

  5. Your post prompted me to think a bit more about this and I am unhappy with my original response. I focused on the necessity to push the hardware (which I still do want to see). After reflection I think the real issue holding back iPhone gaming is the perception of iPhone gaming. People perceive the DS as dedicated gaming devices (probably because they are). The people that play them, it is then assumed, are looking for deep and involving gaming experiences. Whereas, the perception of the iPhone is that it is a phone that you can play games on while in line or when you have a minute or two free. This perception coupled with the expectation that iPhone games must be cheap leads to the creation of distraction games and throwaway experiences (I am not trying to demean brilliant puzzle games like Cut the Rope or Flight Control but ultimately they are not sustaining experiences). I hope, as the iPhone evolves as a platform, that more will be expected of the games. I hope that the deep RPGs the DS is renowned for could be concurrently developed for the DS and iPhone. I hope that the games (at least some of them) will get more expensive. Only after that perception shifts can the iPhone become a deep and sustaining gaming platform.

    Sorry Richard, I guess I am saying that I hope you are wrong about the split between portable and console/PC gaming.

  6. Awesome conversation. I think I'm with Patrick on this one. But it's real hard to peg perception as the problem. It's a chicken-egg problem. Are devs creating "throw-away" games because of their own perceptions or the perceptions of their audience.

    On the subject of mobile gaming, I find a lot of people play the DS at home, just lounging around the house. It's still as sedentary as console gaming, but they approach it perhaps more leisurely.