Adapt or Die: Time to Do the Game Phone Right

One evening, before sitting down to write my column, I saw a little game out of the corner of my eye while browsing the app store. 

Ocean Tower was its name. The promotional artwork brought to mind a favorite game of my childhood: Sim Tower, by developer Yoot Saito. Sim Tower was a primitive Sim game bundled with every classic Macintosh in which the player oversaw the construction of a (potentially) 100-story skyscraper in Tokyo. Although the graphics were minimal, and the people nothing more than black outlines waiting for elevators, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, immersive game. I installed Ocean Tower in the hopes of getting an experience much like that of Sim Tower, but revamped to use the newer graphics and more advanced capabilities of my smartphone.

I really should have known better.

Five minutes of play was enough to realize that this game was similar to most of the offerings that clutter the app store: a slow-paced, bloated piece of shovelware that takes the basic foundations laid by Sim Tower and regresses them three or four steps by making construction take forever, limiting the amount of construction you can do per day, and pushing in-app purchases to remove such restrictions.

This realization launched me into a bit of an existential crisis. It’s not so much that I was disappointed in this one game; rather, I find myself disappointed with all phone games and their respective design philosophy. 

Never before, in the history of gaming, have we, as players, been forced to pay incrementally and regularly to unlock necessary gameplay features as we do now on smartphone games. You might argue, if you are well-informed, that early NES games required the purchase of Nintendo Power magazine in order to understand certain inscrutable puzzles, which might be seen as equivalent to paying for continued game play. I grant that point, but my counter is this: What was once de facto has now become du jour.

To be fair, Ocean Tower did not require me to make in-app purchases in order to use the game. However, it did require me to make such purchases if I wanted to play the game, which is fundamentally different from anything we have known previously. In the original Legend of Zelda, all of the game’s features were there, on the cartridge, not locked. If you were brainy or lucky enough to solve the seemingly impossible dungeon puzzles, you could play and continue the game. Ocean Tower and its ilk differ fundamentally in this respect in that you can literally run out of available play time and be forced to pay if you wish to continue the game at all. This is no different from a parent taking away the controller when a child’s game time is up, except that we, the metaphorical children, can pay for more play time.

How did we get to this state? The answer, in my opinion, is very simple: High-quality developers did not take the smartphone seriously as a gaming platform from the beginning. To be fair, this was not an unwise move from a historical perspective. The Nokia N-Gage failed famously, the Gizmondo was hot on its heels, and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play fared no better. Now, however, the landscape is different. Small independent developers with no love of design or gameplay are flooding a market that is rapidly maturing. The latest batch of top-tier smartphones have specifications that outweigh many laptop computers and are capable of running hugely immersive, extremely high-quality games that can be taken with you on the go. Developers of high-quality games, however, are continuing to stand by and watch as petty, idiotic developers rapidly lock down the smartphone as a casual platform, a wasteland of low-quality content barely on par, from a design perspective, with Atari 2600 games, which force you to pay in order to unlock fundamental gameplay features. To quote that famous “Sonic Sez” PSA: “That’s no good!”

It’s time for large developers to stop ignoring the smartphone as a legitimate platform. The denial stage is over, so it’s time to get angry. Even with the inherently limited controls present on most smartphones, it would still be possible for developers to create 2D and 3D masterpieces that used the immense graphical power of the modern smartphone to their advantage. Ocean Tower could have built upon the foundation laid by Sim Tower, and taken the tower simulation game format forward by introducing feistier NPCs, more types of shops, housing and commerce venues, or … heck, even a 3D graphical makeover would still have taken the medium forward. 

That’s the kind of game I want to play, and the kind that I—and many others, I’m sure—would pay a much higher up-front price to experience firsthand. So to the Nintendos, Sonys, and Segas of the world, it’s time to swallow your pride, abandon your own ships, and make games for the platforms that everyone is already using. Who knows, you might even make some good games in the process.

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