Every so often the pendulum of conversation in eXplorminate’s discussion group swings back towards the topic of mobile gaming. The prevailing attitude appears to be one of skepticism, particularly among those who haven’t really dug into the mobile marketspace directly. Many have the perception that most mobile games are casual, free-to-play (F2P), in-app purchase (IAP) fueled, derivative garbage. Certainly there is plenty of that to go around.
But there are also plenty of “premium” games on mobile platforms. Premium games are those where you pay an up-front price (historically in the $0.99 – $4.99 range, with a few dipping towards $9.99) in order to get access to all the content and features of that game. There are no timers, gems, in-game gold, or other F2P notions clogging up the gameplay. You pay the money, you get the game, full stop.
Despite the existence of premium games, card-carrying members of the PC Master Race (of whom there is likely no shortage within hardcore PC strategy game circles) are often quick to dismiss mobile gaming. Beyond the usual “mobile games are all casual F2P garbage,” there are deeper concerns and criticisms, such as:
- What possible appeal does playing a “serious game” on a mobile device have over playing it on your full-powered PC connected to your glorious three-monitor display? (vibrating rumble chair optional).
- “Serious games” must make too many sacrifices in gameplay and/or must be simplified in order to work on mobile (processing limits, GPU limits, screen space, etc.).
- Mobile trends and pricing spills over and affects the pricing and perception of PC games, often negatively, fueling the whole trend of dumbing down games.
Let’s tackle these one-by-one.
#1 – The allures of serious mobile gaming
The first criticism is, in some respects, one of disbelief. I’ve talked with PC game developers and gamers who indicated that they couldn’t fathom the appeal of playing a serious mobile game on the tiny screen of a smartphone or tablet and slaved to a touch interface. Fair enough.
In our interview with Rocco Bowling, developer of the iOS game Starbase Orion, I asked Rocco about this question in the context of his game. Why make a serious, hardcore strategy game for mobile? His response was quite insightful:
“In my non-scientific, common-sense reckoning of things, as a person develops in their life, more and more things start to take priority. Gamers graduate school, gamers get jobs, gamers have kids. These things take up more and more of their time, leaving less and less time for dedicated gaming. Your 4 hours a night turns into 1 hour a night, which turns into gaming only on Tuesdays. What’s a core gamer like that supposed to do? Quit gaming? Succumb to the inane world that is “casual” mobile gaming? I believe these dedicated, but suddenly very busy, gamers would love to play a core game during the bits and pieces of time they have throughout their day.”
So the first allure is one of convenience (not surprising given we are talking about mobile platforms here). Mobile devices can go anywhere, and the accessibility they provide is unparalleled whether you are waiting in line for 30 minutes, on a 5 hour plane trip, trapped in a hotel on vacation, or hanging out in your living room. As our lives become increasingly busy – and sitting down for hours at a time to play a long game session is increasingly a fading dream – the accessibility of mobile games is appealing.
Furthermore, most mobile games can be opened and launched in a fraction of the time it takes to get a game launched on a PC, where you might have to close down other resource hogging applications, launch Steam, sign-in, etc. So the “barrier to entry” (i.e. booting up a given game) is much lower in mobile than PC, which supports the convenience factor.
Playing a mobile game is not sitting at your desk on your PC, something a lot of people spend their entire workday doing. I can pull out my iPad when sitting on my couch, or next to the fire, or up in bed before I pass out for the night, etc. I’m not beholden to where my computer is setup in order to enjoy a game. Heck, I can play reclining in my hammock in the backyard.
I spend most of my day job with my hands on a keyboard and mouse. While I don’t begrudge having to do more of that when I’m gaming on a PC, there is still a certain ergonomic appeal to playing a game that uses a well designed touch-interface. Touchscreens have their own tactile charms.
When it comes to strategy games, especially turn-based ones, a good touch-interface can be even better than a mouse and keyboard. You don’t have the mouse cursor that needs to be moved around as a single point of interaction. Instead you have 10 fingers that literally press UI buttons and drag things around even more fluidly. I’m not intending to debate that one set of inputs is better than the other (they both have pros and cons), just that they are different and can be appealing to different people under different circumstances.
Multiplayer and Asynchronous Play
One big advantage of playing a game on your smartphone is that you are connected to the internet just about everywhere you go. This is a huge benefit for serious strategy games designed with asynchronous multiplayer gaming in mind (e.g. Starbase Orion). When you couple app notifications (“dude, wake up! It’s your turn!”) with the ability to quickly launch the game and connect to the multiplayer service from anywhere, the pace of play can be greatly accelerated. You don’t have to wait for player #7 to get home from work before they take their turn, they can take it during a lunch break. Given that turns in asynchronous multiplayer games only take a few minutes, such games are perfectly suited to the quick drop-in and drop-out convenience that mobile platforms offer.
Overall, if I have a choice between buying a strategy game (turn-based) for my PC or my iPad, I’ll usually drift towards the latter for all the reasons above. When you think about newer tablets with huge retina displays, holding it 8” in front of your face has about the same effect as being 18” or more away from a much larger monitor. And with a good pair of headphones, I don’t find the overall level of immersion to be any less. Your mileage may vary of course, but I’ll take the flexibility of playing anywhere over being a slave to my desk.
#2 – Serious mobile games don’t have to sacrifice deep gameplay
Consider this: Master of Orion II, released in 1996, ran on computers considerably less powerful than the tiny computer sitting in your pocket right now. Yes, smartphones are faster than full-size computers of older generations (no surprises there). So there is no reason why a smartphone can’t run a game as “complex” and “deep” as MoO2. If you need evidence, consider the full-featured ports of Ascendancy (sadly pulled from the app store), Imperium Galactica II, Haegemonia – Legions of Iron, and XCOM.
These are all complex PC games, which in terms of computing power run perfectly well on mobile devices. Are they as graphically amazing as what a cutting edge PC game can deliver? No, not always – sometimes the graphical effects are turned down a notch. But for many serious strategy gamers, graphics aren’t the driving factor for why we enjoy a particular game. Rather it’s the design and gameplay itself that matters most. Furthermore, recent trends in visual aesthetics (pixel art and low poly or flat-shaded 3D graphics like Massive Chalice) have made the transition to mobile platforms more seamless with little sacrifice in visual fidelity.
The biggest limitation to complex games is likely to be the interface. Conventional PC interface design, especially as the complexity of the game ramps up, doesn’t translate all that well to mobile. The whole UI design needs to be carefully considered by the developers for mobile games, and even more so if the game is going to be cross-platform (more on that later). And there are some cases where the UI, and especially the controls, just don’t work as well on a touch-screen. RTS games and FPS games, where you need both high precision in your aim/focus as well as access to many buttons simultaneously is a challenge for mobile. I’ve tried number of FPS games on mobile and the experience is always greatly diminished.
Yet for every failed attempt to translate a traditional RTS interface (for example) to mobile, there are cases where ingenious solutions have arisen and become a success. For example, the iOS RTS game Autumn Dynasty: Warlords has a beautiful system for drawing and gesturing movement orders to your units, with the units following the path you’ve traced. It’s actually a more organic system for assigning complex movement orders compared to a hard waypoint system that you usually see in PC games.
All that said, I do think there is a divide between strategy games seeking depth by way of complexity (and complicatedness) versus seeking depth by way of simple emergent systems. Games in the former camp strive to provide detailed, high-complexity, simulation-based gameplay. Lots of variety, lots of numbers, lots of nuance and detail. This sort of game (Distant Worlds and Europa Universalis IV come to mind), usually have detailed layers of information and an intricate UI to go along with it. In the other camp are games that strive to keep the systems and complexity low, letting the strategic depth arise from interactions between these simple systems (consider the depth of Go compared to its simple mechanics). Mobile games will probably do better striving towards the latter type of game.
And yet, I was recently playing Alpha Centauri (yes that one) on my iPad Mini. How you might ask? Well, I used a remote desktop application to connect to my PC via my tablet. After mucking about with resolution settings, I got Alpha Centauri working remotely. And you know what? It worked perfectly fine via the touch interface. A long-tap is the equivalent of a right-mouse click and dragging my finger even worked for issuing movement orders. I spent a number of nights lying in my bed playing Alpha Centauri. It was a glorious glimpse at what is possible (and a reminder of how awesome that game still is!)
#3 – Cross-platforming trends
Hopefully the prior two sections have outlined not only why people are interested in serious mobile strategy gaming, but that it is also possible to make deep and engaging mobile games that are on par with PC titles. The final criticism I want to address relates to how the mobile and PC gaming ecosystems are evolving and becoming increasingly entwined as cross-platform gaming takes off. Considering the implications of this in terms of pricing, expectations, level of quality, and development patterns is an important piece of the puzzle.
Let’s begin with an issue that Touch Arcade has written several articles about in the past: expectations of cross-platform games. This is a tricky issue – so let us break it down.
The gist is that PC gamers are quick to jump to the conclusion that in a cross-platform game (dual PC and mobile release) many concessions to gameplay surely must have been made for the game to work on a phone, and surely the game would be much better if it were released just on PC. This notion is, according to some developers, accounting for cross-platform games being judged in a different – often lesser – manner than their PC-only brethren, with the “mobile-ness” of the game being cause to dismiss the game.
Many developers are keenly aware of this issue it seems, which is why Touch Arcade has been following the story. Let’s look at a few case studies. The first one I was aware of concerned the game Race the Sun. This game was designed to be cross-platform all along, but in order to avoid the mobile stigma, they released the game on Steam and Playstation 3 & 4 two years before releasing it on mobile. As a “proper” PC game, the game received ample coverage from major PC game outlets, and favorable reviews from critics and gamers alike. When it jumped to mobile platforms, there was plenty of excitement for this full-featured PC game finally crossing the divide. It was a win-win for the developers.
In another case, consider the recent game Crashlanders. Unlike Race the Sun, Crashlanders was released cross-platform at the same time. As a consequence, much of the criticism from the PC gaming segment swirled around the notion that “yeah, but it’s just a mobile game.” The developers have remarked that next time around they will time their PC release well ahead of a mobile release to try and minimize the perception impact of “mobile games must be inferior.” Thanks PC Master Race.
To be fair, I can imagine that there are concessions to be made in making a game cross-platform. The UI issues I referenced above are one such instance. The problem, however, is that making concessions from one perspective doesn’t automatically mean making a worse game or even a shallower one. It might mean that designing and developing an equally deep game is harder, and perhaps that is why we see so few examples of successful cross-platform games. But they are out there.
Troy’s eXposition on the price of games provides a compelling look at pricing segments for PC games. As I touched on earlier, the mobile environment has its own pricing levels. Back in the early days, most mobile apps were one price: $0.99. Occasionally, a game was a few bucks more, but most were pretty cheap.
Gradually, there grew a divergence in the Force. The vast majority of mobile games went free-to-play (F2P or “freemium”) as developers and publishers realized the money to be made from tapping into the spending habits of “whales.” Whales are individuals who pour relatively vast sums of money into F2P games, indirectly supporting all the free players and netting more revenue overall. Other developers took a different approach and doubled-down on developing and releasing premium games. At this point, I feel like the typical price for a new premium mobile title hovers around four or five dollars, although an increasing number of games are crossing the $10 mark.
As the price of premium mobile games inches upwards, and the price of PC titles inches downwards (a consequence of frequent high discount sales), I feel like the marketplaces are heading towards a messy collision. The recent release of Planar Conquest is an interesting case in point. On iOS the game sells for $12.99 with an additional $20 IAP to unlock all the content. That’s a $33 dollar game on iOS, and will presumably be priced similarly when it launches on Steam.
I can’t help but feel the perceptions of the respective groups are at odds with one another. Mobile gamers are generally very enthusiastic about Planar Conquest. They seem unphased by the steep price because finally there is a big robust 4X game on mobile. But already the PC gamers are grumbling quite vociferously about the pricing strategy for the PC game (should it follow the same approach) and having to pay so much for a game that is a re-issue of the soon-to-be “abandoned” Worlds of Magic. Wastelands Interactive has already signaled a change as a result of the pressure. Dangerous times indeed.
On a personal level, I find the pricing strategy used in Planar Conquest to be rather compelling in concept. You can get a sampling of the a game for less than the full price, and if you like it, then decide whether to purchase the full package. PC gaming used to have this same thing a long time ago in galaxy far, far away: the demo. You used to actually be able to download (or get on CD) a demo version of a game to try before deciding to buy it. This was a great way to see whether the game would even run on your computer or whether you liked the game in the first place. The days of developers sticking their necks out there by risking a demo are (mostly) over.
How paradoxical is it that mobile games adopting a pricing model like Planar Conquest’s, which is closer to this old demo notion, are lambasted by the PC crowd? Yet this same PC crowd has become increasingly tolerant and supportive of DLC add-ons for games as a means to add content and support the life of a favorite game (which often looks similar to the IAP schemes used in mobile apps). I’m unsure what the outcome of all of this will be.
Wrap-Up & Recommendations
Phew! That was heavy.
For my part, I’ll continue to be interested in serious mobile strategy games, because I enjoy playing such games on my iPad. If given the choice between PC or iOS, my natural tendency is to always get it on iOS first – if it’s available. I simply find it more enjoyable to sit back and interact with a great strategy game through the touch and mobile interface in the comfort of whatever chair or position strikes my fancy. Granted, not all games lend themselves to mobile platforms, and that’s perfectly fine.
I secretly hope that the collision of platforms doesn’t result in the dumbing down of games, but rather in making better games. Constraint drives innovation and all that. The challenge of course is that it is much harder (I imagine) to make a deep and engaging cross-platform strategy game than a dedicated PC game. And then you still have to contend with the mobile game stigma.
I want to end this article with a curated list of sorts. This list includes premium mobile titles in the strategy/tactical game realm that I think are worth looking at. If you are a serious PC gamer and haven’t really given a hard look at what serious mobile games are available, let this be a starting point. I’ve noted whether games are available on iOS or Android.
Some great (IMHO) mobile titles:
Starbase Orion ($7.99, no IAP, iOS) I’ll be writing an article about this game at some point. This is a mobile version of MoO2 of sorts, with some amazing design innovations. As a MoO-like 4X game, it’s one of the best I’ve played on any platform.
Autumn Dynasty: Warlords ($6.99, no IAP, iOS) Practically a Total War style 4X game. Build up an empire across provinces, conduct espionage and diplomacy missions, real-time tactical combat, progressive battle-invasion mechanics, provincial development, research, etc. Quite a robust game.
Super Tribes (Free, $3 IAP to unlock all extra factions, iOS) This is an amazing micro-4X game. Features all the usual trappings (exploration, city development, strategic combat like Civ V) but in a miniaturized form. Great level of polish.
First Strike ($3.99, no IAP iOS + Android) This is a pretty innovative RTS game about nuclear war. Great example of using touch controls and streamlined design to nonetheless create a deep and challenging game.
Civilization Revolution for iPad ($6.99, iOS) This is pretty much a lite-version of a Playstation Civ game. Still has good-old unit stacking. It has about $15 bucks worth of IAP add-ons for extra content. None of those are necessary unless you really like the game. Note: I don’t recommend Civilization Revolution “2” … It’s the same game but with worse (IMHO) 3D assets and some other poorly done stuff. Stick with the original version.
Full-featured ports of PC games on iOS:
King of Dragon Pass ($9.99, no IAP, iOS + Android)
FTL ($9.99, no IAP, iOS)
This War of Mine ($14.99, no IAP, iOS + Android)
Banner Saga ($4.99, no IAP, iOS + Android)
Ultimate General: Gettysburg ($2.99, no IAP, iOS)
Frozen Synapse ($9.99, iOS)
XCOM: Enemy Within ($9.99, no IAP, iOS + Android)
Dungeon of the Endless ($1.99, no IAP, iOS)
Crowntakers ($1.99, one IAP add-on, iOS + Android Tablets)
Note: I’m not covering mobile adaptations of board games just yet.