as a hardcore gamer i’m always on the lookout for great gaming experiences, and although i still have almost zero interest in actually owning a smartphone i recently decided to spend a bit more time getting acquainted with the games available on it. i’ve watched friends of mine play games that look completely pointless and stupid, including an assortment of generic pinball and match-3 games, cube runner, and the mammoth hit angry birds. regarding the latter, it’s not surprising that i have little interest in it since i hated the similarly physics-based wii game boom blox, but in any case despite my misgivings i tried to approach the exploration with as open a mind as i could under the circumstances.
i downloaded two games completely randomly and picked two that the iphone app store had on their “most popular” list and were free at the time. line runner is apparently by an austrian outfit called djinnworks and according to their site their games “have been downloaded more than 25 million times” and they have “produced many games ranking constantly in the top 100 paid worldwide”.
the game itself is exceedingly simple and easy to pick up. a little stick figure runs continuously to the right at a fairly good speed and you have to make him dodge obstacles as he goes. your only two controls are to jump by pressing on the left side of the screen (you can hold longer to jump longer), and roll by pressing on the right. there are ten courses, but there don’t seem to be any differences to them in terms of the pacing or the goals, just varied layouts of the obstacles.
after giving the game a decent chance, i was left exceedingly unimpressed. a minimalistic game like this could succeed if everything were spot-on, but i found that the main problem was with the basic setup itself. [i’m going to take a moment to indulge into some gameplay analysis, so feel free to skip the following paragraph.] there are three options when dodging: rolling to duck, jumping, and long jumping. the latter two are very distinct in terms of making your way through the course, but the gradient between what is a “short” vs a “long” jump doesn’t at all justify making that action exist on a continuous scale (which is dependent on how long the player has been holding down the control). it would have been preferable to have the two mapped to two distinct actions. but actually the crux of the problem is that at the pace the game plays out the decision between when to do a short vs a long jump itself is needlessly complicated as it is, and getting rid of the long jump entirely would have made the game much more playable.
aside from my armchair critic analysis, the bottom line is that the game just isn’t fun to play. the graphics are serviceable for what it is and the lack of music is an acceptable design decision, but even given the game developers’ minimal effort there are so many small additions that would have gone a long way to making for a more enjoyable experience; even something as simple as indications illustrating progress (e.g. whenever you reach another 100 points) would have helped. as it is this is a game that i’m astounded that people would want to play for the amount of time it would take to achieve the world’s top scores, of which there is a perhaps not surprisingly long list.
in my random sampling i also tried out a game called mr. ninja by a japanese company called ponos. now here’s where things get more interesting: the game is actually very well made. the premise is simple (check out gamepro’s glowing review for details), and it’s simple to pick up and play. the “theme and fun” is good (ninja vs aliens; what’s not to love?), and the graphics, music, and gameplay are surprisingly polished, and i can’t fault it for being what it is: a quick diversion that only costs a buck. however, the game still feels utterly disposable, and i don’t feel like my life has been enriched in any significant way from playing it.
which brings me to the whole question of the value of games and the future of handheld gaming. nintendo CEO satoru iwata has discussed the issue several times and i think this excerpt from nintendo’s financial briefing from april 2011 is worth reprinting in full:
As I emphasize again and again, if there was a causal relationship, there would be a significant difference between Nintendo DS users who play social games and Nintendo DS users who do not play social games, or a significant difference between Nintendo DS users who play games on smartphones and Nintendo DS users who do not play games on smartphones. For example, if we discover that users who play social games are not playing with Nintendo DS as much anymore, or if there is a decline in how many games they buy in a year, we would need to start believing that there is a causal relationship because, no matter what I think, we would have actual proof, but if we cannot find any proof, the assumption that there is a causal relationship may not be correct.
I have mentioned that we are researching the gaming population in Japan and the United States, and at the same time, we have also researched whether respondents play social games, have smartphones, or play games on smartphones. As for the use rate of Nintendo DS, we have not found any significant differences. I can not say that no one said, “I recently stopped playing Nintendo DS because I am now playing games on my smartphone,” but statistically, there was no significant difference.
as iwata says, the media repeatedly claims that the rise of smartphone gaming is going to threaten or even obliterate the handheld gaming market, but based on my limited experience i don’t see that happening anytime soon. the gap between these smartphone games and the ones that i want to play is so tremendous right now that core gamers at least will continue to keep the gaming market afloat, even in the handheld market space. i think it remains to be seen if casual users will end up preferring “disposable” games to deeper experiences, but the question may become moot as more devices take a hybrid smartphone/gaming console approach like the upcoming PS vita.
in any case, it’s definitely an interesting time in video game history. coincidentally, while i was exploring smartphone gaming (which, incidentally, i haven’t completely given up on) i was also playing a set of similarly simplistic games that also made me really appreciate high-quality game design and the value of games. more on that in my next post.