While it may seem obvious it does feel like it’s worth pointing this out: mobile games are not like other games. They’re not worse – it’d be frankly ridiculous to claim such a thing – but they are different. People often play them in a different context, stereotypically getting in a short burst while they’re on the bus or sitting on the loo. There’s also the matter of touchscreens to contend with, an input mechanism that really doesn’t gel all that well with traditional, controller-based games.
There are, of course, physical controllers that work with your mobile device of choice, but using these to emulate the way that games have pretty much always been played seems a bit pointless. A phone is portable, it easily fits in your pocket and for many people it’s pretty much always within reach. We’ve never had a platform for games that is quite as ubiquitous as the phone, and building games that require you to take a controller with you completely belies the advantages the form factor offers.
This particularly annoys me when some classic franchises appear on mobile, with companies simply porting over games that were never designed to work with on screen controls. Rarely, if ever, do these kind of ports provide an experience that comes anywhere close to the original. Sure, there are fans who flood developers and publishers with requests to bring their favourite classics to mobile, but the ports themselves are usually far wide of the mark when compared to the original.
What’s sent me down this train of thought was playing Lara Croft Go, the second entry in Square Enix’s series of Go games on mobile. While Hitman Go was a good game as a first attempt at this style of game and I was particularly fond of its board game styling, I think it’s safe to say that Lara Croft Go improves on it in every way. It fits into Tomb Raider series effortlessly, drawing on the style and settings of the pre-reboot titles perfectly. It even nods nicely to the games it draws its inspiration from by providing unlockable skins from some classic levels; currently I’m playing in the outfit that Lara wore during Tomb Raider 3’s Area 51 level.
What really works here is that Square Enix has built a game that is perfect for mobile within the world of Tomb Raider. There’s still simple lever pulling puzzles to solve and Lara’s classic dual pistols, but everything is controlled by incredibly simple swipe controls, and the move to turn based gameplay along predefined paths makes the game ideal for playing on mobile when the distractions of the world around you often abound. Playing a fast and frantic game where you need to kill a giant spider before it takes you out is all well and good when you’re at home on a console, but it can easily get frustrated when you have to pull the trigger as your train pulls into the stop you want.
However, Square Enix can also be the one of the worst offenders for digging through their back catalogue and pushing poor ports to mobile with little attention paid to the control scheme. The Go games show that they know there is a better way, and there are other companies who have also shown a willingness to adapt to mobile, rather than simply exploiting the market with a shoddy port.
Take Ubisoft for example. Anyone who’s played Rayman Jungle Run or Fiesta Run knows that those games are superb examples of how to use an existing IP well on mobile. Not only do they capture the aesthetic of Rayman games well, they build Rayman’s pre-existing powers into a rather good auto-runner that emulates the series’ platforming heritage well without expecting you to perform the kind of precision platforming that simply doesn’t work well on a touchscreen.
On the smaller scale we’ve also got Team Meat producing Super Meat Boy: Forever, a platformer built specifically for touchscreen devices. This is clearly going about things in the right way, as the computer and console version of Super Meat Boy would be near impossible to port onto phones with a control scheme that was even vaguely playable. It’s hard enough to get the required combination of speed and precision on a console controller, so attempting the same thing on a touchscreen would just be asking for trouble.
If a developer that size is willing to go out and produce a version of their game built from the ground up from mobile, instead of slapping virtual d-pads and the like over the top of their existing game, then is it too much to ask that huge publishers to the same? Certainly, there are examples like Lara Croft Go and Rayman Jungle Run, but these feel like the exception to the rule. I know it must be tempting to go for the easy cash grab, but ultimately all this really does is damage your brand, the good will within your customer base and makes you look cheap. Is that really worth it?
Lovely article, Kris and it raises many good points. My only exception is one of a technical nature. Mobile gaming could well be “worse” simply because of everything you’ve mentioned. It’s a relatively new platform and devs are still getting to grips with it. Why some of them are still fighting against the lack of buttons instead of embracing what it does have, is beyond me.
Both “GO” games are true testament to how well things can go for mobile gaming. I enjoyed Hitman and I’ll be picking this up shortly too.
I feel that when the devs finally (REALLY) start catering for the mobile devices instead of shoehorning home/hand-held titles into a touch-screen only affair, we’ll all be better off. :-)
Nice article Kris. I like the odd ported game, as long as they’re cheap and work well enough to complete. Tony Hawks on iOS was impressive but too tricky to progress in, I’m sure others are just as frustrating but hold nostalgic appeal. They have their place amongst a wide offering.