THE STATE OF GAMING 2015
The week of March 1, 2015
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The unstoppable rise of mobile gaming

By Dennis Scimeca

If you watched the Super Bowl this year, you inadvertently witnessed video game history being made. First, supermodel Kate Upton took an ethereal stroll across a battlefield to plug Game of War. Then, Liam Neeson delivered a threatening monologue to an opponent in Clash of Clans.

Neither game appears on PlayStation, Xbox, or PC—and that’s exactly what made the commercials so noteworthy. Game of War and Clash of Clans are mobile games designed for smartphones and tablets. Their costly moment in the spotlight during the biggest sporting event in America underscored just how large and financially lucrative the audience for mobile games has become.

Mobile gaming has become ubiquitous in popular culture, maybe even more so than its traditional PlayStation and Xbox console gaming counterpart. Just think about how many hours you wasted playing the frustratingly difficult Flappy Bird, which is becoming a full-size arcade game, or how much money you spent chasing cheap fame in the runaway blockbuster Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.

Some of mobile gaming the popularity undoubtedly comes from its accessibility. Anyone with a smartphone (which is practically everyone) can get hooked, without needing to invest in games and consoles. There are droves of smartphone and tablet owners who play Angry Birds and Clash of Clans who may never pick up a console control pad.

Mobile gaming, however, isn’t a replacement for the traditional video game industry—though that sort of oppositional relationship is often what surfaces in discussions: Core gamers often decry mobile games as being too simplistic, while industry analysts argue that mobile devices may someday replace game consoles entirely. But If you look at the way mobile video game design is bleeding back into traditional game design, it paints a more accurate—and exciting—picture. These are complementary industries, not competing ones, and that conclusion is becoming increasingly obvious.

The exchange of ideas between the two suggests that mobile gaming may ultimately be responsible for the final push that brings down longstanding stereotypes and divisions within the traditional video game industry. Hugely popular and successful games on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are starting to behave like games designed for mobile devices—and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Yesterday’s gamers, today’s parents

Angry Birds has become the go-to reference point for mobile games, but the industry existed and thrived long before smartphones were on the marketplace.

It’s not that mobile games are better than they used to be. It’s that mobile games are now easier to find, download, and play.

“You could easily argue that mobile was in a much healthier state pre-iOS,” said journalist Keith Andrew, an eight-year veteran of mobile games reporting and former editor of PocketGamer.biz. “Yes, there were a lot less people developing games on it, but the audience was sizeable, it was happy to pay $3-5 for a game and a larger portion of those working on mobile titles were turning a profit. I suspect there are many developers working on iOS now that miss those days.”

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Andrew suggests that what changed between then and now is the advent of distribution services like the App Store and Google Play. It’s not that mobile games are better than they used to be. It’s that mobile games are now easier to find, download, and play.

“A large portion of the creatives now working at Rovio, Supercell, and the like initially made their name at other Finnish studios like Mr. Goodliving, Digital Chocolate, and others pumping out some really decent Java games,” Andrew said. “Looking back, you can see the qualities that have pushed them to the top of iOS and Android were present and correct back then, too.”

Among the most important of those qualities is playability on the go. In traditional gaming, you might dedicate an hour, or several hours, to playing through a level or at least a sizeable chunk of the game to feel like you’ve accomplished something. Mobile gaming, designed to be played in short, satisfying sessions, better meshes with a busy schedule, especially as yesterday’s gamers grow up into today’s parents and career-minded adults.

“That’s often dismissed by console and PC gamers and even journalists as being trivial, but for me, it’s one of the hardest things to do—to make something ridiculously fun that anyone can take on and doesn’t need to be played for hours and hours before you get to the ‘good bit,’” Andrew said. “Generating an emotional reaction from someone in a few seconds, like the best mobile games do, is something to be celebrated, not undermined.”

The casual, hardcore gamer

Florian Schwarzer is the senior mobile producer at Paradox Interactive, a company that made its name as a developer of extremely complicated PC strategy games. These are the kind of immersive games you’d never expect to see on mobile devices.

Schwarzer came from a background of producing mostly free-to-play and mobile games before taking his position at Paradox. The company wanted someone who could take a closer look at Paradox’s portfolio of games, both those already on mobile devices and those developed for the PC, to see how the company could get more strategy games onto smartphones and tablets.

Schwarzer did the opposite. He took a pixel art role-playing game that Paradox had published on mobile in 2012 called Knights of Pen and Paper and helped Paradox release a PC version of the game called Knights of Pen and Paper +1 a year later. It’s not uncommon PC or game console games adapted for mobile. It is uncommon to see a mobile game adapted for PC.

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Knights of Pen and Paper +1 has performed well enough to warrant an expansion, Knights of Pen and Paper – Haunted Fall, in 2014. That an adaptation of a mobile game could garner favor from a PC audience belies the suggestion that mobile gaming and traditional “hardcore” gaming exist on opposite poles of a spectrum.

“I was just personally starting to play less and less console games because I just didn’t have time to go sequester myself in the basement where the console was.”

“To me one of the most interesting definitions of [hardcore gamer] I read a few years ago was that a hardcore gamer is somebody who is willing to build his time around gaming, whereas a casual gamer is somebody who slips in gaming where there is time,” Schwarzer said. “The interesting thing about Knights of Pen and Paper, I thought … was that it is a game that is very much one for hardcore gamer sensibilities … but what [the developers] acknowledged and what they respected very much is that even such players are on the go sometimes.”

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Traditionally when pundits talked about “hardcore” gamers and “casual” gamers, the dividing line was the types of games people play. Someone who played Farmville, for instance, might be a casual gamer because Farmville represents practically no skill challenge whatsoever. Call of Duty, on the other hand, requires practiced hand-eye coordination and controller skills that make the game almost inaccessible to casual players. It’s a textbook example of a hardcore game.

Schwarzer’s perspective suggests that we can view the gaming audience not by the types of games but by how much time people have to play games. Even with limited time, there are players who want to enjoy titles that have the sensibilities of what we traditionally have called hardcore games. We’re increasingly seeing developers who are making mobile games targeted specifically at this “casual, hardcore audience.”

A new type of first-person shooter

Midnight Star, a shooter game released for iOS in February, exemplifies this new trend in gaming. It was developed by Industrial Toys, a company cofounded by Alex Seropian. Seropian is also the cofounder of Bungie, a development studio whose name is instantly recognizable to any traditional gamer as the studio behind Halo, the veritable poster child for traditional gaming: a first-person shooter about a supersoldier who kills aliens to save humanity.

Seropian’s path to thinking about mobile game development is itself emblematic of the changing gaming audience. In his previous position at Disney Interactive Studios, he managed about 700 people from several different game development studios that worked on big-budget, traditional games. Seropian left the position in 2012 to found Industrial Toys.

“I was just personally starting to play less and less console games because I just didn’t have time to go sequester myself in the basement where the console was,” Seropian told the Kernel. “I was playing more on my iPad, because that is what was accessible to me. And we were starting to see the adoption of smartphones, and the App Store was starting to hit its stride, and there were cultural things happening with the games coming out like Angry Birds … and I realized that I was playing games on iPad and iPhone and there weren’t a lot of games being made that seemed like they were being made for gamers.”

Midnight Star is a game very much drawn from the mold of Halo. The player is a soldier in a human military unit, fighting aliens and trying to save humanity from destruction. Gameplay mostly revolves around shooting enemies by tapping targets on an iPhone or iPad touchscreen, with bonuses awarded for precision aiming and other demonstrations of skill.

“I play games on my Xbox, I play games on my PlayStation, I play games on my PC, and I play lots of games on my phone, and my tablet, you know? And I see no distinction between them.”

Midnight Star is not a traditional first-person shooter. Virtual joysticks on touchscreens simply cannot replicate the precise control required for accurate shooting. There are some barriers between traditional and mobile games that may prove impenetrable in the long run. Instead, Midnight Star is more like an on-rails shooting gallery, and the player can turn left and right to track new targets.

But those are mechanical concessions. The other adaptations required to bring a Halo-like game to mobile devices demonstrate the needs and sensibilities of the casual, hardcore gamer. For instance, big-budget games usually tell their stories via elaborate cinematic cutscenes, and cutscenes take time to watch.

“We expect people want to be able to [play] shorter sessions [compared to Xbox games] when they’re on mobile devices,” Seropian said. “And they may still want the story, but we decided to take a lot of our story stuff out of the game and put it into … a graphic novel that connects to the game.” The Midnight Star graphic novel, Midnight Rises, which is free on the App store, was written by famed science fiction author John Scalzi.

Where a game like Halo or Call of Duty might be built around levels that take 30 to 45 minutes to complete, Midnight Star builds its core gameplay around shooting gallery challenges that may take fewer than five minutes. The game also gives players many opportunities to save and quit without losing their progress.

“Our game is a shooter, and it’s designed to elicit the same kinds of responses and endorphins that we’d attribute to a shooter on a console, but the means by which we go about doing that are very different,” Seropian said. “Our approach has been to make the core game loops shorter and to string as many together as the player wants.”

The advantage of mobile

Midnight Star is noteworthy as one of the most recent attempts by a development team with traditional bona fides to bring a game with traditional sensibilities to mobile devices. It follows in the footsteps of Infinity Blade, released by Chair Entertainment, a subsidiary of Epic Games, in 2010. Infinity Blade is arguably the first game that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that any perceived conflict between traditional games and mobile games was not only false, but bad business to propagate.

Epic Games is the developer of the Unreal Engine, software that serves as the heart of a video game, tying together the art, sounds, physical level design, and even artificial intelligence routines to produce the final product. Unreal Engine is one of the most frequently used game engines in the industry. When Epic Games informed Chair Entertainment in 2010 that the newest version of Unreal Engine had been made to run on iOS devices, Epic also asked Chair to create the very first game to run Unreal Engine on an iPhone.

Mobile gaming, designed to be played in short, satisfying sessions, better meshes with a busy schedule.

Chair had made a name for itself with a game called Shadow Complex, a gritty platformer/shooter made for the traditional market. The studio had been noodling with an idea about developing a sword-fighting game for either Microsoft’s Kinect sensor or Nintendo’s Wii console, while in preproduction for Shadow Complex 2. When Epic came to Chair asking for an Unreal Engine iOS game, Chair quickly realized that the sword-fighting idea was perfect for a touchscreen device.

“I’d been, on my own, been surprised myself at how much I was playing mobile games at that point,” Donald Mustard, cofounder and creative director at Chair Entertainment, told the Kernel. “I was playing Sword and Poker a ton, I was playing different tower-defense games. I really enjoyed gaming on mobile and I couldn’t believe it, because I’m a console gamer, right? I was surprised how much I was turning towards my mobile device.”

Infinity Blade is a blend of high fantasy and science fiction, a story about a family of heroes fighting giant monsters and attempting to dethrone a cruel warlord. It’s also a game about dodging, parrying, and counter-striking in vicious, bloody, close-quarters melee combat. The game is broken into bloodlines, measured from the very first battle outside a fortress to the very last battle in the heart of that fortress where the player is almost always struck down by the warlord.

InfinityBlade_iPad

Then, a new bloodline begins. The player finds himself outside the fortress again, in the role of a descendant of the previous warrior who carries all the equipment and skills of his predecessor. It sounds precisely like a description of any number of traditional video games, but the plan was never to make a traditional game for a mobile device.

“We didn’t say what I think a lot of developers at the time were doing, which some still do, [which was] ‘How can we take a console experience and put it on mobile?’” Mustard told the Kernel. “But instead what we said was, ‘What can we do on mobile that you couldn’t do on a console? Or that you wouldn’t do on a console?’ And instead of trying to shoehorn in console controls or shoehorn in console methodologies or principles, we tried to look at the device and say, ‘What can this device do that’s different?’”

The sword-fighting moves were conveyed via swipes and taps on the touchscreen, versus attempts to make simulated joysticks. When it came to the structure of the game, it wasn’t so much the device that was different, but how differently players used smartphones for gaming, versus the way they used consoles.

“I’d be like ‘OK, it’d be really good if in Infinity Blade if I could theoretically smite a guy while I was in line at the grocery store,’” Mustard said. “And so we tried to make the average, single battle length 90 seconds to two minutes.”

The length of one bloodline, or one playthrough from outside of the warlord’s fortress to the final battle, was set between 12 and 18 minutes. All of this meant that players not only had the ability to jump out of the game every two minutes or so, but they could also complete a satisfying chunk of gameplay every 20 minutes.

For many gamers in the traditional sphere, Infinity Blade was a wakeup call to the potential for gaming on mobile devices, strictly on account of the fidelity of the graphics. Traditional gamers who picked up Infinity Blade didn’t realize the de facto subversion taking place. They were being taught a new set of rules—the rules of mobile gaming—and Mustard believes those rules have now gone full circle and begun seeping into the design of games on traditional platforms.

“Look at Destiny. Forget the critical reaction to Destiny, look at the commercial viability,” Mustard said. “Destiny is a huge property that is extremely successful. It has millions and millions of players, playing every single day, and is going to sustain itself for many years. Already, structurally, Destiny is much more like a successful mobile title than a traditional console game.”

Destiny—the new first-person shooter franchise developed by Seropian’s old company, Bungie, and published by gaming powerhouse Activision—allows players to complete satisfying activities in the space of up to 20 minutes.

Games like Destiny and Warframe demonstrate how any concept of a true division between casual and hardcore gaming, or mobile and console gaming, is increasingly difficult to argue.

“They’re now having some issues, because they very early on adopted a very aggressive, mobile-like release strategy,” Mustard said. “The game came out, they were doing weekly or bi-weekly updates, a big update three months later, they have their entire gaming base now on that schedule … expecting a big content update in March, which now [Bungie has] said is going to be a month or two later. People are like ‘What? How dare you take four months between a big content update!’ Three years ago, there wouldn’t have been console games having all of these content updates. And now it’s expected to be on a mobile release cycle for this big game to sustain itself.”

Mustard thinks Destiny will ultimately be more successful than a traditional, eight-hour-long first-person shooter, owing to this sort of release strategy. Another example of a game on traditional platforms adopting mobile design methodology would be Warframe, a third-person action shooter developed by Digital Extremes, a studio that was once partnered with Epic Games in the development of the Unreal first-person shooter franchise.

Warframe is free-to-play and features updates that are amazingly frequent compared to traditional games of the past. Digital Extremes in December released data that the game was sometimes updated more than three times a week, and on Feb. 7, the studio revealed that Warframe has 14 million players. While Warframe sounds very much like a mobile game in terms of update frequency and play session structure, it is developed and published for the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Destiny and Warframe are games designed explicitly for traditional platforms, but have adapted to the sensibilities of mobile gaming. Or, to put it another way, they serve the “casual, hardcore” audience just as well as the traditional audience that video games have historically attempted to serve. Games like Destiny and Warframe demonstrate how any concept of a true division between casual and hardcore gaming, or mobile and console gaming, is increasingly difficult to argue.

“Game-capable mobile devices outnumber consoles by a ridiculous amount—Apple sold more iPhone 6 and 6 Plus’ in its first week [10 million units] than Sony sold PS4s in its first year [4.2 million units],” Andrew said. “If you want to compare the two markets, then mobile already wins. However, it’s a foolish thing to do—these are two sectors that are converging, yes, but they’re in no way in competition with each other.”

“I’m a gamer,” Mustard said. “I play games on all viable platforms. I play games on my Xbox, I play games on my PlayStation, I play games on my PC, and I play lots of games on my phone, and my tablet, you know? And I see no distinction between them. I have no problem shifting from playing Hearthstone on my iPad to playing Destiny on my Xbox. There aren’t necessarily these barriers. As mobile matures, and as console matures, the line is getting blurry.”

Illustration by J. Longo