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Can Anyone Legitimize Mobile Gaming?

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By Nelson Schneider - 10/13/19 at 04:08 PM CT

Mobile gaming is a massive, multi-billion dollar industry, yet it has been a plague upon the world since its very inception. While a few Japanese developers, like my once-beloved Square-Enix, tried to migrate traditional gaming to the mobile space of feature phones via cheap episodic titles like “Final Fantasy 4: The After Years,” which originally released in February 2008, it wasn’t until the iPhone App Store and Google Play (formerly known as the Android Market) came blazing onto the scene later that same year that the modern concepts of the smart phone and the app were truly born.

In spite of the huge amount of money mobile gaming generates, it is well-known among Core Gamers as a hive of scum and villainy. Mobile versions of beloved IPs like ‘Diablo’ are met with heckling and derision. We’ve caught onto the fact that mobile games are shallow imitations of the ‘real’ games we care about, with cynical monetization tacked on. Hell, even non-game software, like CCleaner, include annoying monetization via ads and optional ransom payments to remove said ads (for a while, at least). Every single aspect of mobile gaming – which comes in 5 dominant flavors – is finely-tuned to extract as much revenue as possible, while providing as little value as possible in return.

But does it really have to be this way? No… and yes.

There have been attempts at legitimizing mobile gaming into more than just predatory, cash-siphoning apps for a long time now. OUYA tried to transform the Android mobile platform into an ecosystem dedicated to Indie games… but it failed miserably. Nvidia, the GPU maker, tried to bring Core-style PC games to the Android mobile platform via its Shield line of microconsoles and cross-platform streaming… an effort which has stagnated, even as the hardware itself ages into obsolescence.

More recently, Nintendo has been hailed by its legions of blind fanboys as the would-be Messiah of mobile gaming, with its mobile-chipset-powered and touchscreen-enabled Switch. Yet, in spite of the fanboys declaring that every despised behavior Nintendo copies from elsewhere is somehow that behavior ‘done right,’ the conversions of its IPs to the mobile platform definitely aren’t. Are the shallow “Super Mario Run,” the infinitely repetitive “Pokemon GO,” or the macrotransaction-laden “Fire Emblem Heroes” really an improvement over the mobile games that came before them? I’m inclined to agree with rotund gaming pundit, Jim Sterling, in his assessment that Nintendo doesn’t see mobile gaming as anything more than a way to advertise the ‘real’ games available on their exclusive hardware, and thus isn’t actually trying to improve or legitimize it in any way.

Most recently, we’ve got the Apple fanboys declaring that Apple Arcade, the $5/month subscription service which offers a large rental library of curated games, will legitimize mobile gaming. While it is true that the curated library offered by Apple Arcade (and the slightly-distorted photocopy of Apple Arcade known as Google Play Pass, which appeared roughly 5 minutes after Apple Arcade was revealed) feature games without ads, macrotransactions, or other predatory guff – games that actually resemble (or are ports of) the Core Games that Core Gamers want – I can’t help but chafe at the idea of paying $5/month in perpetuity to access games that should be $5/title to own. Neither platform is offering the type of big “AAA” games that can be found on competing (and more expensive) subscription services like Microsoft’s Gamepass, but are instead trying to transform the Indie games ecosystem from a purchase model to a subscription model.

Trusting in Apple and/or Google to legitimize mobile gaming through the co-option and corruption of Indie games seems to embody the proverbial foxes guarding the proverbial henhouse. Apple and Google are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place. If not for the heavy-handed advertising and monetization they encouraged app developers to employ, mobile gaming may not have traveled down the dark and sordid path that it did. Prior to the advent of smart phones and app stores, there were LOTS of free programs – including games – available for use on Windows and Linux and even Mac OS that didn’t have ads or in-app purchases, and there was even more software out there that people could just buy outright.

Crazy, right?

Was the entire misbegotten experiment with Freemium trash, in-app ads, and in-app macrotransactions just a cynical diversion? Was it a deconstruction of the simple and traditional exchange of goods/services for money, all in preparation for a time when people would be so sick and tired of it that they would look at a perpetual subscription as some sort of reprieve? A breath of less-stagnant air? We should never underestimate the corporate world’s ability to play the long game, even as they scramble desperately for immediate profits.

I still hold some small gimmer of hope that someone out there can and will eventually legitimize mobile gaming. Once the customer base is as fed-up with paying an ever-increasing monthly subscription fee (and you can count on the fact that neither Apple Arcade nor Google Play Pass will stay $5/month for long) as they are with Freemium shenanigans, someone will stumble upon the ‘revolutionary’ and ‘game-changing’ idea of simply selling copies of software to people at reasonable prices. I don’t know who that someone will be, but they’ll finally bring us full circle… and then the entire debacle can start all over again on the next new hardware platform.

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