After Flappy Bird, what’s next for mobile gaming?

Screenshot of BIT.TRIP.BEAT Image credit: AKSYS GAMES
Screenshot of Flappy Bird Image credit: Ami Thomas
Screenshot of Dungeon Keeper Image credit: EA Games
Screenshot of Super Hexagon Image credit: Terry Cavanagh
Screenshot of Candy Crush Saga Image credit: King

In the last two weeks we’ve witnessed the fall of Flappy Bird, under claims from the creator, Dong Nguyen, that the app was taking over his life. Flappy Bird has dominated mobile gaming recently, and in fact completely overshadowed another development in the smartphone games market. The much-maligned video game publishing giant, EA, released a remake of a little-known 90's game called Dungeon Keeper, with advertising and glossy graphics up the wazoo. However, just a few days later, the gaming press were up in arms with ratings like 1/10 not being uncommon. What happened? The interface was pretty standard, the game looked great and the premise (where you are tasked with building a dungeon to bait ill-prepared heroes) was innovative in the 90s and it reflected well in the new game. The simple answer: microtransactions.

Anyone who's played Candy Crush or similar know that one method for companies to monetise apps is to allow them to be downloaded for free, but then put some restrictions, such as only 3 lives per day, which can be bypassed for a fee. In Dungeon Keeper, the equivalent is imps, used to dig out your dungeons. Digging the first few blocks takes a few seconds, but by about the fifth block, the estimated work time jumps up to a few hours. Suffer through that and the next block takes 24 hours. All this waiting is trying to get you to buy gems, 500 of which will cost you 3 quid.

However, there has to be more to it than this. Microtransactions, in themselves, aren't a bad idea – they're reminiscent of the old arcade games, where it doesn't cost you much to have a go, just to find out if you like it, but if you do, then you can pay a bit more to get really good. They've worked well in some smartphone games, such as Clash of Clans and arguably the aforementioned Candy Crush. So why was Dungeon Keeper lambasted so? In my opinion, it comes from two sources. The first is just simple nostalgia. Reviewers are used to the mainstream gaming industry and loved games like the original Dungeon Keeper. Therefore, to see something masquerading as a childhood memory but bastardised is a crime to most. However, the main reason for me goes back to Flappy Bird: Dungeon Keeper is just too complicated.

The Flappy Bird pandemic shows that what people want from mobile gaming now isn't something with strategy or long-term goals, but something they can pick up and put down very quickly. Games where you're dead in an instant keep you coming back for more, because, like any good game, they make you feel like you're being beaten. The main problem though, is how do you monetise these games – the whole point is that they take only a few seconds to play, so limiting the number of deaths, for example, seems counterproductive. Some, like Super Hexagon, just charge you a price for the app straight off, but there's no simple solution. Ads obviously help but they don't make real money, which is why massive corporate giants with colossal overheads are inevitably behind one man bands like Dong Nguyen.

Rather than ending this column on a low note by just summarising the complexity of the mobile game market, I thought I'd name-drop a few of my favourite casual phone games.

  • The Impossible Game – 69p. Touch the screen to jump. Get as far as possible. It's that simple. Sounds a bit crap, but the pixel-perfect controls and heart-pumping music keep you coming back for more – better than Flappy Bird any day.
  • Super Hexagon - £1.99. Turn your hexagon so the side with an arrow on it doesn't point to any of the incoming lines. Again, it's the music that makes it – and the composer, chipzel, is the headliner at Homerton's June Event (still annoyed I didn't get tickets). Also check out VVVVV, the developer's previous effort.
  • Edge - £1.99. Roll a cube to the end of the level. If you liked the old game Marble Madness, this game is for you. It is a bit short, though.
  • Trainyard Express – Free. Different coloured trains need to be guided into their matching stations by drawing tracks.
  • SpaceTeam – Free. This game requires some friends, true, but it's worth it. Your spaceship is falling apart while fleeing an exploding star, so you have to hold it together. You all have different roles and get different information about what's happening to the ship.
  • Deadly Bullet – Free. You remote control a bullet, flying around the level, picking up powerups and killing bad guys by passing through them. Quite comical and surprisingly hard, but also bloody, so don't play if you're squeamish.
  • Juice Cubes – Free, but with microtransactions. It's basically hipster Candy Crush – that game's so last year.

  • The Room - £1.49. 1 task. Get out of the room. It's not really an elevator game, but this game looks beautiful and will have you scratching your head – just don't crack and look up the solution!
  • BIT.TRIP BEAT – 63p (don't ask why). This retro-styled game, which premiered on the Wii, starts out exactly like Pong, but each bounce of the ball adds a layer to the background music, which changes the game, forcing the player to cope with more and more balls and other objects as the 8-bit music gets faster.
  • Hundreds – £3.25. It seems odd describing a game priced at £3.25 expensive, but it is. The basic concept is there are circles which count up as you tap them, you win. If the sum of all your circles reaches 100, you win. However, they also grow in size, making them at risk of hitting buzzsaws, spikes and the other circles.
  • Uplink – £3.17 (again, why?). Finally, my absolute favourite phone game is a throwback to crap 90's movies like Hackers and The Net, where no-one was really sure what computers were. You're a freelance computer hacker who has to get into complicated systems for big corporations to do increasingly dubious tasks. However, like those 90's films, hacking is really easy – there are big buttons that say HACK – you just need to work out what order to do things in.
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