Like many gamers, I have a love hate relationship with mobile games. I never considered them “real gaming” and yet I play them a ton. I also haven’t spent a single cent on them. But by and large, I’ve spent more time playing Pokemon GO than probably any other game in my life. So it’s accurate to say that I’m a mobile gamer, among other types of gaming, and yet if someone asked me what games I’m currently playing I’d never mention any of the mobile games unless asked directly. But really mobile games are a huge part of my life and I think that’s true for most people in 2019. But I’ve come to realize that as they’ve gotten better, which they absolutely have, they’ve also started to lose what made them appealing to begin with i.e. their mobility, casual nature, and ease of access.
I recently spent two weeks traveling for my honeymoon. We went to Dubai, Germany, Switzerland, and France. Over the course of this trip, we only took two flights (four including layovers). I spent the bulk of this trip on trains and buses. I am a flawed man raised in an age of technology. That is to say that rather than sit and look at the country side or my beautiful new bride during these long moments of travel via train or bus, I spent the bulk of my time playing mobile games. Specifically I was playing Pokémon GO, Fist of the North Star Legends Revive, Pokémon Masters, Kingdom Hearts Union X, and Mario Kart Tour. What I came to realize is that all of these games, with the possible exception of Pokémon GO aren’t actually made for gamers on the go, and honestly that’s really annoying.
Mobile apps were originally created out of a need for people to fill the void and loneliness of travel via public transportation. You aren’t driving so your hands are free. And you aren’t talking to other people because in person contact between human strangers is almost as ridiculous in 2019 as in person contact between human friends. So you need something to do in often undefined bursts of time that can be played casually without requiring too much commitment. They also have to be easily picked again up after long periods of time away from them. Most importantly, they need to be playable from any location in any situation for as long as the user wants. Sadly, none of the games I was playing during this trip were really able to deliver this. Some got close, but there are just so many issues when just trying to play a game on a four hour train ride between countries. That’s one of the main reasons I was playing so many games at once.
The three main issues I encountered from these games were a constant internet connection requirement, balance issues, and time sensitive content. At face value, it doesn’t even sound like I’m describing mobile games with that list of problems. That’s just a lot of games in 2019. And that’s kind of the problem. Mobile games have started to become too much like console games. Or maybe it’s the opposite and console games have become too much like mobile games.
The constant need for internet is a huge drawback. I had a full data plan while traveling so that I would be constantly connected to the internet with 20GB of data to ensure I could play at anytime from anywhere. But internet is not consistent all the time even when you do have a good data plan with high speed internet. Traveling between countries can cause data breaks. Traveling through the countryside, tunnels, and up mountains can cause data breaks. It was so annoying to be playing any of the five games I listed and suddenly lose the ability to play because the internet was bad in an area I was passing through. The games just stop with an annoying notification until the connection comes back. This is ridiculous. None of these games, with the exception of Pokemon GO in certain key instances, are directly PVP competitive. All of them, including the ones with PVP aspects, are played as single player experiences with little to no actual human interaction outside of in app message boards. And yet you need constant internet to play them all. This is just stupid. Why can I no longer play single player games on my phone without internet access? Mobile apps were adopted for gamers who had to be away from their home systems. Creating an internet requirement essentially limits the entire reason we call them mobile apps. I don’t have this problem when I’m traveling with my Switch, which I didn’t bring because I wanted to at least pretend to be an attentive husband during my honeymoon.
There are major balance issues in how mobile games are developed today. As you progress through these games early on, you don’t perceive the balance problems because they aren’t pronounced. It’s several hours in when you realize that something is very wrong. You’re trying to move forward in the game but you can’t because of some arbitrary level requirement, a lack of energy, or you’ve hit the daily play limit. And when that’s not the case, you still run into suddenly preposterously hard challenges once you’ve hit a certain point that you will never beat without having to take huge periods of time to farm more experience. It would be so annoying playing Mario Kart Tour and hitting a groove only to then be told I’ve reached my daily limit for coins and xp. There is literally zero reason to play Mario Kart Tour when you can’t get more coins and xp. It is the perfect example of a complete waste of time. The nature of these games is progression but for some reason they all arbitrarily choose to stop your progression when you actually have time to play. Note that I am not referring to pay walls. While there are paid items in all the games I mentioned, they were not a huge issue. Getting stuck or stopped from playing could usually be remedied with real money, but most of the time it just came down to having to do a ridiculous amount of grinding or waiting for the day to flip and recharge your ability to play.
By time sensitive content I am not referring to limited access events where certain rewards would be available for a limited period of time. This did happen in Pokémon GO during the trip, but it was ultimately a non-issue. What I’m talking about is mechanics like in Mario Kart Tour where you can only do a limited number of things in a single day. This negatively affects the play two fold because it means you have to stop playing before you’re ready and you have to play every day to maximize your returns. Neither of these things works well for traveling players. Some days you have time to play and others you don’t. Some moments you have a lot of time, like when taking a three hour bus ride. But with the daily play quotas, I found myself often running out of things to do when I did have time to play for extended periods and concurrently missing out on progress opportunities on days where I didn’t have time to play. The issue here is that it’s an arbitrary limitation that in no way helps the player or enhances the gameplay experience. It’s simply a progress wall in order to make you play again the following day at the expense of the time you actually want to play more that day.
What I’ve come to realize as I play more and more mobile games is that mobile game developers, and arguably all game developers in recent years, are no longer designing games based on user behavior and desires. Instead they’re designing games based on how they want users to behave and are actively working to force players to change their behaviors or use microtransactions for the privilege to play the way they want or more accurately the way people actually play games. We have seen similar practices over the years with things like DLC and always online, but I’ve never really thought about in terms of mobile gaming before. But now we’re starting to see big developers/publishers get involved in mobile gaming such as Nintendo and Blizzard. So it makes sense that the same design flaws we’re seeing plague console game design are appearing in mobile games. But again, it’s kind of chicken and egg. Are console games negatively affecting mobile game design practices or are mobile games negatively affecting console game design practices?
Now I’d like to give a short run down of each of the app games I played and my experience with them over the course of the trip.
I’ve written a lot about GO in the past and even though I said I’d quit, I’m still playing it, albeit a lot more casually. And actually I have to commend them for making a number of quality of life changes that allow the game to be played more causally now. Adventure Sync has made the game way more playable at a casual level because egg and buddy candy distance are measured even when the app is closed. And you get a notification when an egg is ready to hatch. They’ve continued to add new Pokémon and Unova Pokémon were added just before I went on the trip. This motivated me to play while traveling and I did catch a number of regional Pokémon because of it. It’s the game I cared most about during the trip but also played the least. Considering I’ve been playing since day one, there’s not a whole lot left for the game to offer me except new Pokedex entries so I think it’s OK that it’s not the most compelling game for me anymore.
Mario Kart Tour
This game is fun. It’s surprisingly addictive for a phone based Mario Kart game that I’m not even playing with motion controls, though it does have that option. But it’s got major balance and paywall issues coupled with one of the most irritating daily play limits I’ve ever experienced. Drivers, karts, and gliders all have independent levels and need their own xp. The xp system is weighted in an easily understood but ultimately unfairly padded way. And there are xp caps that have to be unlocked with levels that have nothing to with xp to increase. The whole system is very annoying and riddled with the need for microtransactions. Xp matters in Mario Kart Tour because your position in the races is irrelevant. What matters for progression is your score. And that’s directly affected by the xp level of your driver, kart, and glider. Each level has five possible stars but first place isn’t enough to obtain all five. You have to level up your gear in order to get enough points to get all the stars. But with a daily xp cap this becomes very difficult. Coins are also crucial to unlock additional gear and level up gear you already have but there’s a 300 coin daily limit, which makes no logical sense. Especially when you consider top tier drivers cost 3,000 coins to unlock. That means playing 10 days at maximum returns, not counting bonuses, to obtain a new top tier driver without spending real money. But most drivers in the store disappear after a day so you are constantly up against the wall for coins. The daily challenge system is also atrocious with a maximum of three at one time and a cool down rate of two days. Really they’re not even daily challenges. You finish them and then have to wait forever to get more. The cool down rate should be like three hours tops and there should be no daily limits on coins or xp. It’s a great game ruined by greed. I will say though that the weekly tier challenges system and the tour rotation system are both implemented really well.
I reviewed this game previously and I have to say that it’s one of the most misleading games I’ve ever played when you compare day one to day thirty. The game starts off seeming very fair and practical but once you get far enough you realize it’s terribly unbalanced, especially from a numerical standpoint, and it’s a mess of a grind. Later stages are so unbalanced that even when you outclass the enemy team by more than 2,000 points you still get owned so much of the time. The auto battle AI is absolutely atrocious. The limitations by type make it impossible to form a core team, which maybe isn’t the worst thing, but the large amount of grinding required to make Pokémon strong becomes such a chore when you have to do it for more than 20 Pokémon. And there are daily limits for certain resources as well. Plus the money system is absolutely ridiculous. The costs of certain required items are so high that it can take months to evolve a Pokémon. I already finished all the current story missions, which I’m fine with, but I have little motivation to keep playing because grinding is boring and the progress is so slow to get my sync pairs where I want them to be. 300 special items to increase a level cap is just not worth it. Especially when doing so still won’t guarantee that you’re strong enough to beat enemies with noticeably lower stats on paper. It was a good idea with interesting concepts but the execution is so terribly flawed all in the pursuit of microtransactions.
Kingdom Hearts Union X
I honestly need to stop playing this game. I started it like three years ago to prepare for Kingdom Hearts III and the only reason I’m still playing it is that I haven’t beaten Kingdom Hearts III yet. I’ll happily delete it once I finish that game. KHUX is a game that gives you lots of hours of play that’s fulfilling and enjoyable as you progress in strength through RPG and gotcha mechanics built on grinding. You can become fairly strong with no microtransactions. But there is a progress wall and once you hit it the game becomes an absolute bore. The highest levels of play require too much studying of stats and special techniques. You have to tailor seven member teams for specific situations and no matter how strong you get it’s never enough to excel once you reach the later game. The story mode is quite fulfilling for a long time but once you reach a certain point it’s just an exercise in monotony while occasionally doing bonus events for little more than additional costumes and the supposed potential to become stronger but it’s never strong enough. I definitely got a lot of hours out of the game, but I wish I had finished Kingdom Hearts III and stopped playing sooner so the good experience I had wouldn’t have turned sour in the extreme late game I’m in now.
Fist of the North Star Legends Revive
This is one of the best RPG app games I’ve ever played. It’s a turn based RPG with strong combat and development mechanics. But I can already see the long term flaws it has. The gear and character development systems run very deep and require a lot of attention to detail. The fluid party system coupled with tailored events allows you to have favorite party members but also motivates you to use other characters in a way that isn’t annoying or sleazy. The story mode is also really great in retelling the manga. And the graphics are really good. The auto system works fairly well also. The daily rewards system pays out a lot, motivating you to want to come back every day. But there are no daily caps making you not want to play past the basic daily content. The major flaw of the game comes from its level caps. Or more accurately the slow progression of levels over time. When you’re under level 30 the game seems perfect. You level up at a fair rate. You unlock lots of new things as you play. You’re constantly improving your stats both for individual fighters in your party and as a group. And there’s plenty to do. The problems arise when you get to the higher levels of play. The level caps become really annoying and level progression becomes extremely slow and grindy once you get past level 30. I’m strong enough to beat the next chapter of the story mode as far as stats and there are items I require to improve my team to the next level of play. But because of the level caps I’m stuck slowly amassing xp trying to unlock access to the next chapter. The item needs are way too high in the late game as well, slowing development and unlocking of additional characters to a crawl. I can see the potential to get to the highest levels of play but doing it without microtransactions has already started to feel like a slog after less than two months of play. This is a really good game but a few slight tweaks could make it something great.
All of these games started off very strong. But greed and mismanagement have made me irritated with most of them for reasons that just didn’t have to be included. I’m really impressed with how much mobile games have improved since I was playing Snake on a Nokia. But the greed and flawed design choices used to make players return daily has ruined some potentially really great gaming experiences.