How Mobile Phones Turned Everyone Into Gamers, Like It Or Not

Diablo mobile game

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Mobile gaming is a savage beast — just ask Wyatt Cheng.

Following the announcement of Blizzard’s Diablo Immortal for mobile at Blizzcon 2018, Cheng, the game’s lead designer, fronted an uncomfortably tense Q&A session that was met with suspicion and thinly veiled derision from attendees.

Visibly surprised at the chorus of boos aimed at Diablo Immortal’s lack of PC support, Cheng attempted diffusing the situation, exclaiming the now ironically quoted line:

“Do you guys not have phones?”

Cue the audience member who queried whether Diablo Immortal’s announcement was “an out-of-season April Fool’s joke” to the laughter and cheers of a divided crowd.

For a game that’s not out yet, Diablo Immortal sure has generated many opinions about its poor reception. Regardless, one thing is clear: mobile is a platform tarred with a preconceived notion from some groups that it is a lesser way to engage with games.

This is bizarre, considering the popularity of games such as Pokemon Go proves millions of people use their phones for far more than messaging, calls, and watching porn.

Mobile, The Largest Gaming Platform In The World

When Apple’s App Store first launched in 2008, the shopfront hosted a meagre 500 apps. Now, it boasts approximately 2.2 million apps, and its main competitor, Android’s Google Play Store, is estimated to feature similar numbers. When upcoming game subscription service Apple Arcade was announced, Apple revealed that of the 2.2 million apps, over 300,000 of them are games, adding weight to CEO Tim Cook’s claim that iOS is currently the world’s largest gaming platform. Comparatively, PC’s Steam marketplace reached 30,000 games earlier this year.

Naturally, quantity is no reliable measure of quality, but it certainly is a strong indication of popularity. Industry body Interactive Games and Entertainment Association’s (IGEA) Digital Australia 2020 research report found that 70 percent of Australians who play video games do so on their phones.

In 2018, Australians spent $1.118 billion on mobile games, which overtook the revenue of collective physical sales (boxed software, console hardware and accessories) for the first time. Australian game developers predominantly create for mobile platforms, with an IGEA study conducted in 2017 finding that 55 percent and 49 percent focus on iOS and Android devices respectively, above PC in third place at 39 percent.

These numbers mean mobile games are serious business.

Helping to understand this business is Katie Stegs, creative director at Melbourne studio Lumi Interactive. After transitioning from games marketing, the studio recently released debut title Critter Clash on iOS and Android, and Stegs says the success of mobile gaming over the past decade is largely down to how games have taken advantage of the platform’s approachability.

“The free to play (F2P) business model that took off on mobile opened up the market to vast numbers of players, many of whom had never accessed games before,” Stegs said. “It’s been a very democratising experience, essentially giving access to games to people who do not see themselves as gamers.”

Why Mobile?

In the same way that different platforms are best suited for particular gaming experiences, there are games that are best experienced on mobile. Take it from the folks at Aussie team The Voxel Agents, who have been developing mobile games for the better part of a decade — almost as long as the App Store has existed.

Featuring a mobile portfolio including the likes of Puzzle Retreat and Train Conductor World, The Voxel Agents’ design approach stems from small ideas according to creative director Simon Joslin.

“I like to make small, tight, delightful experiences that are super innovative and surprising,” Joslin said. “And I get to do more of them by working on a smaller kind of scale.”

The Gardens Between Mobile Games

Only coming to iOS in May after launching on PC and consoles last year, The Gardens Between earned a lucrative Apple Design Award. Beautifully intricate in its dioramic design, the game tells a deeply resonant story of two childhood friends revisiting their fondest memories.

“We’re hearing about people calling long lost friends because they played the game and it prompted them to go chase down that friendship,” Joslin said. “They remembered these special experiences they had in childhood – that’s pretty significant as an art form to do that to you.”

Joslin and Clark also discussed the increasing power of phones and allowing more freedom of choice for players, with The Gardens Between seamlessly playable in both portrait and landscape. Impressively, the game runs at the same display resolution on an iPhone XS as the PS4 Pro version.

“Going forward, I can see the lines becoming even more blurred between screens where all games are playable on all devices”

A counterpoint to mobile’s increasingly beefy spec sheet is the price discrepancy compared to dedicated gaming hardware; the smallest iPhone XS model retails through Apple at $1,629AUD, whereas a PS4 Pro is regularly on sale for below $500.

Considering how embedded mobile phones have become in modern lifestyles, it’s not unreasonable to take advantage of their gaming capabilities. Particularly when tech companies like Razer are clamouring to create gaming-optimised phones alongside the rising popularity of mobile esports in Asian regions.

Through iterative technology and a large install base, the mobile ecosystem can act as a potential incubator for small teams looking to build up to other platforms. Australian duo Yak & Co adopted this approach with the first two episodes of spy puzzler Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise releasing on phones in 2015. Now, the full game is launching on PC and consoles alongside the finale on mobile. Mark White, art director at Yak & Co, foresees upcoming advancements in streaming and controller compatibility coming to iOS 13 will further break down barriers between players.

“Going forward, I can see the lines becoming even more blurred between screens where all games are playable on all devices,” White said.

Yak & Co is also working on the Apple Arcade-exclusive Down in Bermuda, being one of several Australian studios set to feature on the service.

While there appears to be a wealth of content coming to Apple Arcade, Stegs is tempering expectations — in part due to the inevitability of subscription fatigue.

“On the one hand, [Apple Arcade is] a great offer for developers interested in creating deeper experiences that suit a premium monetisation model. But on the other hand, modern consumers are inundated with subscription services and there’s only so much the pocket can take,” Stegs said.

It’s a view shared somewhat by Teddy Lee, game designer at Cellar Door Games, who recently surprise-released the Canadian studio’s hit Rogue Legacy on the App Store. Lee believes Apple’s service is “very smart” and will “help to stave off the tide of pay-to-win games that dominate their market”, but expresses concern about the wider impact of game subscription services.

“In some ways, it’s a regression — as these subscription platforms will become giant publishers once more, where everyone must make their pitches to them, and they become the curators of taste,” Lee said.

Down In Bermuda Mobile Game Gaming

Likewise, there’s no perfect method of curating 300,000-plus games to ensure developers get a fair go, Apple Arcade or no. However, a positive step forward from Apple is an increasing focus on app discoverability, employing a team of editors to create original content promoting a diverse mix of games. Other digital game marketplaces should take note of this approach, especially PC’s algorithmic behemoth Steam.

Mobile Gamers Are Real Gamers

Mobile games and those who play them are often treated with contempt by those who view PC and console as the only legitimate form of playing video games. Controversial streamer Dr Disrespect tweeted in June that “Mobile gamers aren’t real gamers” and, judging by the tweet’s reaction, he’s not alone in that view.

One common perception is that F2P mobile games employ heavy-handed monetisation techniques. Lee says many App Store games are “predatory” — a sentiment likely shared by many.

However, plenty of F2P games perfect the balance between free content and value-adding purchases. For example, Australian developer Hipster Whale’s Crossy Road and Piffle are utterly charming, fun F2P entries that are easily enjoyed without spending a cent. Predatory monetisation techniques are also not exclusive to mobile, considering Overwatch’s loot boxes and EA Sports’ Ultimate Team are still hot topics.

Although Stegs couldn’t care less what constitutes a “real gamer”, she does understand to an extent why fans express disappointment at large studios’ forays into mobile development.

“Fundamentally, people get upset when their expectations aren’t met, and the expectations of a console AAA devotee aren’t going to be met in the same way by a mobile experience”

“Fundamentally, people get upset when their expectations aren’t met, and the expectations of a console AAA devotee aren’t going to be met in the same way by a mobile experience – overall, the business goal of this mobile experience is not to retain just the console fan, it’s also to recruit potential new fans who may become customers for the console title,” Stegs said.

Elaborating further, Stegs explains that mobile spin-offs also allow for genre experimentation, which are usually handled by separate teams, meaning they often supplement — not replace — the console and PC experience.

Echoing White’s thoughts of a platform-agnostic future, Bethesda’s Todd Howard shared his vision for the early-access mobile title The Elder Scrolls: Blades at E3 2018: to bring the game to as many platforms as possible, including cross-play functionality between mobile players and high-end PC VR users.

It’s an ambitious goal, but one that could potentially allow people to play games together wherever, whenever and however they want. Whether it’s the triple-A Diablo Immortal-type experiences or the latest Aussie hit, hopefully, this future means more games for everyone. And fewer petty dick-swinging contests gatekeeping platform preferences.

Chris Button is an Adelaide-based writer who consumes mobile games in moderation as part of a healthy gaming diet. Apple provided him with a review iPhone XR for testing purposes — a considerable upgrade from his tiny iPhone SE.