You know how people have been saying, for years and years now, that the triple-A video game industry’s weird hyperfocus on mostly white, mostly male demographics would eventually bite it in the ass? As evidence of this I give you: the “free-to- play” mobile videogame.
Exhibit A: this piece by Sam Machkovech over on Ars Technica describing how the new Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp feels like a weird, hollowed-out husk of previous franchise entries; that it is not so much an Animal Crossing game as it is essentially “a scam”. Having myself grown up around PC and console games, I tend to share this perspective. But then, this has also been my reaction to every high-grossing F2P mobile game I’ve ever encountered. (The fact that I make these games for a living is, well, a testament to what life under capitalism is like.)
The F2P mobile industry does not produce videogames I personally enjoy on any level. What it does produce, however, are the most popular and lucrative video games in the world. And it does so, in essence, by completely ignoring people like me: those the triple-A industry has chased on for decades. Where triple-A mostly restricts itself to grittiness and vengeance and bloodshed, mobile games embrace the endless cross-cultural appeal of “soft and cute.” Where triple-A designs for multihour play sessions, mobile games make certain to offer objectives you can complete in 30 seconds. And perhaps most importantly: Where the triple-A crowd loves to express boundless outrage over things like loot boxes in Star Wars: Battlefront II, the mobile crowd overwhelmingly prefers these mechanics to anything triple-A has to offer them.
The key thing to understand about microtransactions is that games like SW:BF are using them completely wrong. The microtransaction’s purpose is not actually to nickel and dime people who’ve already paid you $60. Instead it is to completely obliterate any initial barrier between your game and the billions of people who own smartphones. A top-grossing mobile game can be played for zero dollars on any old mobile device produced within the past 5 years. Their download size is optimized so you can acquire them in the absence of good wifi; their design is optimized to pique your interest within the first 6 seconds of play. It’s not about crazy high-resolution graphics, and it’s rarely about epic storylines. Those things barely even matter. An F2P game developer’s only significant priorities break down as follows:
- Get your game into as many people’s hands as you possibly can
- Keep 7-10 percent of them playing for as many months as possible (even if in 30 second chunks, and even if they never spend a dime)
- Convince some tiny fraction of that 7-10 percent to make regular in-app purchases
The reason why games such as Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp seem alien to folks like me is that these games were not made for us. The mobile game audience is not descended from the traditions of triple-A video games; triple-A ignored these people for decades, spurring the development of a completely separate design tradition. The mobile game audience does not want the same things console gamers want. They want free to play. They want incentivized video ads. They want daily rewards, and limited time offers, and yes: They even want loot boxes. The best part, of course, is that they also happen to outnumber us by such an astounding margin that it’s a wonder anyone even bothered releasing a triple-A Star Wars game in 2017.
A company such as Nintendo has far more incentive to court these mobile folks than they do we “core gamers,” and courting mobile folks is precisely what they’re trying to achieve. It seems to me the big N still has work to do in terms of building those “top 100”-style phone games with all the latest F2P trimmings. But that is clearly what they’re attempting to do, and they’re getting better at it each time out.
For me it’s been rather tragic to watch the deluge of triple-A media coverage mocking the loot boxes in SW:BF, and now accusing the new Animal Crossing of feeling weird and hollow. Weird and hollow is video games now! That already happened, y’all. It happened years ago while we were busy critiquing the frame rate in The Witcher II.
What we’re seeing now are the woolly mammoth-like triple-A video game publishers struggling to catch up with an industry that has overtaken them. This happened because they remained glued to their little local maximum, pandering to the usual audience with the usual entertainment, instead of adapting their ideals and sensibilities for the rest of society. These are our just desserts.
Brendan Vance is a game developer and cultural critic based in Vancouver, British Columbia who’s written for Waypoint, Unwinnable and The Arcade Review, but his most vociferous howls of agony emanate from @4xisblack over on Twitter.com.