Now that I have owned an iPod Touch for several months, I figured it was time to come back and report on the iOS gaming experience. The only problem is that there hasn’t been much of an experience to speak of. I bought quite a few games, most of them highly acclaimed, and only played a handful of them. This is, in a way, a good thing. Since the games were so cheap, I didn’t waste more than a few bucks on bad purchases, and it taught me quite a bit about this brave new world of gaming.
Specifically, it is no different than the old one. Just like with the Xbox, the Wii, or the PSP, iOS devices have the potential for both great and awful games. More importantly, the same decisions which can lead to good or bad games on those “traditional” platforms are also in effect in iOS land. What I find concerning, then, is that everyone seems to think that Apple’s devices are allowed to play a different set of rules, and not because of Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field.
There is no finite set of laws which, if followed, will lead to a good game. But there are certain general guidelines which tend to help. For instance, it helps if you make your game fit comfortably into the hardware constraints of the platform. It is also a good idea to ensure that most, if not every element of your game exists for a reason. Good games are often those which define their scope and purpose ahead of time, and work towards executing their purpose as well as possible within that scope.
Indeed, my favorite iOS games so far have done a good job of playing by these rules. Plants VS Zombies, for instance, is a careful port with responsive touch screen controls, but what really makes it work is the fact that your actions are carried out with quick strokes of a finger, allowing the screen to be unobstructed for most of the time spent on a level. On a similar note, Telltale Game’s port of Puzzle Agent makes it easy to determine which parts of the screen can be interacted with. It also uses lots of close up shots, which allow you to scroll through text without obscuring it. My third favorite game, Glow Artisan, is a port of a DSi game, and so was already built for touch screen play.
As for the rest my little iOS library, the results are far less impressive. Mirror’s Edge, for example, is a classic example of a tech demo disguising as a game. It looks great, and it translates most of the abilities from the console version. Unfortunately, it lacks the sense of speed and immersion that comes from being in the first person perspective. As a side scroller, it feels repetitive and sluggish. I also found myself unconvinced by Game Dev Story. If you’re looking to play it with some sense of strategy and planning, don’t bother, because the rules governing success are not clear or logical. As far as I can tell, it is the game to play if you want to come up with terrible genre mashups and cutesy names for your fictional game releases, so you can post them on the Internet in hopes of looking clever.
I also bought several games with virtual d-pads. Of all of them, only the Cave shooter ports have fared well, since they partition off the entire bottom of the screen for your thumb to do its thing. Everything else forces your digits to obscure the action. Even Edge, one of the first iOS games to really make waves, is a lot more of a pain to handle than it should be.
To sum it up, iOS games suffer from the same issues as games on any other platform. Bad controls, bad level design, or lack of a compelling concept are just as problematic here as they always have been. What kills me is how much of a pass these issues tend to get. I’ve seen the excuses. “You get used to the controls”, or “you can’t expect perfection from a 99 cent game.”, or the similar “it’s just a cheap, simple game meant to be played for a couple minutes.”
None of these pass muster in my book. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t tolerate bad motion controls in a Wii game, then you shouldn’t tolerate them on the iPhone. End of story. And as I’ve already mentioned before, I think portable games still require a certain block of time to really get into. If I’m on the go and need to answer my flea sized attention span with a few minutes of distraction, there are other, free things I can do on a smartphone in that time, such as check my work email, or read the news, or even close my eyes and tune the world out for a moment. I want my games to be games, not the adult equivalent of dangling keys in front of me to keep me calm for a few minutes. As well, I think we should treat them as such.
So why, then, don’t we? Part of the problem lies in how we review them. Traditional gaming review sites continue to treat the games in their own special context, wherein the writers simply expect less. Then there are the many sites dedicated to iOS gaming (or iOS in general), which seem to be run by the kind of people who are quite happy with simple time-waster games. I say this not to degrade their tastes, but to point out that this type of gamer probably isn’t interested in providing a thorough critique. These reviews, then, exist solely because someone thought they had to.
The other part lies in the way the games are made and marketed. Just because iOS is a valid platform for gaming does not mean that it is always treated like one. The App Store is filled with sellers who are only interested in making as many quick bucks as they can off of users who are more than happy to drop 99 cents on the latest fad game. And there are well meaning developers who wind up adopting the tactics of these money grubbers (such as the “freemium” model of free games with dozens of optional paid feature unlocks) so that they can get attention and stay afloat. And then there is the dark side of Indie development, filled with creators who aren’t interested in advancing the state of gaming, but in using games as containers for half baked concepts or general purpose retro-nostalgia. There are good games on the App Store, but they’re swimming in a sea of lies and bullshit, promoted by hucksters and hipsters who will berate you for daring to think that people in this postmodern society might be anything but sincere.
I suppose, then, that I look forward to seeing more good iOS games, but I’m not counting on anything. In this situation, as much as things are the same, the App Store is in other ways a very different beast. I have no idea how it will all play out, though I will hope that if it really does crush Sony and Nintendo*, as so many tech writers seem to predict (and, for some creepy reason, seem to hope to come to fruition), that it gets it shit a little more put together.
* I don’t actually think this will happen. I’m simply playing off the fact that so many people writing about the Apple VS Gaming Industry war are so confident about its eventual outcome.