Well, most phone games suck. Alright, fine, a lot of phone games suck. For PC and console gamers this has been the sentiment for a long time. But why? Is it inherent to mobile gaming? Most people with a Nintendo DS or even a Switch will disagree that handheld gaming is bad. In fact, Nintendo has sold more handheld consoles than regular consoles and they’ve been selling handhelds for almost as long. I’ve certainly heard plenty of complaints about battery life or being uncomfortable to hold for long gaming sessions, but much less focus on the games themselves being crappy. So what makes games on phones different?
They are designed to make money first and be a fun game second
Let’s start with the easy and obvious bit and I’m even going to commit to a sweeping generalization: most phone games are free to play but more specifically, most free to play games use a terrible business model. They are designed to get as much money from the player as possible. Now let’s get into some specifics that aren’t necessarily tied to free to play games. Don’t limit how much I can play your game. The ever present “energy” limit literally prevents players from playing the game. Some games tie progress to real world time. This can be an acceptable mechanic until the instant the game allows people to speed up or remove the real world time requirement by spending money. At that point you have said this mechanic is not actually important to your game and is just a way to coerce players into spending money. Many phone games employ tactics to make them addictive. Things like daily quests which are the most efficient way to make progress aren’t designed to be fun, they are designed to get you hooked. A player who has committed significant real world time (either in total game play time or days played) is far more likely to spend money.
They break immersion constantly
One reason that many people play games is that they are a great form of escape. Maybe someone is looking to relax from a hard day’s work on the way home or maybe even just escape a few minutes of boredom. To do that, this person has chosen to play a game. The last thing they want is constant advertisements which likely have the effect of making them look up and remember where they are and what they are trying to escape from. Even if you are just bored, being forced or encouraged to constantly stop playing the game and watch ads (most likely the same repeated ads over and over again) is going to dampen your entertainment. Ads are the worst form of this, but constantly putting some kind of shop or sale information can be just as immersion breaking. They are taking the player away from the game play or story or whatever fun thing the game is actually about.
The user interface isn’t designed optimally for human fingers
I’m not going to get into bad UI criticism. I think that plenty of games across all platforms struggle with a good user interface. Instead, this criticism is primarily about the size and placement of icons and buttons in phone games. I consider myself to have mostly normal sized hands and fingers but I would swear I’m a giant based off some of these games. Your game shouldn’t make it possible for me to accidentally push two different buttons because they are placed too close to each other. Also, don’t make it possible to push two different buttons because you stacked them on top of each other. Fingers are not precise tools and too many phone games forget this fact.
The character control blocks the action on the screen
Lots of phone games rely on user touch to move the characters around the game. This is not inherently an issue unless the game is some kind of action game where the character is interacting with enemies or objects in real time. All too often, what ends up happening is that you block some portion of the screen with your own hand preventing you from seeing incoming enemies or projectiles. This problem isn’t limited to action games or moving characters. There are lots of phone games that expect you to somehow magically be able to see through your own finger. It’s like someone asked, “How can we take the bad camera angle frustrations of existing console and PC games and port them over to phone games in a new and exciting way?”
The game controls are trying to emulate a physical controller
I get it, the standard thumb stick and button setup is a proven system. Players are also pretty used to that control setup. A phone, however, cannot provide any tactile feedback. Have I moved my thumb off the digital thumb stick? No way to know until my character stops moving. Hope that wasn’t a critical moment. Is my thumb sliding off the edge of the screen or into the middle of the action? Nothing is going to stop that from happening because there is no limited range of motion. Am I successfully pressing any button with my thumb? Did I press multiple buttons with my thumb? Am I pressing the correct button? Being able to feel the buttons on a standard controller can give all the answers to those questions. This type of input is just not ideal for touch screens (at least as they currently exist).
The translation to local language is poor
Imagine buying a video game for a console, bringing it home or downloading it and then discovering that it is a translated game with lots of broken English (replace with language of your choice). This almost never happened in the age of physical games. The ability to distribute games digitally has made it possible to sell games in regions where the developers don’t live without being a giant corporation. This is a good thing! If your game is trying to tell any kind of story, however, having a bad translation is very distracting and almost guarantees a less enjoyable experience than the version which was made in the local language of the developers. Aside from understanding the story, a bad translation can make it difficult to even understand the objectives and rules of the game. So to clarify, getting more access to other regions’ games is awesome, but objectively speaking it will be a lesser experience if the translation is bad, which most often seems to be the case for phone games.
They require internet access
This one is particularly painful for me. I commute by ferry where I lose cell phone signal for most of the ride. Sadly this means that any game which requires connecting to a server is no longer playable. More and more, phone games require connecting to a server regardless of whether you are playing the multiplayer portion of the game or even if it’s not a multiplayer game. There are lots of other scenarios where you will lose access to the internet/network: on a plane, on the subway, conventions (where the cell network is overloaded because everyone is sharing the access), or in a foreign country. Sadly, these are all exactly the kind of places or occurrences where it would be ideal to have access to your mobile games.
What’s the solution?
To be honest, many of these problems are not easy to solve. The best way to go about avoiding them is to design your game from the ground up with these issues in mind. That almost instantly guarantees that games ported from other platforms to phones will have one or more of these failings. Additionally, free to play games that want to make money will need to find a new business model. To be clear, it’s entirely possible to make a great game that includes one or more of the issues listed above. Your game just won’t be as good as it actually could be.