Hard game criticism
Ian Bogost considers quick-fix games as convenience food
Stay In The Line is a simple mobile game by Barry Wyckoff in which you trace a path through a series of scrolling obstacles to reach a goal. As I write this, the game is the number one free game on the US App Store charts. By the time you read these words, however, something else will have taken its place.
After all, another simple game by a guy you’ve never heard of topped the charts a month earlier: Hu Wen Zeng’s Don’t Tap The
White Tile (later renamed Piano Tiles). In Piano Tiles, the player races across a chequered course by tapping only black squares. Two weeks later, a slick, weird game called Make It
Rain was a free charts hit – in it, you swipe bills from a money clip to earn money to swipe bills more rapidly. Giedrius Talzunas’s
100 Balls also hit number one for a week or so, and the cannabis-dealing title Weed Firm topped the charts just as briefly before Apple pulled it from the store (presumably for being a number one game about weed).
While such games have existed forever, their success has accelerated in the wake of Dong Nguyen’s free mobile juggernaut, Flappy
Bird. As in Nguyen’s case, many of these hits are created by a single individual or a small team, some of whom have only been making games for a short time. An easy conclusion is tempting: the App Store marketplace as the realisation of the independent game creator’s dream. Obscure, inexperienced developers can become famous overnight after spending mere days creating a title. And wealthy, too – media coverage of hit games such as Flappy
Bird and Make It Rain never fails to mention that they might be taking in up to $50k per day from ads and micropayments.
These fast-rising free mobile games are different from other mobile hits. Unlike
Candy Crush Saga, Clash Of Clans and Angry Birds, games like Stay In The Line and Make It Rain don’t stick around. They get replaced at the top of the charts quickly – almost every week – with subsequent, more rapid, drops in ranking following. Had Nguyen not pulled
Games like 100 Balls are food trucks. They’re always there in the same convenient place, but switch out regularly
Flappy Bird at the height of its popularity, it too might have fallen from grace.
In the past, fast-burn games keyed off current events or popular controversies as a way of garnering attention (my collaborators and I called such specimens “tabloid games” in our book on newsgames). Tabloid games offer a momentary joke, a one-off gag done as linkbait with little concern for craft. By contrast, the most popular free mobile games exhibit some of the properties we normally associate with good design. For example, these titles sport bottomless gameplay and substantial level design – it’s always possible to improve your score in Flappy Bird, your time in Piano Tiles, or your progress in Stay In
The Line. But, given their effective shelf life, most players will never really plumb the depths of those designs. Instead, they’ll pick up another similar game a few days later.
How might we characterise this genre? These games offer bite-size experiences that are long-lasting in theory but temporary in practice. Years ago, marketers and theorists talked about our tendency to ‘graze’ or ‘snack’ on small pieces of media across many channels, but ‘snack’ implies a soulless marketplace of selfsame packaged goods.
Stay In The Line and Flappy Bird aren’t mass-produced throwaways (snacks), but they also aren’t pretentious indie games (haute cuisine), nor are they massmarket casual titles (fast food). Sticking with the eating metaphor, we might compare these games to ‘fast casual’ eateries such as Le Pain Quotidien or Chipotle or POD. In its food services sense, ‘fast casual’ implies higher quality and fresher ingredients combined with the quick service experience of fast food. In its videogame incarnation, game design quality is higher, but it is mated to rapid play and limited commitment.
Still, the fast casual comparison suggests a chain store repeatability that doesn’t match the funky individualism of the titles at hand. I’ll indulge in one more food metaphor, then: games such as Flappy Bird and 100 Balls are the food trucks of videogames. They’re always there in the same convenient place, but they switch out regularly for the sake of variety. They provide wholesome, quality offerings at reasonable cost. And they offer an individual character missing from more polished, industrialised options. These games are weird and rough, but they are also real – in the sense that they have soul, and that they involve an authentic exchange between individuals. That’s a spice that even modern indie games increasingly shun. Ian Bogost is an author and game designer. His awardwinning A Slow Year is available at www.bit.ly/1eQalad