Dif­fi­culty Switch

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

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