Opinion: Why Mobile Games Are Good For The Video Game Industry

by Matt Akers on Jun 24, 2013 at 10:31 AM

I recently came across this user review for Angry Birds Star Wars in the App Store: “Best game ever made!!!”

Oh, boy.

I can’t help but cringe when I see these sorts of comments. People are entitled to their own opinions, of course, and flinging miniature birds toward destructible objects is indeed a swell time. Nevertheless – and I say this as plainly as I can – Angry Birds Star Wars is not the best game ever made. 

But there’s no use in denying it. The world of video gaming is changing, and the above user’s sentiment is a common one. Mobile games have become increasingly popular in recent years, some of them astronomically so. Angry Birds was originally released for iOS in 2009. In the four years since then, Rovio’s games have been downloaded more than 1.7 billion times across platforms worldwide. To put that number in perspective, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles share a combined worldwide sales total of around 150 million units. Call of Duty: Black Ops II – the game that broke records late last year by earning $1 billion in 15 days – has sold around 25 million copies.

The staggering popularity of mobile games scares me sometimes, especially when I consider the prominent freemium model, in which a game is initially free but requires consistent in-game purchases for full content access. “What is this world coming to?” I ask myself. “What will become of video games?”

But then I think about the current state of video games more broadly. Including the mobile sector, Americans have spent $3.5 billion on video games this year in the first quarter alone. Although that number hasn’t improved from last year’s first quarter, it’s still incredibly, incredibly high. In comparison, the American box office total for films in this year’s first quarter was $2.3 billion

I cite all of these numbers to say this: Video games are quickly becoming the most dominant entertainment medium in the world. And, I think, mobile games significantly contribute to that trajectory. 

With the advent of accessible, inexpensive mobile games, people who have never played video games before are playing their little hearts out. My girlfriend’s mom, for instance, has been philosophically against video games her entire life. Last summer, she called in sick to work one day because she’d stayed up all night playing Plants vs. Zombies on her iPad. I haven’t let her live that down since.

On page two: How mobile titles are changing gaming for the better.

The Game Changer

There can be no doubt that games like Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies are slowly pushing video games toward a position of mainstream acceptance. As someone interested in carving out a career in video games, I say this is good. It behooves me for video games to be seen as a conventional form of adult entertainment, to be spoken about by the masses as casually and as commonplace as films, books, and TV shows. Massive social acceptance, I hope, will amount to respect, higher salaries within the industry, and higher quality work due to competition. And that doesn’t just go for me. I believe mobile games can have a positive impact on many aspects of the gaming industry. 

Just think about the new spaces that mobile gaming has already created. Touch Arcade and Pocket Gamer are two journalistic websites with formidable followings. Both have a strong focus on mobile games, and both offer gaming communities and job opportunities that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago. My own career in video game journalism started with mobile game reviews, at a time when I didn’t have nearly enough experience to get paid for reviews of triple-A games.

Some high-profile developers, like Ben Cousins, are moving away from blockbuster games and heading to mobile platforms, where development costs are low enough to take serious risks and artistic liberties. He left Electronic Arts in 2011 to work on a horror FPS for the iPad that uses the free-to-play model. 

We also have the trending concept of mobile companion apps. At E3 this year, Ubisoft announced that its upcoming RPG, The Division, allows tablet users to control overhead drones during combat. Watch Dogs offers something similar. Even if these mobile companion apps don’t make true on their promises to add real, in-game value, it’s an innovative notion that I don’t think should be thrown out the window. Other mobile games like Mass Effect: Infiltrator, which may not have a direct impact on the primary games in the series, keep beloved franchises and characters alive.

Lastly, mobile gaming offers an additional and much-needed entry point into video games. As Matthew Kato wrote about earlier this month, triple-A games often require a hefty investment of money and time. How can we, as gamers who (I’m sure) love to share our favorite activity, expect non-gamers to give video games a proper try if the initial cost of owning a PS4 game is $460 (console + one game)? My grandma will never understand why I spent 150 hours playing Skyrim if I wait for her to go that route.  

I believe the mobile gaming world is at a crossroads. On one hand, we have the very real possibility of a world wrought with games like Candy Crush Saga, in which millions of players around the globe continue to sneak away from their beds at night to compulsively crush virtual lollipops. On the other, we have a possible future in which people who only know Candy Crush Saga will come across one of the more substantial games in the App Store – Knights of the Old Republic, Infinity Blade, Secret of Mana, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Bastion – and maybe, just maybe, give it a chance. I, for one, put my faith in the latter.