Android Market we need to Talk

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Hey there Android fans, I'm a bit new in town. I've come to visit the mobile/tablet gaming space a couple of times and, for the most part, I get it. Since its inception the space has been defined by casual, play for a few minutes, experiences. Depth and things like story take time to appreciate, people picking up their phone or tablet have traditionally not had the time or circumstances to properly invest in a meaningful experience. You're waiting for your coffee, you have a few minutes before the kids get off the bus, you just need to take a few minutes of "me time" to unwind. There is a legitimate and necessary space for games that are appropriate for these times.

Hey there developers in this space, we don't really know each other well. Sure, I've catapulted some Angry Birds, Cut some Rope, Run through some Temples, and have even Crushed some Candy. Who hasn't? After a pretty short while, though, the games just don't stick with me. Either the shtick gets too repetitive, the game is too tedious, I feel like there has to be something better to do, or I realize the game has less to do with skill than either random (occasional) luck or the willingness to pay cash money to move on to the next level or beat my friend's score (that loser, to get that score he must have bought "insert temptingly cheap item name here", I'll show him and get the next, more expensive, one). But hey, you're a company and you're not doing this for free. You need to monetize your game to pay the bills. I'm down with that, really, and the current overall situation isn't only your fault. Let's face it, given the opportunity you just can't help yourselves.

So here's the thing. As a newcomer to this relationship I have a slightly different perspective on things and I'm here to tell you, fans, that many of you are in an abusive relationship. While you may periodically get a little piece of love here or there the majority of the time you're getting slapped around. Worst of all is that, for the most part, you've been taking it. Whether in the form of paying for bad games and then giving them reviews that fail to be sufficiently critical, or playing games that are free but convince you to spend your money to save some time or get some cool upgrade, or whatever other schemes the market may have some up with; you're actively inviting and encouraging further abuse with your actions. Maybe you feel like it isn't so bad, I just don't understand the kind of love you share, or maybe you're resigned to this being the best you can hope for. As a person with many gaming options I can assure you there's so much better out there, but to get better access to it you're going to have to be stronger, more opinionated, and try very hard to quit the worst abusers out there to make a point.

To be clear, I bought myself an nVidia Shield tablet and I'm in this space for one reason: To play great games. I have a gaming PC, a Wii-U, an Xbox 360, a 3DSXL, a Vita, and an arcade cabinet in my basement with just about every emulator there is for any system I've ever owned going back to the Atari 2600. With a wide variety of gaming options available to me I opted into this space for a great piece of hardware that has the potential to help move this gaming space ahead, but for it to be a success in driving the Android market to greater heights developers are going to need to be sent a message. I'll do my part, trust me, poring over games out there in the Tegra Zone, many supposedly intended specifically to give me a great experience on the Shield. As you'll see with my first two reviews here there is hope but I sense there's also going to be a lot of crap. Granted, it isn't like awful shovel-ware games are only available here. In particular, the Atari 2600 had so many it crashed the gaming market for a while. The PlayStation's huge popularity created a market glutted with garbage. As much as I enjoy Nintendo systems I'll confidently say that aside from first-party games most of the rest of what came out for the Wii was utterly worthless. What all of the worst gaming markets have had in common is that generally they've also been the largest. In order to get those numbers, though, they had to convince "casual gamers" to take the plunge. People who aren't as savvy, who don't follow the industry, who are lured by excited promotional language and carefully-chosen screen shots, and who may be resigned to games that are just OK.

Enter the mobile/tablet market and you have a market defined not by hardcore, dedicated gamers who are looking for the latest top-shelf game to satiate their obsession... but instead by people who enjoy a simple game to play for maybe 20 minutes a day, here or there. The casual market, generally also more budget-conscious (but only on the surface), invented a whole new kind of monetization: free-mium games where if you'd just endure enough of the game you could progress or you could spend some money right now to advance right away. This crap is the true scourge of your industry. Granted, there are a few games of this type that I've found tolerable; that somehow keep a fair pace of in-game money you can make and buy your upgrades with in a similar way that a traditional game would have you accumulate experience. But too many games of this type string you along somehow with the promise of something really cool or fun right around the corner, but never truly having any plans to deliver (Why would they if you keep spending money?).

Here's the realization you all need to have. If someone made a truly interesting game, people would pay for it. How much they would be willing to pay may be a challenge, and not all great games get their due, but when you put a grind-or-pay model in your game you're creating an artificially-prolonged experience... not really a game in the first place. In theory there would have to be a payoff in the end, though, right? The thing is, if someone has roped you into this model successfully their motivation isn't to pay off, it is to keep you on the hook and potentially spending more money as long as possible; they'd get you to do it indefinitely if they thought it would make them a buck. Best of all, for them, is that the longer you play the game the more likely you are to endure even more nonsense! You've either invested X dollars into it or Y hours... you can't just throw that all away!

It's for that kind of reason that I'd far more rather pay a little extra for something up-front, so the goal of the game is pre-set and defined. I get into the game, I am challenged by it for a while, and I get the sense of accomplishment as I get back my investment and more in rewarding play, then I may move on to the next game and so on. If I stick around and continue to play a game I'm doing it because I love the content (after many years I'm still returning to Team Fortress 2 on PC and I paid for the Orange Box I got it with back in 2008), not because I'm caught in some abusive spiral.

So how can any change be made? It has to start with the community. Just because some of the games you enjoy may be simpler it doesn't mean you can't expect them to be well-made. Do you have any idea how disheartening it is to look over scores in the Google Play store and see the averages for pretty much every game out there indistinguishable from each other? I swear everything out there seems to have the same 4 star-ish rating. Are you kidding me? Granted, I've seen the tricks and tactics employed by developers: Give you a quick hit of something marginally fun, then say "Hey, like us on Facebook and give us a dandy review! You know we're good for it!" Or, better yet, "Like us on Facebook and give us a review all of 5 minutes into the game and we'll give you 500 in-game coins so you can buy your vehicle/character/whatever a different color!" It is enticing, I know, the game is just so much better when you're playing it with your favorite color. Oh, but hot pink or other "cooler" colors are usually a little extra... they were much harder to implement, you understand.

Another crucial thing is that it isn't just your money you speak with, it is also your time. I can't express my exasperation with the fact that my wife continues to play, and regularly get frustrated by, Candy Crush Saga. I played it for a while, just to try to understand why people were drawn to it. For the first 50 or maybe 100 levels I got it, overall it was a decent Match-3 game. But then, slowly, what could have been thought to be a skill-based game took a very clear turn. I found myself increasingly bewildered by a level I would struggle with for one game suddenly being super-easy the next. I hadn't shown more strategy or smarts, the game just happened to go my way. Follow that up then with levels that I could get stuck on for quite a number of rounds that, again, would often just suddenly work themselves out with me generally only employing the same simple strategies consistently and the pattern was made clear. The structure of the game was constructed very specifically to stop you like this every 5, or so, levels, and while my wife won't spend a dime on it, you can see where compulsive people will. What's messed up is that the statistics are out there and they prove that many people are, in the end, paying far more for this game than anyone would ever ask for up-front for the same very simple title. Once people see and understand this fact, for the market to change, it's going to take people rejecting this model and instead trying to reward games that operate differently, shifting the trend in another direction. Even if you're not spending your money on the game your continuing to play it sends a message to the development community that this is a solid business model to emulate, only guaranteeing more shallow games like it that are motivated to challenge you only to get you to pay to make them easier.

The one bit of good news is that overall I'd say this is actually a pretty great time to see a shift in things if people start to demand more. The independent developer space on the PC in particular, bolstered mostly by Steam Greenlight, is thriving. There are a ton of great titles that can be picked up for $10 or less, delivering a very wide variety of experiences. There are certainly indie and cheap games on Steam that are horrible as well, but the right spirit and scale is there to make great games that aren't bank-breakers, they just need to see they can survive in the Android marketplace.

So please, seek out and truly support great (or even just good) developers and original titles out there. Take a chance on something you wouldn't traditionally play that some friends or someone you personally trust recommends, just ignore the worthless Play Store reviews for the confused nonsense they are. Be extremely critical of any game you play, whether it may have been free or not. Use the entirety of the 5 star scale, don't be afraid to give anything lower than 3 if the game deserves it. You're entitled to your opinion! For best results you should think of 5 star scale as a continuum, representing all games you've played. If you've played 100 total games this should mean that in general terms there should be 20 games for each score. That may seem like a harsh way to do it but it is perfectly logical. In that context if the 20 worst games you've played didn't deserve a 1 how low are you thinking your expectations can possibly go? Share the message with your friends, your co-workers, your parents, whoever you know that continues to churn in the abusive cycle that is a crappy game that isn't challenging them and isn't helping to move this space forward. Great games are out there waiting to be made for this platform, we just need to work together to find, properly recognize, and support them to make them stronger. For my own part, I promise to personally do all I can to yell from the mountaintops when a game is worthy of praise and acclaim and to rain down abuse on those titles that aren't part of the solution, but instead part of the problem. Consider this notice that an intervention for the greater Android community desperately needs to take place, and together we can kick the addiction of horrible games. Support your community folks, and hopefully you'll be hearing plenty more from me.
 

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