The Room and Mobile Games
There’s been a lot of fist-pumping support for this great article about mobile games and free-to-play from the creators of The Room, the now-classic iPad game about lovingly crafted Lovecraftian puzzle boxes. It’s a well-written, powerfully argued stance about AAA, mobile, indies, game quality, and the potentially toxic effects of an F2P-saturated market. It is inspiring and energizing and, especially for those of us who have been in that iOS space for a while, it kind of reminds you why you used to be so excited about mobile. But…
…but, like any article or essay or opinion, Barry’s article doesn’t really address the whole ecosystem. Jake Simpson wrote a really great response that goes into a lot of the sort of gritty details and consequences related to the points Barry makes. It’s a really excellent companion piece; a little less locker-room-pep-talk maybe, but also a little more grounded. I definitely recommend checking it out when you have time.
As inspiring as the original essay was, though, and as much as Jake helps establish the wider context in which Barry’s vision lives, I feel like there is a kind of… well, I’m not exactly sure how to put it. So, here we go: I think the article would be better if it wasn’t about The Room. I agree with literally everything in it, except the fact that any of it could possibly be related to The Room itself.
HANG ON A SEC
I think it is inevitable that some people will dismiss that, and what follows as a kind of… what do you call it? Just jealousy, I guess? Maybe snobbery, elitism, etc. Like this was written from the perspective of … why didn’t my mobile game sell 5 million copies or whatever. I’d like to do what I can to dispel this notion so that the rest of what I’m going to write hopefully sticks better.
First, The Room is maybe the perfect iPad game. It is far from my favorite iPad game, but thinking about that audience and that device, it’s… it’s not surprising to me, at all, that that game has seen the success it has. Maybe that’s just 20/20 hindsight, but it’s a remarkable creation. I’ll talk more about why in a bit. I just want to establish that what follows is not a slam on The Room.
Second, and this is I guess not a humble brag but a normal brag, I really don’t need any more financial success right now. I’m fine. Though I love the idea of a game I make connecting with that many people someday, I’ve been very lucky and had a remarkable run. Fireproof have had an exceptional run, and that’s awesome for them. I’m actually fairly certain a better experience could not have happened to better people. It’s like… when you imagine how this stuff should work, Fireproof is one of very few examples of things being ok. I am super lucky in that things have been ok here too.
So, again, just to be completely clear, Fireproof Games are awesome, The Room is a really well-crafted thing, I hope we’re all basically on the same page here. OK.
NOW FOR THE HARD PART
As I said earlier, while I wholeheartedly agree with every single point made in the whole article, for the life of me I have no idea what any of it has to do with The Room in particular. Barry seems to attribute the success of The Room primarily to the way Fireproof stuck to their admirable principles, principles which many indies in the mobile space recognize and celebrate: don’t let the prevalent F2P models corrupt your game, respect your audience, build a genuinely challenging game, build a beautiful game, build for and with the touchscreen (not around it), and so on.
The thing is, I can point you, and pretty much anyone, at a dozen or more mobile games that all exemplify those principles memorably and in brilliant ways, and none of them have sold 5 million copies. A few games that come to mind:
And so on. None of these games have F2P interruptions, all are really genuinely built for touchscreen (none more so than Blek, what a miracle of touchscreen design!!), all are lovingly designed from an audio-visual perspective, they all have genuine systemic challenges, and so on. The thing that these games all have in common are Fireproof’s core principles, at least as they seem to be espoused in Barry’s essay. And while many of these games have been very successful, I think it’s safe to say that they’re not even on the same order of magnitude as The Room as far as popularity.
And the other, more important, thing is I would never include The Room in that list I just made. Not because that list is a bunch of “hipster” games (ha ha, take that, Gamasutra commenters), but because those games actually share these core principles, and The Room, somewhat weirdly, does not.
YOU ARE HISTORY’S GREATEST MONSTER
God, I know, lock me up already, right? How could I say such a thing? May I live the rest of my days in exile and madness.
As I said earlier, I have an enormous amount of respect for the craftsmanship and success of The Room. I just can’t for the life of me see what it has to do with these principles of designing for touch, making “hardcore” games, and so on. Actually, that’s not quite right; The Room is a “premium” game, with no F2P interruptions. However, it is also quite short and ends in a cliffhanger, so it’s not like it is a fully-contained experience either.
As far as respecting your audience and making a challenging game, this is probably the most subjective but for me most important distinction to make, which is that The Room is… lacking, in this, at least for me. The Room is essentially a very cleverly disguised Hidden Object Game, the lynchpin and perennial champion of the entire casual games industry for the last decade. The Room does not contain anything that is a puzzle in the functional/logical sense of the word. The Room is basically Where’s Waldo over and over and over again. The vast majority of the player’s time in The Room is not spent thinking about how to proceed, it’s spent staring at a thing trying to figure out where the next secret button is hidden.
Now to be clear I never felt like The Room was disrespectful to me as a player in the same way that most F2P games are. The Room is not openly disdainful of me, which believe me I appreciate. However, The Room does have this constant sense of… unjustified mystery. The narrative setting and in-game text all seem to reinforce the idea or the story that you, the player, are some kind of complete genius, the only human in the history of the world capable of unlocking the secrets within… this Where’s Waldo book. There’s a ludonarrative dissonance there, right, in pretending that a thing is a puzzle when it isn’t. It’s a bit condescending.
I only bring this up because that off-hand list of a dozen other mobile games do not do this, and it seems at odds with the principles described in the essay.
Finally, and this I can say with a bit more objectivity, The Room does not use the touchscreen particularly well. Zooming is clumsy and often counter-intuitive, multi-touch is almost entirely absent from the game, and there is little about the kind of inherent magic of a tactile interface that is present in the game. If you look at the list of games I made earlier, almost all of those games do really remarkable things with the touchscreen interface. Genius multi-touch implementations, inspirational gestural mechanics, friction-based force multipliers… it’s just a buffet of good touchscreen design. The Room is far from being a bad touchscreen game, which I hope I’ll make extra clear soon, but the idea that it excels in this department, as a principle, is I think incorrect.
WAIT SO HOW COME THE ROOM SOLD A BILLION COPIES THEN
Because, as I said earlier, The Room is the perfect iPad game. And a lot of luck, probably. But luck is out of your control, and when luck is out of your control, you focus on design, and hedge your bets. Let’s look at what The Room does better than any other iPad game:
- Ostentatiously good graphics. The Room is shiny and 3D and has cool lighting effects and every level is bespoke and full of custom transitions. The Room looks good and it is kind of constantly reminding you of this fact.
- Constant novelty. While the meta-structure of the game is extremely repetitive, the micro-structure is basically a series of one-off, hand-built widgets that function in unique ways. Superficially, every puzzle in The Room is new. Unlocking a new chapter in The Room promises and delivers a whole new bundle of these unique-looking puzzles.
- Constant positive reinforcement. Everything about the story and the design and the in-game text is there to tell the story of a genius named Player. Even though all you’re doing is looking for the next secret button, the game does a convincing job of dressing up this activity as not just an important mission but a mission that only you can do.
- (And luck, of course)
If you want to connect with the iOS audience, I think you could do worse than build a game that constantly tells the player that the game they’re playing is awesome, and that they’re awesome for playing it, and then on top of that doesn’t bury them with F2P bullshit. To my mind, that’s a winning recipe. And then to execute on that recipe with style and restraint, and to do it on a budget, that’s just… that’s a coup, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.
But at the same time, I also understand why not everyone wants to include those particular ingredients in their game.
OK FINE WHY DID YOU EVEN WRITE THIS
I wrote this because I think it would be relatively easy, especially for people new to mobile, to interpret the article Barry wrote as… a kind of “if you build it, they will come” sort of message. And actually, I tend to agree with that. As I type this, Blek is climbing the charts, and people are understandably falling in love with it.
Just not 5 million people. And that is completely OK.
Based on my experience and what I’ve seen in the iOS ecosystem for the last 6 years, you absolutely will not reach 5 million people just by making a premium iOS game with kickass touch controls, great graphics, and great gameplay. Not only is it not enough, all those great things may not even be related to that kind of success. If you want to reach an audience that broad, you might be better off focusing on the things The Room does do exceptionally well: advertise its own awesomeness, and congratulate the player for being part of it. That sounds cynical and if it does, well, so be it. But I am having trouble seeing it any other way.
Fortunately for all of us, you don’t need to sell 5 million copies of a game to make more than enough money to make a few more games. You can sell two orders of magnitude less than that and still have a decent financial success on your hands. Get lucky and sell 5-10x more than that, and your little shop can make 2-3 more games. Even this is quite difficult and rare, but much, much more common (and achievable) than the sort of impossible scale of The Room’s success.
So if you’re inspired by the idea that mobile is burning, and that only you can save it, I really can’t imagine anything better. Just… do it to save mobile games, don’t do it for the 5 million copies sold.
(And yes, I noticed that I left Minecraft out of this)
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