Colin Is Wrong

Today’s Neon Cheetahs is brought to you by the term “falsifiable”.  This is a primarily scientific term, and in that sense refers to testing a scientific theory – by proposing a hypothesis that can be tested as either accurate to the world or not accurate.  In a somewhat broader rhetorical sense, it can also refer to making an argument for which there is no contrapositive.  For instance: “Car accidents are always caused by bicyclists” is obviously incorrect.  However, neither is the statement “Car accidents are never caused by bicyclists” correct.   The correct answer is somewhere in between.

I would like us to examine this in the context of one of the latest episodes of “Kinda Funny’s” Colin Was Right in which he talks about how Mobile Games Ruined Everything.  I’ve included the original video below, since to make a cohesive argument, it’s worth seeing the context for his arguments.  Now, the first issue that I have with his tack is, honestly, the speed at which he slings his arrows and then jumps to the next point.  It is a frequent tactic of those whose rhetorical skills are greater than their factual basis, but the frequent conflation, movement and counterthrusts make dissecting the broader thesis a frustrating exercise.  He converts correlation to causation, and then causation to fault faster than a Roger Federer serve.  No sooner do I find myself saying “yeah, Free-to-Play can be exploitative” than he tries to make me carry that feeling all the way to the (il)logical conclusion that all of mobile gaming is dangerous.

So, a breakdown of his points, and then a bit of analysis beyond that is, I think, in order.  And we will see that many of these things are not caused by mobile gaming a priori and superia omnibus, but are actually from a different place all together.

Colin’s points are, as follows:

  1. Not everyone who plays video games is a gamer
  2. That mobile gaming’s “race to the bottom” was an intentional drive to undercut each other such that Free to Play became the only option.
    • Related to this, he is upset about the fact that consumers are mad about the price for Super Mario Run.
  3. The difficulty of sifting through online store catalogs, such as Steam and the ever increasing amount of dross within.
  4. Predatory treatment by Free-to-Play developers has bled into the regular gaming market.
  5. That otherwise “good” games were ruined by Free-to-Play attitudes.
  6. That most mobile games don’t actually even turn a profit, so their numbers aren’t that impressive.

Now, let’s go back to that word from the beginning – falsifiable.  The problem here is that the “right” answer is not directly contrary to most of these points.  That being said, there is definitely another way of looking at them.  And make no mistake, this isn’t some benighted desire to apologize for the transgressions of free-to-play games.  That genre is, on the whole, an execrable bundle of nastiness that appeals to humanity’s basest and most selfish instincts.  No, the problem is that by being so quick to point to the “obvious” scapegoat, we risk missing the actual wolf in our midst.

Colin has done an excellent job in organizing his list, because the place he ends is the same place I wanted to start.  His complaint that most games on mobile don’t actually turn a profit, or that the numbers aren’t that impressive based on the amount of smart devices sold, is possibly the largest case of myopia since Monet’s unfortunate difficulty in seeing his own paintings.  Because the thing he’s missing is that the people running the companies don’t care about the average app.  They care about the most profitable apps.   And games like Candy Crush Saga pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.  Again, this isn’t a defense of mobile games, just a statement of fact.

The thing is – it’s not like this is something unique to the mobile games market.  When World of Warcraft was the biggest game on the planet, every major company wanted their taste of that MMO money.   When Wii Sports took off, every company that could afford a development kit was suddenly a Wii developer.  When Arkham Asylum became huge, suddenly every game for about 2 years had Batman combat.  Heck, there’s a landfill somewhere in New Mexico that could tell you a few things about companies chasing too hard after the almighty dollar.  I was going to give Colin the benefit of the doubt that maybe he didn’t know about that, but he’s 9 days older than I am, so he doesn’t really have that excuse.

And MMO’s lead right into the next point – that many otherwise good games were ruined by Free-to-Play attitudes.  To this argument, I would first say I need to see his proof, because neither of the games he mentioned in his article (Kill Strain and Drawn to Death) would have interested me even if they were to be totally free and come with a Faberge egg with a genie inside of it*.

People like the Angry Video Game Nerd have made entire careers out of mocking the “diarrhea dump” that came out on pre-smart phone consoles.

However, there have been MMO’s that have been acceptable under various free-to-play systems.  As discussed on our own Spitball Sessions podcast, EVE online has recently made the transition to Free-to-Play, following in the grand tradition of MMO’s as varied as Champions, The Old Republic, and Lord of the Rings Online.  In fact, one of the games that I most consider synonymous with the modern, exploitative style of F2P gaming, $99 “best value” and all – Planetside 2 – came out a mere 6 days after Candy Crush Saga’s ignominious release.  Am I to believe, then, that the developers of Planetside 2 were so dumbstruck by the angelic choirs that apparently heralded Candy Crush’s revolutionizing of the entire gaming market that they decided to entirely alter their business model within the span of six days?  Or is it possible that they were simply chasing a market reality that was, in November of 2012, already well underway?

I don’t think there’s much to dissect of Colin’s fourth point.   I agree that many free-to-play games can be exploitative.  They’re basically just giant, interactive Skinner boxes.  But this is a fault of social gaming, long before it was an aspect of mobile gaming.  Farmville started out as a Facebook game, and Ian Bogost’s attempt to parody and mock it (Cow Clicker) itself managed to become a popular, lucrative game in its own right.  It turns out that ironic Skinner boxes still work just as well as those built with greed.  But again, let’s target the correct villain here.  Saying that mobile gaming is inherently morally bankrupt simply because a large number of games released for it are exploitative social games is like saying that alcohol is evil because people who abuse it can cause problems.

His point about the ever increasing tide of games for the Steam marketplace, likewise, has less to do with “mobile gaming”, and more to do with the rise of the indie game market.  It also subtly winks at the elitism of his audience.  Because more games on Steam, his audience will think, means a further dilution of the ‘core’ games.  It means more of what the plebians, the proletariat, the unwashed masses of Philistines consider games.  Never mind that some of those games aren’t even for the Steam English storefront.  Never mind that many of those will be filtered out so that their delicate eyes will never have to glance at that filth.  The fact that games they don’t want to play are winding up on Steam is a travesty!  It’s making a mockery of their hero, GabeN!

After all, it’s not like shovelware has existed forever.  No, wait, let’s be honest with ourselves here.  People like the Angry Video Game Nerd have made entire careers out of mocking the “diarrhea dump” that came out on systems older than cell phones, much less the iPhone marketplace.  Heck, XBLA started threatening to purge bad games from their store before Apple’s app store even launched.  Companies need to release products to stay in business.  And not all of those products are good.  This is as true of books, alcohol, auto parts, and water bottles as it is of video games.  If anything, I lay this blame on two suspects – the first, as mentioned, is the rise of the indie market. As more and more developers pull away from large companies to forge out on their own, the pool spreads wider.  More companies need revenue to stay afloat, leading to more companies doing whatever they can to get a profit on their books.  And this leads us to the second culprit – gamers.

The free to play trend was an inevitability.  At some point, the prices of games had to move.  DLC was the first shot across the bows, and we remember how that was received.  And there’s still plenty of gross and exploitative DLC being peddled for non free-to-play games, so it’s not as though that will dry up any time soon.  Because the reality is that games are constantly getting more complicated and more expensive to produce, but players simply don’t want to pay the prices those games would actually cost to produce.  And the more game companies seek alternate revenue streams, the more gamers throw it back in their face.

The race to the bottom has far more to do with the entitlement of gamers than the predatory nature of devs.  Many devs have decried the “race” for a long time.  For many, selling a game for 99 cents on the app store simply doesn’t allow them to recoup the amount they put in to creating the game.  But paid apps on the app store are frequently loaded with “Why is this game so expensive?”  reviews.  I recently bought Steins;Gate  for my iPad (on sale) for $8.  The game is $35 on PC, and I would argue that the iPad is actually a better way to play the game since it’s text heavy.  Most of the comments on the article I saw announcing this sale were “Why would you charge $8 for a mobile game.  I think you should consider only charging $4.  I certainly wouldn’t want to pay that much for a game on my mobile device. If I want to play a game, I’ll use my PC.”

The race to the bottom has far more to do with the entitlement of gamers than the predatory nature of devs.

And this is a problem.  Gamers want more games, for less money, always.  That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be smart consumers and buy intelligently.  Game development isn’t a charity service.  And that’s not to say that there aren’t devs exploiting weird loopholes and abusing their players.  But in the struggle between people who want to pay $1 for the entire universe, and people who want all the money in the universe, the “average” gamer is the one who always loses.
Also, Colin’s apparent outrage about people not wanting to pay a “premium price” for Super Mario Run ignores the fact that Super Mario Run is not a very good game.  It’s definitely not a good Super Mario game, and even as an endless runner it leaves a lot to be desired.  Additionally, the way the in-app purchases are set up, it makes it look like it costs $30 to buy all 6 worlds, a price that would be expensive for a console Mario game, much less an endless runner in Mario costuming.   The fact that Colin would complain about people not paying money to support developers overcharging for a subpar game, simply because it offered the ability to buy all of the game at once would seem to fly in the face of his argument.   There are far better games he could put effort into defending – Sentinels of the Multiverse for example.

Which actually does, in a weird way, lead us to Colin’s first point –  not everyone who plays video games want the same thing.  And shockingly, here we agree.  So I’ll just wrap it up there.

…Well, just one more thing.   See, this would be a good point, except that the thing he’s apparently using it for is to justify the continuation of exactly the same kinds of games we had before this explosion of the Steam market, the rise of the indie scene, and the decline of the “Triple A” video game.  The major “core” game developers pandered to their audience with the exact same basic games over and over.  His argument that “we know that 50% of the population doesn’t actually play video games” rings false when he then tries to argue that this isn’t some gatekeeper argument.

There are numerous good mobile games.  You have to look a little harder sometimes, and do a bit of research, but they’re there.

The reason that so many more people have gotten into gaming is because the gaming space has matured enough to allow them in.  And while there are plenty of games that I don’t like, don’t understand, and don’t see a purpose for, this has always been the case.  I, myself, would probably be counted as a “non-core” gamer.  Sure, I own over 600 games on Steam, and play at least 4 or 5 hours a week.  But I think the last shooter I bought was in June of 2016.  I hate Counter Strike, am bored by DotA, and have never even touched a Call of Duty game.  And yet, because I’m a gamer, people assume that those are the things I play and love.

I agree that marketing to the same people who play Farmville obsessively is a short sighted and non-sustainable decision.  But so were Tony Hawk, music games, WW2 shooters, MMORPG’s, Wii games and many others.  Businesses will always chase the almighty dollar.  But to blame this on mobile, or even social, gaming is equally short-sighted and far more dangerous.  Part of making a change is voting with your wallet.  But a vote for the wrong things will just continue to feed the monstrous beast that is corporate greed.

And that’s, perhaps, the thing that saddens me the most.  There are numerous good mobile games.  You have to look a little harder sometimes, and do a bit of research, but they’re there.  I’ve written about a few here on Neon Cheetahs.  There’s tons of board game ports, and now even games that are getting backported from PC – games like Hero Generations, Mini Metro, Invisible Inc and King of Dragon Pass.  There are so many good, high quality mobile games, that wasting this much breath on the free-to-play dross almost seems like a waste.

But it isn’t.  Because those are exactly the things we should be voting for with our wallets – good, high quality games.  Reward people who do good work, who put in effort and make something you love.  Whether that game be a hundred dollars, five dollars, or free, support the things you want to see more of.   This is not the first time I’ve disagreed with Mr. Moriarty, and unfortunately it probably won’t be the last.  But the point of view he’s coming from here seems short-sighted and divisive.  Rather than trying to turn this into a battle between mobile gamers and “core” gamers, or even between gamers and people developing mobile games, the true battle should involve both gamers and developers (of all kinds) fighting against bad, exploitative games and the people who want to turn a quick profit off of them.  Because that’s a fight that everyone can win.


*Full disclosure: The only game I’ve played which had Faberge Egg was The Last Express.  No genie in it, though.

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