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Why AAA games are abandoning mobile devices

BioshockDead SpaceMass EffectNintendo

The mobile market is in a strange situation right now. Activision purchased King, the makers of Candy Crush Saga and a dozen other “saga” spin off games for $5.9 billion and yet big name titles like BioShock and Dead Space are getting pulled from the app market. It’s a messed up world when Scrubby Dubby Saga beats out BioShock’s Rapture. Yet there are some logical reasons why this is happening.

Not worth the investment

We have to remember that videogame companies are businesses looking to turn a profit. Every decision is based on dollars and cents, so when a company looks to port a game to mobile platforms, it’s viewed as an investment.

Of course, these big name publishers want their piece of the mobile pie. It’s a huge opportunity for companies that develop apps and games. It’s a chance to tap into new markets and increase profitability. That’s why Activision purchased King. It wasn’t necessarily for the games, but the access to millions of new consumers.

Some may think that porting a game to tablets and smartphones would be easy, but the past shows that anytime a game is ported to a new platform, it’s a long and difficult road. Take Batman: Arkham Knight for example. It was developed with consoles in mind and then ported to computers by a third party, resulting in a terrible mess. This experience helps display how hard it can be to port a game, so imagine how difficult it must be to move games to mobile devices.

This requires the publisher to pay either employees or third party developers a hefty sum to adapt their game for smartphones. That requires a new control scheme using touch screens, optimizing the graphics to be playable on most mobile devices, and possibly having to repeat the entire process if they want the game to be available on both Apple and Android devices. So before they even make a decision, companies have to predict whether there’s a market for their game on a mobile platform.

Requires a long term commitment

With the power of the internet, developers can release updates and patches to fix bugs in their games, which is a wonderful thing. It also means that after a game is released, the team is still hard at work improving the experience for their players. At a certain point though, the game is deemed finished and the team moves on to other projects.

Not so much for mobile games though. Since Apple and Android products get new operating systems and new phones every year, this means a whole new crop of problems. A new operating system could just cause a few new bugs in a game, or it could lead to it not working at all. It could also affect how much memory a game can use and may lead to poor performance. New phones means new screen sizes, graphic capabilities and possibly introduce other hardware issues. To fix this, companies need to keep at least a few developers on staff to fix these bugs when they pop up.

Eventually, the company has to weigh their profits against the cost. Whether it’s a few years, or just a few months, a big mobile game like Dead Space gets pulled so that the developer can focus on future games and get the most out of their assets. That’s exactly what EA did when they pulled Mass Effect Infiltrator. So the game gets pulled, and the company makes a new plan to increase their profits.

Following the trends

Great games are born out of innovation but money is made off of doing the same thing over and over. That’s why we have dozens of Call of Duty games, hundreds of Candy Crush clones and why everybody was making a Flappy Bird game a few years ago. If something works, then companies will milk that idea for every cent they can.

So the blame for great AAA games on mobile devices falls to the developers, but we as gamers are also at fault too. If more people had purchased ports of AAA games, then more companies would have jumped on board. The lack of interest, both from avid and casual gamers, resulted in botched experiments with big name games. It’s not just one party’s fault, but an unfortunate circumstance that both developers and gamers contributed to.

It’s hard to know why a ported AAA game failed, but I have a few thoughts. The first goes with difficult control schemes. Shooter games on phones and tablets are difficult to control and typically don’t handle well. That’s why we don’t see them dominating on mobile platforms, but they top the charts for console and PC platforms. They require a level of precision and quick responses that just can’t be achieved easily with touch screen controls.

Another thought is that these games don’t fit within the normal realms in mobile games and are harder to play. Let’s take Dead Space for example. It’s a game with a healthy learning curve and requires a different approach from most games. Players have to invest a lot of time to learn how to play in order to progress through the game. Mobile games that are highly successful are designed for shorter, but frequent, play session that can take anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes at a time. Games that follow this pattern are: Clash of Clans, Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, and Subway Surfers. It’s very difficult to adapt this type of play style into a more intense game like Dead Space without losing the spirit of the game.


Lack of nostalgia

One big untapped market for most developers is porting ‘nostalgic’ games to mobile devices. Where are the Crash Bandicoot, Mario, Zelda, and Megaman games? Gamers want authentic ports of these games, not ripoff clones or their beloved characters pushed into a Minecraft or Temple Run remake.

Some companies are already cashing in on this idea, like Sega with Sonic games, Square Enix with old Final Fantasy titles and Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Hopefully this trend will continue and will gain enough support so our beloved games don’t go the way of Dead Space and other big name games and be pulled from the market.

Another ray of hope is Nintendo’s decision to pursue mobile app development. While their first announced game, Miitomo, isn’t what gamers were expecting, they still have the chance for great things. Maybe we’ll get our Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda mobile games afterall.

baldur's gateI have high hopes for the future and developers porting over great games. I think they should avoid shooters because of the complex controls, but that doesn’t mean they should stop porting games entirely. I think the mobile version of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition was an excellent example of a port done right. With the point and click control scheme, using a touch screen made sense.

I also have hopes that developers will start making original games with nostalgic characters. Maybe a Battletoads Turbo Tunnel game (much harder than Flappy Bird) or maybe Super Mario Maker for smartphones. These type of games could still resonate with a wider audience audience, but would still capture that nostalgia feeling gamers love.

What are your thoughts? What games do you hope get ported over? Should AAA games get ported at all or does it ruin the game? Let us know in the comments below.  

The author of this fine article

is a at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 1970. Get in touch on Twitter @allen24ben.

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