You probably see it on your morning commute: someone frowning at their phone, jabbing the screen. Peer over their shoulder and witness dayglo candy falling, fizzing and bursting in kaleidoscopic chain reactions. These games may seem featherweight, simply filling dead time, but they’re a huge part of the industry.
Smartphones have brought the biggest shift in the past decade of gaming. Industry analyst Newzoo expects mobile games to bring in $68.5bn this year, which is 45 per cent of the global market. Phones have turned people who might never touch a PlayStation controller into the owner of a gaming device, attracting a significant influx of female and older players.
They are mostly drawn to casual games, a genre defined by simplicity and designed to be played in short bursts. These may look harmless, but their artistic integrity and morality has been questioned more than any other genre. To understand why, we must explore how they are designed.
The recipe for casual games was written in Pac-Man and Tetris on 1980s machines, Solitaire and Minesweeper on personal computers and Snake, fondly remembered by owners of early Nokia mobiles. When technology allowed games to be played through web browsers, social media and smartphones, casual gaming exploded.
The first phenomenon was Angry Birds, in which you catapult furious fowl at evil green pigs. It blended surreal characters with the central mechanic of all successful casual games: it was easy to grasp, but hard to master.
“Match-three” games like Bejewelled or Homescapes are the most popular casual sub-genre, in which you rearrange coloured blocks. The dominant title is Candy Crush Saga, which has been downloaded more than 2.5bn times. Most people play to unwind, despite the Byzantine rules of its special tiles and the fiendish difficulty of later levels. It appeals to what Newzoo calls the largest sector in the gamer demography, not the “conventional player” but the “time filler”, a casual gaming native who accounts for 27 per cent of all players.
The game is hard to put down. It seems purpose-built to promote compulsive play, deploying a constant thrum of audiovisual feedback in the form of stars, coins and points. Such games are commonly compared to slot machines, which keep players hooked using a psychological principle known as “variable ratio reinforcement”. This describes how giving rewards at unpredictable intervals encourages repetitive, compulsive behaviour.
Critics reserve special venom for the payment model casual games have pioneered, known as “freemium”. Rather than paying to download the game, you start playing for free but are then offered in-app purchases for new content. This is sometimes merely cosmetic additions, but often you can buy tools to help you progress. Some games use dubious tactics to push players towards these microtransactions, such as punishing difficulty or making them wait to play more unless they pay. Most games can be beaten for free with enough practice, but many gamers are tempted by the “pay to win” model.
Most troublingly, analysis shows that most in-app purchases are made by a tiny proportion of each game’s players, so a few cash cows support the free play of the rest. A 2019 report by Swrve found that 10 per cent of mobile gamers account for 64.5 per cent of total revenue. This fact, paired with design that encourages compulsive play, paints casual game developers as somewhat predatory. In an acerbic takedown of these games on the animated TV show South Park, a character cries: “You didn’t build a mobile game, you built an addiction machine!”
Some creators show remorse. The man behind Flappy Bird, which went viral in 2014, took the game offline after a month because it was too addictive. He tweeted about his guilt: “I cannot take this any more.”
There is a reason why many seasoned gamers look down on the casual market. What relationship can we have with developers who, instead of building games to be purchased for their quality, try to milk players through microtransactions? Beautifully crafted mobile game series such as The Room, Alto’s Adventure or Monument Valley show that the world of mobile gaming has not passed the point of no return. It just needs to treat players as discerning customers rather than gullible prey.