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The seven deadly sins of mobile games

We love our mobile games, but there are a few tendencies -- annoying, manipulative, or sometimes both -- that need to go away.

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

Always online

If you're designing a game for a mobile device, it makes sense that the game is, in fact, mobile. Not every mobile device has internet connectivity -- iPods and some tablets, for example. Additionally, there are times when the connectivity will need to be turned off -- flight mode exists for a reason. And, of course, some users don't want to use up all their data on games.

This makes it rather vexing when a game, particularly a single-player game, simply won't load unless the device is connected to the internet -- rendering the game's "mobile" status completely useless.

Midnight Castle is a perfect example -- a single-player hidden object game that can't be played offline, at all. More recently, I've been playing the otherwise excellent Spirit Lords, an adventure RPG that can be played either multiplayer or solo -- yet there's no offline mode.

Female character? Pay up.

12-year-old Madeline Messer was shocked to discover that only 46 percent of the top 50 endless runners on the iTunes app store contained female characters (compared to 98 percent for male characters) -- and that only 15 percent of these apps allowed you to play female characters from the outset, without needing to unlock them with some sort of currency -- either in-game or via in-app purchase.

This is not unique to endless runners, and it's never a surprise to find a game that either doesn't have female characters at all, or expects the player to wait or pay to unlock them. It's pretty frustrating -- yet having unlockable content is clearly here to stay.

The best solution to this I've seen is actually an endless runner by the name of Running Quest. When you launch the game for the first time, it gives you a choice of male or female character. The character you don't choose then becomes unlockable with in-game currency.

Persistent pop-ups

We understand and we're totally on board: if you make a game, you deserve to see some sort of return on your hard work... but with the expectation that mobile games should be cheap or free, that's not always easy. Many games subsidise with advertising; the most popular kinds are banner ads and 30-second pop-up videos.

Some developers will remove all ads with either a "remove ads" IAP or simply if you make any kind of IAP. This is a wonderful solution: it allows the developer to get paid either way, and gives the player a choice.

Some games, however, simply don't have that option available -- and, when it seems that every loading screen becomes an opportunity for an unskippable pop-up, the game becomes too much of a drag to play, especially with so many other titles to choose from.


At the height of Flappy Bird mania, every day saw dozens of Flappy Bird clones uploaded to the iTunes app store -- never mind Google Play. Actually, go have a look at the latter for yourself.

Mobile provides an incredible, accessible platform for creative, original indie developers who might not have otherwise had a chance. But that very accessibility also provides a platform for every bandwagon-jumper with two coding skills to rub together. The wake of every popular game is peppered liberally with unscrupulous clones trying to cash in.

Some developers get a little creative with it, mixing two different games to make something new while still leveraging search terms. Apple cracks down on these a little harder than Google Play, where you can find such gems as Five Nights at Craft: Freddy, a bizarre mash-up of Minecraft and Five Nights at Freddy's.

Pay to win

Other developers use IAP to help solve the problem of how to see a return on their hard work. This can work well -- allowing players to purchase in-game currency for a bit of a boost forward of they feel the game is progressing too slowly, or cosmetic items such as different costumes for their characters.

When it becomes a problem is when you can't reasonably finish a game without spending money -- essentially, "pay to win," such as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which, at launch, technically could be played for free from start to finish -- if you played every day for 10 years or so. It was a clear cash-grab in a game for children.

This is frustrating enough in a single-player game, but where it gets even more frustrating is when IAP gives players a competitive edge in multiplayer titles. This means players who don't pay money simply can't compete -- necessitating IAP if one wants to continue to progress.

Sudden difficulty skyrocket

Have you ever downloaded a new arcade or puzzle game and had a really nice time initially, getting the hang of play, scoring three gold stars on the first 10 levels or so -- only to suddenly find yourself losing repeatedly? There's probably a technical developer term for this sudden, extremely sharp difficulty curve, but we don't know what it is. It's an insidious, tricksy thing, usually paired with the deadliest mobile gaming sin of all...

Wait or pay

Say you're playing a game, merrily just minding your own beeswax. All of a sudden -- you run out of lives, or "energy" -- there's some sort of meter that determines how many turns you're allowed to have.

Once this meter is depleted, you'll have to stop playing for a bit. Sure, it regenerates over time, but you still have to wait. Well, you don't actually have to wait... if you're willing to part with a few dollars via IAP, you can continue playing.

Yes: your game is held for ransom. Some argue that this is akin to feeding coins into an arcade machine, but there is a crucial difference: an arcade machine is understood to be a temporary experience, and all arcade machines are created equal. That is the standard model of payment for arcade machines.

For mobile games, there are other options available... and if gamers are forced to stop playing a game, that is time they will spend playing games by other developers. Deliberately and actively preventing people from playing is a surefire way to see players look for their mobile entertainment elsewhere.

What's your mobile gaming pet peeve? Sound off in the comments below.