Why mobile games suck

Mobile games do certain things very, very well, but there are a couple of trends that can ruin the experience.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
6 min read

Mobile games do certain things very, very well, but there are a couple of trends that can ruin the experience.

(Credit: King.com)

While we absolutely love the platform that mobile gaming provides for independent creators — seeing the rise of some truly creative titles that wouldn't get a look-in under a big-name publisher — there are some places where it fails miserably.

We've all downloaded at least one of those games. You know, where you open it, and within five minutes are deleting it from your device in disgust, wishing you'd never taken the time to download it. Here are some of the trends in mobile gaming that we hate the most.


So you're merrily playing along, when all of a sudden your game grinds to a halt and an ad flashes up on the screen. You'd like to close it and be on your merry way, but there's some sort of timer on the close button, leaving you staring at the screen in both bewilderment and irritation for a few seconds while waiting for it to appear.

And, of course, there's always the chance that you manage to somehow accidentally tap the ad, navigating you away from the app and into your phone's browser — sometimes crashing your game in the process.

If you're playing a game for free, this is the price, so generally we just suck it up and deal if we're enjoying the game. A minor inconvenience is worth the developer getting paid. In a paid app, it's unforgivable.

By far the worst example of this we've seen is EA's Tetris Blitz. Yes, it's a free game; but at the same time, it also aggressively promotes in-app purchases (IAP), which account for most of the revenue generated by mobile games. In February this year, IAP accounted for 76 per cent of Apple's app revenue — so, while you can play the game for free, there's no doubt that EA is making money from it.

Putting ads — video ads that you can't skip for eight seconds, sometimes popping up mid-game instead of in between menu screens, as well as a banner ad on every screen — seems like greedy double dipping, especially since it's EA; not a publisher that seems to be lacking in revenue. Even from an indie publisher, that would seem a tall order to tolerate. Any one of these things on its own can be irritating; all together, they're downright intrusive.

Some apps do a decent job of integrating ads without interrupting the flow of a game; a discreet banner here or there, or an ad on the loading screen. If your advertising is at the point where players feel the game is little more than a vehicle for it, your strategy is bad and you should feel bad.


IAP is the hot thing in mobile gaming, generating vast amounts of revenue. Last year, IAP alone accounted for US$970 million in sales, and is projected to reach US$5.6 billion by 2015, so a developer can't be blamed for wanting to hop aboard the money train.

We've seen it implemented in a number of ways, and one thing is pretty clear: there are ways to do it well, and there are ways to do it very, very badly. We've seen it done well in a couple of games that stand out; Scurvy Scallywags, where there's literally no way to purchase anything in-game unless you die and don't have enough in-game money to resurrect; and Happy Street, which makes the premium currency a little slower to obtain, but ticking along at a fast enough pace that you genuinely don't have to make a purchase unless you want some of the higher-end in-game items.

It's a lot easier to do it badly. One enormous bugbear is games where, if you don't spend money, you have to stop playing. Town sims, such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Fantasy Town and even Pixel People are particularly bad for this. Each action has a timer; for example, building a house takes two hours. You can turn the game off and come back two hours later, or pay to speed it up.

One egregious example is, of course, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. At launch, the title had quest items — that is, items where you couldn't progress without obtaining them — available for premium currency that would either take hundreds of dollars or years to collect. Last month, developer Gameloft apparently lowered (but didn't remove) those prices, but we don't know whether it was a decent price cut. We walked away from the game not long after starting it, and never looked back.

Candy Crush Saga, currently massively popular, is also guilty of "pay to win". The match-three game is free to download, but it has a number of features built in to encourage you to spend. Each level gives you only a set number of moves; the first few levels are easy, but, as you progress, it gets harder to do. When you fail a level, the game gives you an option: keep playing, or spend some money for bonus power-ups? And you can't just keep trying, either: you only have five lives, with a half-hour timer between each one regenerating. Of course, you can buy more.

It seems particularly pointed in Candy Crush Saga, because the game is not unique by a long stretch of the imagination; match-three games are a dime a dozen on any app store, so it isn't even offering a different experience for the money it clearly expects you to pay.

It's not all bad, and some developers do discover that there are better ways to implement IAP. Popular isometric dungeon crawler Heroes Call had a system that implemented a wait between missions. It was a good day when developer Defiant realised that it was terribly frustrating to its players, and took that particular feature out of the game.

Generally, we believe that IAP should not make a player feel railroaded into spending money. Many gamers are happy to drop a few dollars here and there if they're enjoying a game. The IAP should be attractive — something that players want to spend money on — and also completely optional. Unfortunately, too many dodgy developers see mobile games as a cash cow, and their audience as nothing but a wallet.


Touchscreens are just not well suited to joystick and D-pad controls. Without tactile feedback, your fingers tend to wander about, miss buttons and slip. There are a few products that can alleviate this; third-party controllers can be used for Android devices, and iOS 7 will be including controller support. We like the Fling analogue joysticks; but, overall, the kinds of first- and third-person action-adventure games seen on consoles are poorly implemented.

This isn't the fault of the developers; they're working with a difficult platform and consumer demand. However, it's rare that a digital D-pad doesn't cause some level of frustration. First- and third-person games that implement decent touchscreen controls are relatively rare, but they do exist. Phosphor Games' Horn is a good example, using tapping locations to navigate, and a combination of tapping and swiping for combat. Dead Space is another. It can be done.

When you're shopping for a new mobile game, it's important to bear a couple of things in mind. It's a very small percentage of games that is completely fresh and original; while more indie developers do gravitate toward mobile than console, most of the games you'll see are very similar to other games. If a game feels like it's consistently in your face with annoying pop-ups or persistent requests for money, shop around — chances are you'll be able to find a similar game that does none of those things.

And if a game is technically sub-par, drop the developers a message. They'd love to hear from their audiences about how they can improve their work going forward.