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The RPG Files: Mobile RPGs Have Major Problems

Columns By Christopher Coke on July 08, 2016

Mobile RPGs Have Major Problems

Something interesting happened this week. In the run up to writing this column, I gather every RPG news story I can find and choose the best to share out in the Quick Hits. Most of the time, it’s major AAA releases or indie games hitting Kickstarter or Early Access. This week was dominated by games you can play on on your phone. Every week has mobile news stories of course, but this week saw the rollout of Pokemon Go, Snail Games Kingdom Warriors, Soul Ark getting down with its turn-based self, and, most unexpectedly, Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast. It has me wondering if maybe it’s time I start caring about mobile RPGs, but can they overcome their most major problems?

Here’s the problem. I feel like a lot of mobile games are just schlock. Every single week we get inundated with hundreds of new games. Most of these are so terrible that they never even surface on their App Stores. Instead, we have Best Of lists, Top Paid and Top Free charts, and Editor’s Choices to help us sort the good from the trash. Even then, in the world of RPGs, it’s difficult to find a mobile game that is simultaneously fun, well made, and not dragged down by microtransactions.

The problems are numerous, but the worst is the looming threat that something you do enjoy will suddenly be turned sour out of the blue. Congratulations on defeating that boss! You are now out of energy. Tap here to purchase an energy pack. That business model is an irritation, and I am an irritation averse person. More times than I can count, I have spurned the download button purely because “offers in-app purchases” appears underneath it. I may not be giving those games a fair shot, but I care far less than anywhere else. This is the hole mobile games dug when they set out to nickel and dime players into becoming whales. It’s a problem with precedent, plus the surety that most players won’t even remember the game’s name in six months time.

This is less of a problem in other genres where the gameplay is more casual. The Simpsons: Tapped Out is a good example: build a town over time; do a mission, take a break. But RPGs aren’t that. RPGs are deep. They ask you to invest in their characters and story. They want you to dig into the marrow and see the game through to the end. Or they should. Too often, mobile games are just a medium to drive you into a cash shop and are unabashedly pay to win. Even if you’ve already paid for the game up front, which should, but doesn’t always, eliminate these problems.

Another problem is finding a game that’s worth paying attention to. There is no safe bet, sans reviews, with anything you will find on the App Store. Sure, you’ll have your Rovio’s, where company pedigree makes a difference. But those studios are like diamonds in the rough. There is no gatekeeper on our app stores, no real curation. Those lists and charts are flavor of the month and far from being free of copycats and cheap clones. Trying to find a good, true RPG in there is a nightmare. Most are RPG super-lite or cheap asian grinders without any soul. Plus microtransactions because of course there are.

The best games I’ve found are ports. Sadly, Square Enix -- the biggest true RPG producer on mobile, has priced their many of their games prohibitively high. $16 for Final Fantasy VI on a touch screen? No thank you, not when there are better platforms to buy it on for less. The problem doesn’t rise from price alone, however, it’s also that games retrofit for touch controls are often the worst versions of those games. Some pull it off, and in those cases, the price is well worth it for a full RPG experience. Being able to play Knights of the Old Republic on the go is great. Still, where are the excellent, designed from the ground up mobile RPGs that challenge these ports?

That’s right, they’re like unicorns, because those games are almost impossible to make for mobile game prices. No one wants to invest thousands or even millions to launch a new IP on mobile with a price of $10 or more, when $4.99 is considered steep.  It’s business suicide.

And yet… and yet, mobile is not something that can be ignored. This week proves it. Kingdom Warriors and Soul Ark may turn out to be drivel, but I would be lying if I said they didn’t look fun. Technology is advancing in such a way that every new phone unveiling raises the ceiling on what’s possible. And for every 1,000 terrible games there is one that will really surprise you. They are few and far between in the RPG world, but they exist. Oceanhorn on iOS was excellent, for example. Maybe Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast will be the next (or at least have an awesome soundtrack).

More importantly, game studios are tying their franchises into mobile apps like never before. Square Enix has pushed into the mobile space for years. Their latest game, Final Fantasy Brave Exvius is part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis multiverse, along with their major console releases (this time with microtransactions!). Fallout Shelter was another tie-in app married to Fallout 4. In and out of the RPG world, more and more studios are going for “increased value” by upselling you on their mobile apps and games, making them something that will only matter more as time goes on.

But at the end of the day, I struggle with mobile RPGs. I suspect I’m not alone. What do you think?

Quick Hits

The excellent State of Decay is receiving a retail release in a Year One Survival Edition. The game will come with all the DLC, a hardback clamshell case, and a double-sided poster.

Likewise, The Witcher 3 will be receiving a Game of the Year Edition. According to the German software self-regulation group, USK, and confirmed by CD Projekt Red, the GOTY edition will feature all of the updates and downloadable content the game has received thus far.

Lastly, in exciting news for Xbox One and Windows 10 PC owners, Microsoft will be launching their Play Anywhere service on September 13th. The program will allow owners of both platforms to purchase the game once to play on both systems.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.