For some, digital distribution is a blessing – it gives them a means to buy and enjoy video games without the worry and hassle of interacting with (or even looking at) another human being. For others, it’s a curse, robbing them of their physical possessions and threatening to steal away their games for account violations, or making inappropriate comments to level 2 tech support.
But like it or not, digital distribution is here to stay. Not only that, but there is a literal bevy of services to choose from, each with its own perks and drawbacks. Choosing who you want to throw your money at can be something of a commitment, so this review series is dedicated to helping you – dear reader – decide which one is best for you.
Today, I’ll be talking not only about Google Play as a service, but also the Android experience as a whole. So this will also be a bit of a platform hoedown.
Google’s download service is a tough nut to crack. Previously the Android Market, it’s a distribution hodgepodge, selling music, books, magazines, movies, apps, games and even hardware. According to Google, there are over 700,000 apps (hencewith hitherfor referred to as ‘programs’) available for download. Unfortunately, only about 5 of them are actually worth downloading, and one of those is a flashlight.
Google can boast about the number of programs and movies and books that are available for download on Play all they want, but have phones ever really excelled at any of these tasks? Have you ever read a book on your phone? It’s torture. David Lynch said it best. “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a movie on your fucking telephone. Get real.”
Smartphone games are different. Angry Birds has been downloaded over 2 billion times. To put that in perspective, if you took every phone with a downloaded copy of Angry Birds, and laid them out on the ground, they would cover an area almost 1,500 times the size of Wales. Now that’s success. So surely there’s got to be more good software to back up those numbers… right?
Mobile phone gaming is, and perhaps always will be, a creative wasteland. It’s not that it went stagnant over time, oh no. It was always stagnant. It was stillborn. Day in, day out, the Play top sellers list changes letters and numbers, but the overall idea is always the same. There’s always some inane social game(s), there’s always a jewel-matching game, there’s always a temple run clone, and there’s always the most recent edition of Angry Birds. At time of writing, ‘Fart Sound Free’ is ranked at number 7 in the top 10 free programs. Most of Play’s more enticing games are hand-me-downs from popular handhelds, or retro ports and re-imaginings. However, these games are often so hopelessly gimped that they’re barely worth playing at all.
Many potentially promising ports, such as Magicka and Rayman, have little to do with their original incarnations. For example, Rayman: Jungle Run is a heavily simplified version of Rayman Origins, re-engineered into a one-button running game. It’s fun for 5 minutes, but only in the sense that it reduces the probability that you’ll make eye contact with someone on the train.
Others, such as Minecraft Pocket Edition and Dungeon Defenders, are drastically stripped-down from their PC and console counterparts. PE is continually playing catch-up to the PC version, and currently lacks biomes, the Nether, and infinite worlds. Dungeon Defenders is in a similar state.
I loaded up these games with low, low expectations and I was still disappointed.
A rant on controls
Unsurprisingly, the most entertaining games are those that work well within the limits of the platform, such as the excellent one-button running man game Cannabalt, or puzzle games like Huebrix and World of Goo. A particular favourite of mine is 10,000,000, an addictive fusion of match-3 game with dungeon crawling RPG. As a rule, the simpler the control scheme, the better. It’s easy to get caught off guard, because there are some games that feel like they ought to control well on phones – like the BIT.TRIP series – but end up feeling unwieldy and unresponsive.
Why? The simplest answer is this: touchscreen smartphones (or hell, phones in general) were never designed for gaming. Developers are faced with two options: either make a game so simple that it can be controlled by the notoriously imprecise capacitive touchscreen+finger combo, or implement gaudy virtual controllers which are difficult to manipulate and almost always result in your giant meaty ham fingers obscuring half of the display.
Over the years, many have tried to fix this problem. Some built peculiar analog sticks that stuck to the screen with suction cups (the fools!). Other, more sensible people, built wireless controllers, many of which connect by Bluetooth or have the phone clip into them like a docking station; iControlPad, Steelseries Free and (cheaper) Gametel. These devices are always nice in principle but most require games to be specifically built to work with them. The end result is that these often expensive (50 American moon monies and up) devices only work with a few games. The bright side is that most emulators available for the platform DO have good third-party controller support. However, it begs the question: if you’re the kind of asshole who has $50 to spend on a controller for Android games, why not just buy a Dingoo or a second-hand PSP for an equal or lower price?
A note on digital shackles
Google offers a small set of rules and guidelines that developers must follow if they want their app to stay on Google Play. Beyond that, however, Play is very much a wild west type environment, in stark contrast to Apple’s ‘App Store’, which is run more like a concentration camp. The bad news for users is that Play is host to a wide variety of third-party DRM systems, in addition to Play’s own DRM. And Play’s isn’t nice. Every program features a ‘remote kill switch’ that Google can use at any time to remove the program both from the store, and from users’ phones/devices. Ouch. That’s physically painful.
Luckily, Android will allow you to install programs directly from APK files like a savage, and you can extend this practice to installing alternative applications to Google’s Play store.
Mark Pincus said it best: ‘how else will I afford another solid gold Humvee?’. Although that might have been Weird Al. Pretty sure it was Mark.
I don’t really need to say anything about the free-to-play model or why it’s bad. It’s been covered many, many times by people who are far more articulate than me. Instead, I will present you with a case study: Real Racing 3. A highly popular racing game published by EA, known for its realistic graphics and realistic representation of just how expensive it is to own and operate cars that drive fast down wide roads.
Every race you participate in inflicts a certain amount of wear-and-tear on your car. After each race, you’re presented with a repair bill. You have to spend in-game currency to fix your car. You then have to wait for your car to be repaired before you can race again. And when I say ‘wait’, I mean ‘it literally takes hours’. Of course, you can also spend in-game currency to speed up the repairs. You can unlock new cars, tracks and upgrades, but it costs in-game currency to do so, and (of course) it also takes time.
Some of the higher-end items in the game would literally take hundreds of hours, if you were to earn them legitimately from racing. Of course, the game only gives you barely enough money to pay for your own repairs, let alone all that other guff, and all the while it dangles opportunities to buy in-game currency. “Look,” says Real Racing 3, “Do you think Miley Cyrus is richer and more successful than you are because she worked hard for it? Do you? God, you’re fucking naive.” Real Racing 3 sighs. “She was BORN rich. She BOUGHT success, with her millions of FUCKING dollars. And you can buy success too. Just one microtransaction is all it takes. C’mon. Click the button, you fucker.” Then Real Racing 3 gently caresses your left leg.
But it’s hopeless. The McLaren F1 – a single car in a phone racing game – costs the equivalent of $40 of real money. I don’t remember the last time I spent $40. I bet Miley doesn’t either. And not just because of all the drugs.
My point here isn’t just about Real Racing 3. This is a problem that is literally endemic to phone games. And it’s not going anywhere, because it works. It’s popular. Real Racing 3 is on the Play store’s top sellers list.. Candy Crush is on the top sellers list. The Simpsons: Tapped Out is on the top sellers list. If you want to play free games on your phone, be prepared to fork out some serious lolly. We live in an age where fun is so scarce, it has to be rationed.
To be honest, Google’s service (and their OS in general) has little to offer over real, dedicated handhelds. Play’s responsibilities end at browsing and downloading games. Users can rate and leave reviews for programs, but they’re normally inane and unhelpful, and generally say something to the tune of ‘great game but please add then i will give 5 stars’. A far cry from Steam’s excellent system, which shows your friends’ recommendations for games on their store pages. The best games to land on the platform came by way of the Humble Android bundle, and those games can’t be redeemed on Google Play.
Android’s reputation as handheld gaming’s awkward cousin is well-earned. The controls are imprecise at the best of times, the library is as big as Rush Limbaugh (and almost as full of shit), the DRM’s bad and the whole culture of free-to-play is rotten from the core. Play is a piss-poor place to buy games and Android is a piss-poor operating system to play them on.
For years, ‘analysts’ have been proclaiming that smartphones are going to kill dedicated handheld gaming devices. To me, this is like predicting that the unicycle is going to kill the bicycle. There will always be a market for gaming handhelds, because phone gaming has been garbage since its inception (excluding Nokia’s version of Snake) and it shows no signs of improving.