What Games Are: The Culture Gap In Mobile Games

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This week was very sad because of the unexpected death of Ryan Davis. Only 34 years old and very recently married, Davis was a journalist, podcaster and general impresario of gaming fan site Giant Bomb. In particular many people knew him as the host of the Giant Bombcast. It is one of the most popular podcasts in the world which discusses games, gaming news and other happenstance things every Tuesday.

While his passing is profoundly sad, one positive aspect of it is the outpouring of support from the gaming community. For example, the post announcing his death saw more than 6,800 comments. The news became the third highest trend on Twitter. Many fans sent flowers, built tribute pages and otherwise expressed their condolences.

It made me reflect on how, for all its faults, a strong culture surrounds gaming. Through sites like Giant Bomb, Rock Paper Shotgun, Kotaku, IGN, Gamespot, Eurogamer, Penny Arcade, Polygon, Joystiq and a brace of others the community has complex conversations. They add a layer of richness to the gaming experience, which fans find meaningful and connect to.

These connections are very important within the games industry. Through sites like Giant Bomb, many independent games find players, and the coverage tends to have a personality. Listening to the hilarious breakdown of a game like Surgeon Simulator (which is exactly as it sounds) makes the listener want to check that game out, just to see what it is. Not unlike music magazines, gaming sites bring fans and creators together through a mediated conversation.

They also help to establish voices. In gaming culture, much like any medium, personalities are key. The sense of authorship, of a real person (or people) sitting behind a game and crafting it with intent, connects fans to games in ways that brands often struggle to do. While studios tend to believe that teams matter more than individuals, figureheads are still key. Big name game designers like Cliff Bleszinski are known figures because of media outlets, particularly those that engage him in wide-ranging discussion.

Even in formats that are supposedly dying, there is much heartfelt activity. Retro games sites, for instance, keep much of the heritage of games alive when nobody else would. Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the most active sites, mostly covers PC games at a time when many TechCrunch readers consider the PC to be deader than disco. Yet it thrives. The gaming media plays a very important role in binding a culture together.

All Quiet

However the same could not be said for games appearing across all formats. Most sites tend to cover console and PC gaming. Their natural audience uses Steam, Xbox Live and PSN, and tends to frame its thinking around them. There are some acknowledgements about the things happening in mobile phone gaming (such as Spaceteam, or the recent iPad release of XCOM) but not fully so. Nobody’s making funny videos riffing off Anna Marsh’s Buddha Finger.

The newer mobile and tablet game has many more players for its games than the more traditional gamer haunts, but conversely has almost nothing to say. It has no strong voices who cover the culture of the medium and bring an audience with them. Instead its main influencers are platforms like the algorithms of Facebook or the editorial choices of the App Store team. Its primary means of facilitating discovery are all mechanical operations like AppGratis. Success is often closely linked to marketing spend (spend more, top the charts, gain organics, repeat) and the most important factor is usually simply to be seen.

This is not for the want of trying. Blogs like Touch Arcade and Pocket Gamer write about mobile games, but they tend to do so in an industry-focused way. Arguably that’s simply because that’s where the readership seems to exist, and to try and build a more consumerist mobile gaming blog seems a bit field-of-dreams. So the majority of their conversation tends to be about process like monetization, metrics, retention, business model and case studies. Cultural discussion (reviews, previews, interviews, critique and such) is largely absent. Few fans seem particularly engaged with mobile and tablet gaming in the way that they are with other formats. There are few, if any, great debates raging through the mobile space that don’t start with the question “Is Free-to-Play Evil…?

The mobile space is also almost completely without personalities. Where a Bleszinski has a great deal of cultural cachet, nobody knows who created Draw Something. Few people could tell you who the creators of recent success Dots are either (Paul Murphy and Patrick Moberg). Their game has been downloaded at least 3 million times, yet they are effectively anonymous. Compare them to Mike Bithell who created Thomas Was Alone. His game has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but not on the order of Dots. Yet he’s arguably becoming much more famous as a game maker because the formats in which he operates have active coverage.

Finally there’s also the issue of cultural significance. To many players Candy Crush Saga is highly addictive. To people on the industry side it’s a master class in how to craft a great retention experience, construct progression and then monetize players well. It’s celebrated, a key achievement. Yet while reports of revenue hit the business press, and it seems to cross over into some mainstream coverage, folks at sites like Giant Bomb, Kotaku and Penny Arcade only talk about it a little. Why? Because they haven’t much to say. To them it’s just another Bejeweled in a world of very similar games, and there’s no soul to that story.

Is There A Gap?

I recently asked whether mobile games have hit a peak where process-driven business isn’t as successful as it once was. With all of its advertising channels filled to the brim with very similar products, the inevitability of said channels growing less useful is one that we’re already starting to see. Stagnation, difficulties in finding audiences and chart pressures abound.

This doesn’t mean that mobile is dead. Very far from it. It means that it’s becoming complicated, sophisticated, and issues like the tone of the conversation that its games have with its players is starting to matter. It also means that a potential coverage gap is emerging, one where writers could start to talk about mobile games as games, promote mobile game designers as personalities and act much as other sources we see for other formats.

The gap that might be emerging is the one that talks about the culture of mobile games, makes comedy videos about them, discusses their impact and what they mean. The one that runs previews, interviews and features with their makers. The one that doesn’t talk about the business or the process, but the product and its producers. The one that surfaces the weird and wonderful among mobile games and shoots them at an audience looking for a bit more depth. And does so with integrity.

Whatever shape it takes, doesn’t it seem like high time that we saw that layer emerging around the biggest gaming market in the world, much as it has around others?