In Defense of iPhone Games

The market for iPhone games isn’t slowing down. The initial deluge of titles was looked at skeptically, and the rush of people purchasing games for their expensive toy was seen as a temporary justification for owning such an extravagant phone. There are 165 games being added to the iTunes App Store daily, a staggering number that dwarfs even the most hectic of holiday release schedules.

Despite this, core gamers (and oh, how I hate the core/casual dichotomy) sneer at the idea of iPhone games. Their attitude is similar to how I think film buffs view the idea of watching films on their phones (for an elegant summary of this sentiment,just watch this video of David Lynch expressing his feelings on mobile video). The experience differs fundamentally from playing a game on a home console. For people whose entire concept of gaming is tied to a television screen, I could see why it would be easy to dismiss iPhone games. They’re probably doing it out of fear. If developing an iPhone game and getting it into the top 100 is so profitable, who in their right mind would dedicate resources to making triple-A titles?

Speaking personally, I myself am a “core” gamer, if that’s even an applicable term anymore. Despite my affinity for deep, complex games on Xbox 360, I’ve come to appreciate iPhone games. I purchased my iPod Touch as a productivity tool. The idea of having Remember the Milk and Mint in the palm of my hand was too tempting to pass up.

When I received my Touch on Christmas day, the first game I bought was Rolando, published by ngMoco. ngMoco’s founder, Neil Young (not the musician) recently evangelized for the iPhone at GDC, hailing it as a revolution for the games industry. Rolando sold me on this idea before he even said the words.

Rolando is ridiculously underpriced for the quality and quantity of content you’re getting. It’s a game I could see going for $30 on the DS, or $50 on the PSP. Why, instead, develop it for iPhone and sell it for a third of its value? First, it’s a game that utilizes the functionality of its platform to such a degree, I can honestly say that it couldn’t be done anywhere else. Second, it could have been a grand experiment for the company. The overriding philosophy of iPhone marketing is “profit by a thousand cuts.” And it worked.

The fact that all iPhone games fall below the $10 mark is pure genius. I’m one of those people who has a price threshold for hesitating about purchases. That threshold usually hovers around 20 to 30 dollars. My rule beyond that point is to allow myself one day for every $10 a product will cost, then make my decision. If a product falls below that price point, I could buy it all day. Just clicking and clicking with no regard for the fact that the sum total is WAY above what I’m comfortable spending.

Case in point would be a game like Bejeweled 2. At $3, it’s the steal of the century. I have no need to justify that purchase, beyond thinking to myself “well, I’ll just not buy that second beer at the bar later.”

The amount of time I’ll spend with these games works similarly to how much I’ll spend on them. For as much as I loved Fallout 3, I recognized that I would need at least two hours to even start getting into the meat of a playing session. As such, there were days I simply couldn’t justify putting it into the system. I had better things to do.

However, with games like Bejewled, Rolando, or Word Fu, the time investment is so far below my threshold that I don’t think twice about whipping out my iPod and playing a 5 minute game… Then another… Then another.

This raises the idea that iPhone games are like the fast food of gaming. Cheap enough to purchase without thinking about it, and insubstantial enough to warrant repeat indulgence. It’s easy to view this as a derisive comparison until you realize that fast food, like iPhone gaming, is a lucrative industry. Also, unlike fast food, playing Bejeweled on the iPhone won’t lead to an early death.

What’s great about iPhone games is that the successful ones are designed in such inventive ways. It took a while for developers to fully grasp the platform, but these growing pains didn’t last nearly as long as they did for developers making games for the DS. If you’ll remember, we had to suffer through nearly two years of ports with dubious and half-assed touch screen support before we got to the truly unique stuff. If Rolando can be seen as the herald for the iPhone coming of age, then its adolescence only lasted about six months.

There’s a beauty in the economy necessary to develop a game suited to the mobile platform. Concessions need to be made, and what results is an experience that’s distilled to its purest form. Few games have gotten away with straight-across adaptation to the platform. Sim City is an example of a game that works very well on the iPhone, despite the fact that it’s so cluttered with information that it should never have been successful.

“Core Gamers” who profess to love the craft of game design should take notice of this economy, and realize how stripping away the bloated trappings of cinematic experiences has caused renaissance in how games are played. There’s no excuse for such a young art like video games to stagnate, and sadly that’s happened. It’s a joy to witness new ideas and mechanics being born, and to see their designers getting compensated for it.

The stakes are low, the teams are small, and there’s no corporate structure interfering with the designer’s ideas. It’s great, and there’s no reason to think that casual mobile gaming can’t coexist with core experiences on the consoles. If anything, triple-A developers can learn from their iPhone counterparts, and deliver a greater volume of compelling content at lower costs.

The rules are being rewritten by ngmoco, PopCap, and the new Nintendo. I dread the day that Peggle comes out for the iPhone. When that game drops, so will my will to do anything else. However, before I drop into (further) obscurity, I’ll manage to write one more sentence: “Give it a try, and don’t be mad when I say ‘I told you so.’”

Twenty-five Absolutely True Facts About Me

Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to annoy. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.

1. I pull fire hydrants from the ground in the manner that most men uproot radishes.

2. I once went a whole week without speaking.

3. I shot down a Chinese fighter jet in peace time.

4. I’ve founded and led just as many cults as I’ve joined.

5. I once taught a male cat to lactate in order to provide nourishment to a stray litter of marmots I found by the tracks.

6. I once saved a child from drowning, but quickly realized that he would grow up to be the next Hitler. I promptly placed him back into the river.

7. I was singlehandedly responsible for both the rise AND fall of ska music.

8. I can make lightbulbs shine in my mouth like Uncle Fester.

9. With the ability mentioned in line 8, I powered an orphanage’s heater during the blackout caused by the great sandstorm of ought-seven.

10. I earned my vast fortune by creating a chain of recycling centers that offer 1 cent more than the state-minimum bottle and can deposit. I then sell these cans back to the beverage companies at a tidy profit.

11. There are 57 known uses for police crime scene tape.

12. That’s not a fact about you.

13. Shut up.

14. I once went a whole year without writing down a single word.

15. I killed Laura Palmer. It was me.

16. I go to great pains to locate the center of gravity of any given person or thing I encounter. As a result, I can balance anything on my chin.

17. I can travel through time in one hour increments, but only twice a year. The first Sunday of March, and the first Sunday of November. It greatly inspired Benjamin Franklin.

18. I used to have a pilot’s license, but lost it for reasons you must promise never to ask me about.

19. The orphanage I powered with my light bulb mouth burned down after I improperly balanced a platter of cherries jubilee on my chin.

20. My mattress and pillow are both filled with packing peanuts.

21. I once went a whole day without focusing my eyes.

22. I have a birthmark on the roof of my mouth.

23. I’ve invented several perpetual motion machines, but I promptly lose them upon completion. Nothing I throw in their way will stop them from just goin’ and a-goin’.

24. I know the exact year, month, minute and second that you will die. But not the hour. No, that’s up to you.

25. I can’t go a single second without lying.

About EGM and 1UP

Anyone who’s been following gaming news over the past week knows what’s up. With Hearst/UGO’s acquisition of, Ziff Davis has pulled the plug on Electronic Gaming Monthly and laid off a great deal of the 1UP staff.

I’ve waited this long to speak about it, because emotions are running high. It’s absurd to say or think, but EGM has been a big part of my development as a critical thinker when it comes to video games. I’m young, so I missed some of the glory days of the publication. I wasn’t old enough to read when they were reviewing Super Mario Bros. 3 and whatnot. But I’ve had my subscription since grade school, and I can honestly say that their staff of writers has greatly influenced both my love of games and my decision to write about them.

More recently, I stumbled across the 1UP podcasts. What I realized when the podcast staff was laid off was how personal the medium can be. Again, we’re getting into absurd histrionics, but I felt like I knew a great deal of the podcast crews. Especially at 1UP FM, Nick Suttner and Phil Kollar were great to listen to, and the network’s consistently high quality product made my long days at the office less soul crushing.

Moreover, it was their podcasts that caused massive overhauls in the way that my own podcast and radio show were presented. To me, it seems like they wrote the book about making games podcasting entertaining. I couldn’t hope for my show to be as good as what they did, but the fun is in the trying.

I’ll still read, because there are plenty of talented people there. What’s nice about the site is that it’s an Institution (capital “I”). Good people will gravitate toward it, and any void left by those who were laid off will be filled with other talented writers. They won’t be able to replace those who were lost, but they don’t need to, because those people are off pursuing their own new projects.

The 1UP FM crew are currently helming the Rebel FM podcast, and their premiere episode was amazing enough to put them at #1 on the iTunes charts. Those same folks are also writing for Eat-Sleep-Game, and the 1UP Show crew is now working on a project at

I don’t know what else there is to say about the “incident.” Personally, it broke my heart for the aforementioned reasons, and because I am left uncertain about my own future. It’s a sad time for someone who is looking at writing for or about games as a carreer. If EGM can fall, then who can stand?

I wish everyone who got laid off the best of luck. You’ve influenced more people than you know, and I’m certain you’ve got great things ahead of you.

Chrono Cross

So, I’ve started to work through my backlog a little bit.

Everyone who consumes any sort of media has a backlog. If you have Tivo or a DVR box, you’ve certainly got about a billion episodes of your favorite shows that you haven’t watched. DVDs you bought but never watched, books that sit on your shelf just for show, etc.

With games, you buy a game when it first comes out. Your zeal is umatched, you think “man, I’m going to play through this whole thing in one weekend.” Then, years later, it still sits there unfinished.

My most obvious offender of this is Chrono Cross, the stepbrother of / sequel to Chrono Trigger. I’ve only gotten 1/3 of the way through it, and it came out in 2000. Since I just recently spent a great deal of time playing the excellent DS port of Chrono Trigger, it’s only logical that I’d see the series through to its poorly budgeted, mistranslated conclusion.

My first thought was about how poorly the game has aged. But what game from that generation has aged well? The sprites of late-era SNES games have a kind of unified charm, a cohesion of art direction and technical capacity. Every prominent PS1 RPG is rendered as follows: gorgeous pre-rendered backdrop, jaggy polygonal player characters. In Chrono Trigger, battles happen seamlessly on the exploring field. In Chrono Cross, the player is jarringly ripped from the beautiful dungeons and towns into a muddy representation of the environment. This is more a consequence of the hardware limitations of the time. Even though current gen RPGs eliminate this visual divide, I actually can’t be bothered to play them.

As it is, the last JRPG I’ve played to completion was Final Fantasy X. That was in 2002, a full six years ago. I attempted to play FFXII, but couldn’t get motivated to go beyond the first five hours or so.

The real reason I’m compelled to play this game is the story. Even though it rapidly degenerates when you get beyond the plot of its spiritual successor, Radical Dreamers, the promise of definite ties to Trigger drives me forward. I’m about 25 hours in, and just about to get to the second disc. A writer, Bobservo, called the story “the literary equivalent of spinart” in a twitter post a while back, and I have to agree. Its preponderance of characters doesn’t help the cause. 43? Really? I felt like Trigger was pushing its limit with 7 characters.

That’s all I’m going to write about the game for now. When I finish it, expect a spoiler-ridden followup post with my exact thoughts about the game. It’s been a nice diversion over winter break, and I don’t think I’ll regret sinking the time into it. As it is, I feel like the only thing keeping it from being a really good game is the fact that it has the word “Chrono” in the title.

Postscript: One of my new year’s resolutions is to update the blog more frequently. I hate it when blogs or websites promise “I’ll update more!!! Life has been so hectic!!!,”  so this will be my only mention of it.