Flappy Bird, Dungeon Keeper Prove Mobile Games Still Have An Image Problem


A story I’ve told more than once is how I felt like a second-class citizen last year at E3 since Sony and Microsoft were garnering the lion’s share of attention for taking the wraps off the PS4 and Xbox One, and I was there covering mobile games for Gamezebo.

That’s not really true, of course, as there were plenty of mobile developers and publishers eager to show off their games. But a forum like E3 was a good place to see that even with all the progress mobile games have made over the past few years, they still have a long way to go before they shake off the stigma that surrounds them—namely, that they’re disposable works unworthy to be considered “real” video games like their console and PC brethren.

That point was recently hammered home again thanks to two games you couldn’t help but hear about online and in social media. “Flappy Bird” and “Dungeon Keeper” couldn’t be more different in terms of origin, gameplay, monetization and popularity, yet they’re both victims of and contributors to the gaming caste system that has mobile near the bottom.

Let’s dive into “Flappy Bird” first since there’s at least a feel-good story attached to it. In fact it should be the kind of tale that should warm the hearts of everyone from developers to gamers: man designs game with simple yet addictive gameplay, it catches on despite (or possibly because of) its maddeningly insane difficulty, and it makes its creator truckloads of money despite being completely free-to-play.

Great, right? Not to everyone. The “Flappy Bird” phenomenon brought out a lot of negative emotions, from anger over the fact that its ubiquitous green pipes look quite a bit like the ones in a pretty famous video game starring a plumber to jealousy from devs who put a lot more work into their mobile games to accusatory cynicism from people who assumed Dong Nguyen somehow manipulated the system to get his game to the top of the App Store.

All of those things are fair game for debate. One thing that isn’t is that “Flappy Bird” is extremely popular, and it really doesn’t matter whether it was because of PewDiePie or pure dumb luck. I suspect it’s more of the latter, and that reinforces the idea that iOS and Android are akin to roulette tables where your number has to be hit straight up to find success.

That’s a problem, because it could discourage developers from putting effort and (more importantly) money into pushing mobile games forward at the very time when technology is allowing them to close the gap on console and PC gaming experiences. Why bother spending a whole bunch of money pushing the boundaries with games like “République” when you could settle for trying to make the next “Flappy Bird,” knowing full well you’ll end up with a single spot on the roulette layout either way?

Thankfully, people like Ryan Payton and Jason Citron are motivated by the desire to make the exact kinds of games they want, meaning works that aren’t disposable or interchangeable. They’re just in the minority for now, and the success of any game as derivative as “Flappy Bird,” no matter how catchy it might be, threatens to keep them there.

And yet…

Not every mobile game needs to aspire to be something greater. No matter how hard we try, some people are never going to be anything more than casual gamers. I know because I’m married to one, and “Plants vs. Zombies 2” is as “hardcore” a game as she’s likely to ever play.

Unlike console or PC gaming, mobile gaming has the potential to be all things to all people. The form factor and ubiquity of mobile devices mean they’ll eventually be able to support the full range of experiences, casual to hardcore and everything in-between. But until then, every time a “Flappy Bird” hits the top of the charts, it keeps the masses from being open-minded enough to accept all the possibilities.

That’s especially true about people who don’t often play mobile games, which is where we can fold “Dungeon Keeper” into this discussion. In several important aspects, it’s the antithesis of “Flappy Bird.” It was put together by a big name company (EA and its subsidiary, Mythic), it trades directly on the name of a beloved PC game series (designed by Peter Molyneux), and it definitely isn’t free, relying on a somewhat pushy but not egregious microtransaction system.

Because of the first two parts, it attracted the coverage of members of the media who don’t generally review mobile games, and they had problems with the last part. Most notable among them was The Escapist’s Jim Sterling, who gave “Dungeon Keeper” a mere half-star out of five. One of his choice bits:

"That’s Dungeon Keeper. One of the worst examples of a cancer that is eroding the market and has already destroyed the credibility of the once promising mobile gaming sector."

Sterling is entitled to his opinion, and he’s not shy about sharing it. In this particular part of his criticism, he’s simply wrong, because there’s nothing about the way “Dungeon Keeper” limits play and uses microtransactions to get around them that hasn’t been seen in a plethora of other mobile games. And the idea that a single title “destroyed the credibility” of the entire mobile sector is laughable.

My gut tells me it’s because Sterling doesn’t cover enough mobile games to have the correct frame of reference in which to place the game. But wait, didn’t EA and Mythic invite people like him into the party by capitalizing on the “Dungeon Keeper” name? They did indeed, which is why another one of Sterling’s gripes is much more valid:

"Even worse, it’s taken a beloved series and dragged its name cruelly through the mud."

Cooler heads explained it this way in another part of the internet:

"The outcry isn’t entirely about the subjective quality of the game — it’s about people’s expectations for it.Names carry weight and have value. If I go to the grocery store and buy a box of Triscuits, I’m going to be pretty surprised if there’s Oreos in there when I open it.If you name a game Dungeon Keeper, a name that has real resonance for a lot of folks, those folks have a right to expect that the product will resemble Dungeon Keeper in some way."

(That’s Owen Faraday, by the way, editor of Pocket Tactics.)

The problem is entirely one of expectations. Or put another way by Gamezebo editor-in-chief Jim Squires:

"The long and the short of it is this: if EA decided to release this with a different IP attached, Clash of Clans fans would be in love and the rest of the world would simply ignore it. But because they slapped the words Dungeon Keeper on the front, everyone is getting indignant."

Yep, that’s true. But when excellent games like “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” are out there and are almost completely faithful to their counterparts on other platforms, you can see where confusion and anger can set in when something like “Dungeon Keeper” flips the script so much. If you play by the established rules of mobile gaming but then try to actively rope in people who don’t play them, it’s on you if they end up disappointed.

The tl;dr version of all of this is that there’s plenty of blame to go around for the term “mobile game” still having a negative connotation attached to it in certain circles. Happily, that’s fixable.

Developers are going to have to allow each other to create the wide range of games without sniping over the randomness that governs which ones make it big. Publishers will have to be smarter about managing expectations. The gaming press needs to cover the sector consistently instead of cherry picking certain titles.

I don’t anticipate all of this happening overnight. If it could all come together before June though, that would be nice. I’d like to walk into E3 with my head held high this year.

The views expressed in this article explicitly belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of, nor should be attributed to, GameSided as an organization.