It’s 2021 and I can’t believe we’re still dunking on mobile games.
For more than a decade, mobile games have been something of an industry laughing stock in the eyes of self-proclaimed “hardcore” gamers. They’ve long had a reputation for being simplistic cash grabs that prey on players through seedy microtransactions and overly addictive gameplay. Those criticisms aren’t unfounded; there’s certainly some sinister undertones in seemingly harmless games like Candy Crush. But mobile games aren’t just Candy Crush — and they haven’t been for years now.
The more I hear people double down on outdated generalizations about mobile gaming, the more something becomes clear to me: Gamers aren’t playing enough of them. Otherwise, the debate about their legitimacy would be dead in the water by now.
What’s fundamentally strange about arguments against mobile as a platform is how bizarrely broad they are. While phones used to be very limited in the kind of games they could run, giving players simple time-wasters, they’re much more capable today. The “mobile gaming” umbrella has become as nebulous as those for PC or console gaming. There’s a ridiculous variety of games with varying degrees of depth that players can download on their phones. Did you know that you can play the Nintendo 3DS RPG Monster Hunter Stories on your iPhone? How about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas?
The definition of mobile gaming only gets wider as you start to factor in how cloud gaming has entirely changed what can be played on a mobile device. I can log into Google Stadia and play a PC strategy game like Humankind on an Android device with exclusive touch controls. Or I can use my Xbox Game Pass subscription to play any number of new releases on a phone. Attachments like the Razer Kishi or Backbone make it so I don’t even need to fiddle with awkward touch controls to do so.
For the sake of argument, let’s push all that aside. After all, people who decry mobile games generally aren’t talking about ports or cloud platforms. The stigma is around games that are specifically designed as mobile-first experiences. It’s not unfair to say that different philosophies go into designing for mobile versus PC. That’s certainly why we see so many simple match-three puzzlers that can easily be played one-handed with touch controls. Most players likely won’t have a whole controller rig, so careful thought has to go into making a game work for anyone who picks it up casually.
There are two rebuttals for critiques against the simplistic nature of mobile gaming. The first is: Yeah, so what? Plenty of celebrated video games are built on simple core mechanics that are easy to understand and execute. Games like Tetris are timeless for a reason; anyone can pick it up and play. Over the years, I’ve gotten hooked on plenty of mobile games that work because of streamlined touch controls. I’m currently having a blast with World Flipper, a free-to-play mobile pinball RPG where players simply tap to hit flippers and swipe to activate character abilities. I may not be executing complex combos across eight buttons, but it hardly matters what the inputs are when you’re having fun doing it.
More importantly, arguments against the overly simple nature of mobile games don’t work because they’re not terribly true anymore. Apple Arcade’s Fantasian is one of the year’s toughest RPGs, complete with a thoughtful turn-based battle system that’ll give even the biggest genre die-hards a challenge. Genshin Impact, even with its obnoxious gacha mechanics, is a surprisingly deep open-world RPG with robust combat. And there’s still plenty of games like Call of Duty: Mobile that require PC-level skills to win.
I’m preaching to the choir here on some level. This is all fairly obvious information to anyone who actually keeps up with mobile games these days. Platforms like Apple Arcade have quietly helped reclaim the narrative about the platform by delivering standouts like Grindstone, South of the Circle, and Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. In fact, several games that launched exclusively on Apple Arcade have gone on to become critical darlings after receiving ports to console and PC, including Lego Builder’s Journey. Why these games aren’t getting the time of day until years after the fact is beyond me.
The continued stigma around mobile games only becomes sillier as time goes on. While there’s plenty of predatory shovelware on app stores, that’s not terribly different from any other platform. Check the Nintendo Switch eShop and you’ll find a host of cheap, asset-flipped titles. And while microtransactions and gacha practices are a pain, they’re not a mobile-exclusive issue. Plenty of beloved PC games, whether free-to-play or not, milk money out of players via skins, season passes, and loot boxes. Hell, even classic arcade games like Donkey Kong were designed to shake as much money as possible out of addicted gamers, one quarter at a time — and we celebrate them as classics. Hate the system, not the platform.
It’s high time gamers stop gatekeeping and accept that mobile is as legitimate a gaming platform as console or PC. The continued crusade only makes self-proclaimed “hardcore” players look woefully disconnected from the medium they claim to be experts on — and that’s some delicious irony.