Google launched Play Pass, its own subscription service, September 23rd. Play Pass hosts Android games rather than iOS, and it didn’t debut with the same fanfare as Apple Arcade (or, for that matter, Google’s other game-streaming service, Stadia). While Apple had a lineup of exclusives and new titles go live alongside Arcade, Google launched Play Pass with a generic promise of access to “hundreds of awesome games and apps” for $5 a month.
Paying to acquire games wasn’t, and isn’t, part of Google’s plan. Instead, it pays Play Pass developers after their titles go on sale, determining their value with an algorithm that factors in how much time players spend in-app.
Over the past five years I’ve tried to be as productive a developer of small, short narrative games as I possibly could.
I knew this day would come. pic.twitter.com/LJUFWGkPLE
— Will O’Neill (@willoneill) September 23, 2019
That’s a red flag for mobile developers. After all, many of mobile gaming’s most powerful and acclaimed titles are contained experiences rather than infinitely replayable tapping extravaganzas. Games such as Florence, Device 6, Superbrothers Sword and Sworcery EP and Monument Valley helped prove the depth of mobile experiences, but they’re designed with endings in mind. In a playtime competition with Candy Crush, they’re doomed.
Google’s algorithm considers other “signals” besides in-app minutes to determine a game’s value, and the company says it will continue to tweak this model so that all types of content can succeed on Play Pass. Soon after the rollout, Google edited the language in its Play Pass developer guide to remove a direct reference to time-based royalty payments. However, playtime is still a factor in Google’s algorithm. It isn’t for Apple Arcade — and these disparate revenue models will likely shape two wildly different worlds of mobile gaming.
The bar for mobile games is high, with players expecting perfectly addictive vignettes and console-quality experiences in their pockets. Today, AAA shooters and esports titles like Call of Duty Mobile, Fortnite, PUBG and Arena of Valor all exist on smartphones and tablets. However, this mobile market has been carved out during the past decade by smaller studios like Simogo, Capybara Games, Snowman, Vlambeer, Sirvo, Ustwo and Spry Fox — developers that focused on crafting rich experiences for phones and tablets at a time when it was still cool to call mobile gamers “filthy casuals.” Smartphone technology has only become more powerful and pervasive over the years; mobile now represents 45 percent of all global gaming revenue, easily outstripping PC and console segments.
Despite their accessibility, these mobile games — rich with detail, narratively complex, mechanically sound, stylish as hell — are often the result of years of collaborative creative work. And then they load up in seconds on your phone, available to play in between liking posts, listening to podcasts and snapping selfies.
Sam Rosenthal and Brandon Sorg have been working on Apple Arcade exclusive Where Cards Fall for more than six years, since they were students at the University of Southern California. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story told without words, and a puzzle built around houses of cards and spatial awareness. Rosenthal and Sorg graduated in 2013, and over time they picked up enough artists, audio engineers, producers and programmers to form their studio, The Game Band, and finish Where Cards Fall. They partnered with Alto’s Adventure studio Snowman in 2015, and the game made its way to Apple Arcade in 2019.
“Every little detail in games, somebody has to do it,” Rosenthal said. “You don’t really get anything for free. If you want, say, foliage to move in the wind, there’s a million different approaches that you could do for that, and mobile has its own constraints. You might be thinking of using a shader effect, which is what we ultimately did. And then you have a technical artist who’s spending a lot of time just thinking about how bushes move in the wind properly.”
This brand of creativity is fragile. With so many moving parts, it’s possible for minute decisions to trigger chain reactions that change a game at its core.
This is where platform holders like Google and Apple hold an inordinate amount of power. These companies shape the types of games that are sold on their storefronts simply by how they do business.
Back in the filthy casual days of mobile gaming, the App Store and Google Play were flooded with 99 cent clones and simplistic, free-to-play titles designed to keep players engaged long enough to tap through ads. This phenomenon persists today. However, it didn’t start because a ton of studios suddenly decided derivative, endless-tapping titles were the next big innovation in game design. It was because that’s what made money.