The mobile games industry has often struggled with a lack of visibility to the wider gaming audience. No matter how ubiquitous it has become, or how many massively popular franchises from film, comics, anime and manga get mobile titles, there is a certain segment of players for whom mobile will always be secondary to ‘proper’ (console or PC) games. I admit that I myself used to feel that way to an extent, but seeing the great titles, dedicated studios and the fast-paced and high-stakes business of mobile games up close changed my perception. So now I find myself asking ’why don’t we see more recognition for mobile gaming at awards shows?’
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t any at all, that would be doing shows like the TIGA Awards or indeed our own Pocket Gamer Awards a disservice, but these are focused on the industry and mobile gaming specifically. However, even with the yearly debate about who should win, or whether their inclusion is even justified at the Game Awards 2022, there’s still a noticeable lack of recognition for the mobile gaming world, which gets a cursory nod with just one category.
Although the Game Awards are known as the ‘Oscars of Gaming’, it should be clear that awards aren’t everything. Certainly we don’t see ‘for your consideration’ campaigns around video games as we do with film. However, accolades go a long way to shaping the public perception of games as a whole, and no matter how much people say they don’t care, they still discuss who won and why. But this year's entrants consist of only a narrow view of what the mobile gaming world has to offer.
A problem of looks?
We could break down exactly why this is, whether it be the lack of ‘star power’ or graphically stunning, mechanically complex games. But a more interesting aspect is how this affects the mobile gaming industry itself. Is it possible we could reach a plateau, or an audience breaking point where sticking with what’s 'tried and true' is no longer going to work? Without the massive critical attention and scrutiny that other platforms receive, what, creatively, pushes mobile gaming forward?
For many years, indie games suffered a lack of visibility in gaming. There was a time when the most coverage an indie game on console got was from Xbox Live Arcade, or its Steam Greenlight campaign. However, when the ‘Let’s Play’ phenomenon and early game streamers became popular, it wasn’t with games like Call of Duty or League of Legends (mostly) that they made their daily content. It was with indie titles, like Slenderman, Amnesia: The Dark Descent or other at the time hidden gems like Among Us (which made the leap to mobile as well). They brought visibility to games which couldn’t afford massive advertising campaigns or which couldn’t accrue a visible social media presence.
Now, the indie game scene is thriving, and this is in part thanks to the visibility and new-found knowledge the general gaming public has of them. Mobile gaming has never received such a push in visibility compared to major esports titles or the latest viral game, and for developers, unless they’re looking to take a big risk on a new title, there’s simply no encouragement to make something new. Whilst people complain about aggressive monetisation or exploitative mechanics, these are arguably facts of life when it comes to actually keeping your business afloat in mobile gaming. Relying purely on sales is a losing strategy when you take into account API and the sort of cut that each storefront receives.
A great example of this is “Iron Lung” by one man developer David Szymanski, a game which has become massively popular online for its engaging gameplay and strong atmosphere. At only around $4, it's extremely cheap, even for a game which lasts only a few hours…at least on PC. Would a mobile gamer be interested? Probably not, but is that an issue of them being a different sort of gamer, or a problem of perception? Of course, the fact many mobile gamers are used to a low barrier of entry, or none at all in the case of f2p games, may contribute to it, but then gamers on other platforms are also notorious for measuring money spent against time consumed to play a game.
As I said, word of mouth or online buzz can make a major change to a game's success or failure. But what can also help is to really publicise those games on mobile which break the mould. Or indeed which innovate on formulas already being utilised. You may not be able to compare the fidelity of mobile and console graphics, but what about in art-style or presentation? Many mobile games are now focusing on their soundtrack, so surely there’s something to be awarded there?
The Game Awards do have a category for mobile games, however as of 2022 the nominees consist of games like Marvel Snap, Diablo Immortal and Genshin Impact. Games well worth attention of course, but only an extremely narrow view into the world of mobile gaming. There are five categories for esports, and nothing about mobile esports on there. Considering many mobile games don't get multi-platform releases, there's very few that can compete beyond the single mobile category.
This is only my personal view and for many companies and studios, what matters isn’t the opinion of consumer awards shows, but industry perception; endorsement from their peers, and recognition they can leverage to show off to other businesses and investors their experience and reach. One award from something like TIGA can be worth a hundred endorsements that this game is worth your time artistically or recreationally.
If people want to complain about the creative value of mobile games, maybe it’s time for those who run these sorts of Awards shows to encourage games which break the mould and do something new and interesting. There’s nothing to be gained from dismissing what is, objectively, now a major player in the gaming industry as a whole.