If you have read my writing a bunch over the years, you have probably observed me mentioning how much I like Final Fantasy Tactics over the years. You have probably also heard my mention once or twice that I most definitely do not like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. There are a lot of reasons for this and numerous causes for FFTA and its sequel being garbage, but part of the problem is a pure case of type mismatch… because FFTA and FFTA2 were both designed from the ground up for portable systems, which don’t nearly approach what made FFT such fun.
When I was younger, of course, I did not really understand this. In my mind, the only difference between portable systems and home systems was that you had a smaller screen and toted the portable system around with you. Why couldn’t these two things offer just as much appeal? And the answer is that they most certainly can, but it’s important to understand that design that works well on one doesn’t work on the other. And that’s something that’s important to understand as we look at the spate of mobile MMOs and ask why in the world these games are… well, the way they are.
Now, there’s a fine line to be cut here, because there are two elements of mobile games that provoke the question, “why are these games Like That?” The first element is greed, and… yeah, that’s important. It’s easy to look at Diablo Immortal and ask why the game is built on a scaffolding of lies, deceit, and tricks to get your money instead of relying on being good enough that you just want to spend money on it. And some of that is absolutely down to mobile shallowness limiting engagement, but not all of it.
The other side is the more interesting question to me. Why do these games tend to be shallow? Why do they feature so much quick movement and paper over basically anything that could seem remotely inconvenient? Why do they have combat that’s mostly about clicking one or two things and then watching the game sort everything else out for you? Why don’t these games have more depth?
It’s not because people who play mobile games are stupid or don’t care or anything like that. It’s because if you’re designing a good mobile games, you have a very different set of design priorities for designing a good game for people to just sit down and play at their computers.
We are all somewhat bad about internalizing this fact. “Mobile game” does not simply mean “a game you can play while going somewhere.” A good mobile game is not only a game where you can fire it up while on the go; it’s a game that is structured so you can play it during smaller snippets of time. You have to ensure that your Tower of Fantasy play session can be fun if it’s going to be 20 minutes on the bus to work instead of a couple of hours on your desktop.
“So it needs to be structured in smaller content sizes?” Yes. But there’s more than that. I can do a dungeon in Final Fantasy XIV in 20 minutes, for example, but there are way too many buttons on my hotbars to make that a comfortable experience on a mobile interface. Even if we get around that fact, there’s the simple matter of attention. Clearing that dungeon in that span of time requires basically 80% of my attention at a minimum, and it definitely needs me to not get nudged by an old woman asking if she can please have my seat because her hips hurt.
Of course she can have the seat. Her hips hurt.
This is actually really tricky to design for. You have to design a game that’s able to be played in a moving environment with little bursts of playtime when you may or may not be able to give your full attention to everything that’s taking place on a regular basis, and at the same time you need to design the game to be deep and interesting enough that you aren’t just tapping on the screen to make things happen in the corner of your vision. That is actually really hard to do.
Seriously, just think about that for a moment. You want players to feel like paying attention is rewarding without every moment having the very real threat of them getting killed through lack of interest, and you have to pack a lot into a short span of time so that they feel inspired to keep playing. Every part of your design pushes you to make a game that is basically swirling colors for babies except that if you make that game, players won’t play and will in fact just search for that on YouTube for free.
This is where the greed thing I mentioned before becomes a little more understandable. The easiest way to design around a lot of this involves a certain degree of mechanical shallowness, and shallowness is exactly what you don’t want when you’re hoping for players to become regular fixtures of your game. Your mobile MMO is not Tetris and cannot hook people in forever based on being deceptively simple.
So what do you do? Well, you figure if they’re only going to be around for a couple of months, you’d better make those couple of months count. Give something big and shiny and some obvious benefits, and then make them feel very smart when they insist that they paid you money but they didn’t have to so these were their choices. But now I’m retreading ground from earlier.
It’s much harder to make a game that simultaneously lets you have these very brief sessions and allow you to play in both brief snippets and longer intervals while feeling equally rewarding in both. You have to do a lot of work to make a game that supports a mobile playstyle without solely requiring it. It’s very possible to have a game that is a really good mobile title but isn’t really good for sitting down at longer sessions, unfortunately.
This is also why a lot of these titles are imports from elsewhere around the globe, where a large majority of the audience commutes via train or bus and thus has long stretches of time that would otherwise be spent reading a book or browsing idly. If you don’t live in a place with good public transit, you may very well not actually have 20 minute stretches of “paying some attention but able to get up and move on short notice” available to you.
Does all of this mean that you should love these games, with their auto-moving to quest objectives, shallow combat with two or three buttons, and gameplay that feels thin and more visually delightful than actually impactful? Heck no. If you don’t like that, you don’t like it, and if you’re going to engage with these games as something where you expect to sit down and play and have fun, they need to deliver on that. Genshin Impact was fun for me right up until it wasn’t, and part of that was that the combat was kind of simple by the very necessity of its system.
But I also understand why that need exists and why the developers have opted to design the game this way. It’s not because of inability; it’s because, well, this is what you need if you’re going to work at all on mobile. There are reasons these games are Like That.