How to Make Mobile Games That Aren’t Brain Poison

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
7 min readDec 7, 2017


Or why creating actual value and paying for it are the only way


Call me a fundamentalist (with emphasis on “fun” rather than “mental”), but I simply don’t believe anyone should accept “games” that are only addiction machines, wallet black holes, or ads in disguise, regardless of the platform. What dmasper’s analysis confirms to me is my suspicion that currently only fewer than 5% of mobile games may begin to qualify as none of these horrible, offensive, and dangerous things. Let’s start with a…

Basic Sanity Check

Before anyone comes at me with the “but everyone is doing it” “defense”, everyone has at various points in history been doing all kinds of dumb behaviors, ranging from drinking water from lead pipes to human sacrifice. Any activity has to actually have provable merit before it can be considered a good idea.

People who make games need to get paid, I get that. I’d very much like to be a person paid for making games myself one day. However, the whole model of subsisting on ads is fundamentally flawed, as it invariably assassinates over time the quality of whatever you attach to the ads. Just look at what happened to news under this model, or simply note where the highest quality TV shows are mostly coming from and how scarce ads are there.

Whatever you make to attract the largest amount of people (which is a necessary evil when you’re financed by ads) must compromise whatever it was that you actually intended to create, unless what you intended to create was something already appealing to the lowest common denominator. In terms of games, I guess the most basic of arcades or puzzles may remain essentially the same, but that’s it.

And that doesn’t even get into compromising yourself by becoming a corporate sycophant. As it shows in the case of YouTube currently, your choices in the long run are ultimately to either stop saying things that may offend some CEO somewhere, or to kiss your ad revenue goodbye. It may seem unrelated to games, but that’s true only in the case when like now most mobile games are trivial crap with no story or message to speak of.

But even in the case of simple games that everyone can enjoy playing, ads are at best an annoying distraction that virtually nobody enjoys, detracting from the game experience. At worst, one can also understand that there is a price being paid as you’re forced to watch ads, which is much more than money. You’re essentially paying by shortening your life and getting dumber. Personally, I’d much rather pay by physical pain, but that’s just me.

Paywalls, Skinner Boxes, and Other Torture Devices

To make the situation even more grim, the other almost half of revenue for mobile games comes from mind traps designed to addict you and then extort money from you, or in technical terms, Skinner boxes hooked to arbitrary paywalls. A fate similar to what laboratory animals have to undergo, except they have no money that can be scammed away from them. And the common target for it is not only people, but often children.

Even if the game is not entirely ruined by paywalls, the in-app purchases motivate the game designers to go for the addiction trap school of game design. At least as long as they’re connected to the in-game progression in any way. Because of the normalization of this malpractice on the mobile platform, it even started infesting PC and console games via loot crates.

Just because some game is the literal software equivalent of cocaine does not make it good, and I again have no idea how so many people can be okay with this. In my mind, and as far as anyone can determine objectively, the playability or replayability of legitimately good games doesn’t come from them hacking our brain chemistry, but from them having an interesting story or creative game mechanics. How many of those are on mobile now?

Just like with the ads shortening your life and making you dumber, what do you think that playing Skinner box-like games does to you? All such games are essentially only a mathematical formula of infinite exponential maximization of bloops that bleep other bloops. While something creative can also be addictive, as anything can, the creative elements of games actually do enrich your life. It’s the difference between playing Minecraft to mine stuff to craft stuff to mine more stuff, versus playing it to build worlds.

What Do You Mean by Value

The term “value” as it is used by the people in the “entertainment industry” is purposely so clinical that anything that people decide to do in their free time can fall under it, but there’s no mystery about what is objectively valuable to humans and what isn’t. Real value that can come from games, or from anything else, has to be personally meaningful. Score or riches are not this kind of value. It can be social prestige attained through maximizing numbers, but that’s probably the lowest form of value, the least personal.

Stories are personally meaningful, intense experiences like joy or sorrow are personally meaningful, shared experiences and real human connection are personally meaningful. I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t play games because I hate myself, having time, or being alive, and I have a suspicion that this is the human default. Pushing games that don’t offer any value on people who don’t know any better isn’t good for them, just like it isn’t any kind of reasonable justification to say that they‘re okay with it.

Hm, a little context of why I suddenly care much more than before. I‘ve recently been given a good smartphone by my family as a birthday gift, and you know what, I actually really dig the tactile interface. What a great potential does it have for games, including certain genres that I very much enjoy, like puzzles, card games, or turn based strategies. Too bad that most games in most genres are awful, most ports are downgrades, and even the few good-ish games make me feel like I’m being clockwork-oranged.

I am now in a position where I can buy any game that I want, but the only game good enough that I would actually want it that I have found so far is a port of an old Czech PC game Mravenci that costs nothing and has no ads or IAPs. Sadly, the developer went perhaps a bit overboard with not monetizing it (a very Czech and very silly mentality, though in a way admirable). It’s actually available in English, so I highly recommend it to you — it’s a quite fun card game/strategy hybrid, a battle of two anthills.

But that only goes to show that a mobile game can be creative and offer great experience, or at least be a port that adds to the value of the game instead of subtracting from it, when ads or IAPs are not part of it. The only thing it needs is to be purchasable, rely on merchandising, or, and that wasn’t included by dmasper, be free, but asking for donations from players who liked it. Which is essentially post hoc crowdfunding, like Patreon.

E Is for Effort, Not Excuses

With all that said, the whole funding thing is not the worst problem here, in my opinion. Overall, the main feeling that I’m getting while playing mobile games, even more so than mobile game developers being greedy or just being copycats, is a notable lack of effort or personal investment in making the games. They all seem half-assed, throwaway, empty. And it’s not because of the limitations of the platform — I have played, and enjoyed, many PC and console games with much worse graphics in lower resolution.

If anything, for a number of genres, the mobile interface provides superior experience without its screen being too small, let alone the resolution. One of my favorite games of all time, Master of Orion 2, is a complex turn based space 4X strategy with an immaculate interface that fits everything such a game needs into 640x480 pixels. This kind of game would also be perfect for a touchscreen device, much more so than a keyboard and mouse interface. Why aren’t there good turn based 4X games like this on mobile?

My suspicion is, it would take too much effort. As in, as much effort as the making of a game that one cares about normally should take. The best 4X game available is a pretty straightforward port of a flash game from PC about surviving a zombie apocalypse called Rebuild. And guess what, it’s one of those that one has to buy to play. There are also some really horrible looking Civilization ports/clones, a few attempts at space 4X that are at least trying, Imperium Galactica ports, and that’s basically it.

It’s not much better on the high-end spectrum of the production values or company budgets either. For example, the Elder Scrolls: Legends mobile trading card game looks quite beautiful and has even sketch-based cinematics and some semblance of a story progression. And it does get points from me for at least having writing in it, but the writing doesn’t compare at all to the series standard. Good writing is not a significant expense, but it does require someone on the team to care about the game.

Most mobile games, including the presumably expensive ones, look like obvious cash grabs or at best afterthoughts, if they’re not outright insultingly infantile even for children, or abandon any sense of art design whatsoever, as is often the case. What a waste of a perfectly good device. Well, I guess if I want a good strategy game on mobile, I’ll have to make it myself. In the meantime, feel free to suggest good mobile games to me.



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