Hard Truths - Some Games Aren't Meant for Mobile05 Jan 2017 8
The game I've spent the most hours on in my life is Angband. It's an old school Tolkien-themed, open source Roguelike. Yet in many respects, it's an atrocious design: classes, races and progress are not well balanced, despite decades of fans trying to iron out the kinks. There are points in the game where you have to stop and grind until you gain certain essential attributes from your skills or items. Then, when you progress, you're overpowered for the next few hours and then the cycle repeats.
For all its flaws, the core gameplay loop of loot gathering and tactical combat kept me enslaved for years. I have memories of it which would make no sense to a non-player but which are still burned on my brain. For example, there was an epic fight with Saruman that took hours and left the dungeon level a wreck of rubble, or that time I tried to plunder a deadly treasure vault the RNG inserted into the first level. I only stopped playing when I switched from a desktop to a laptop. The game had so many keys that needed navigating with great rapidity that I couldn't cope playing it without a number pad.
Angband has never been an iOS game, though it does have a limited Android port. So why am I talking about it and keyboards on a mobile site? Because it got rendered almost unplayable by the translation. Even though some of Angband's more approachable kissing cousins have had the touchscreen treatment as well, most of these were equally mangled. Even Nethack, which is perhaps the best known relative. These sorts of games already have steep learning curves and harsh reward ratios, trying to internalise dealing with all the possible commands by touch and gesture is next to impossible.
Yet the lure is strong and people keep trying.
Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution is a semi-graphical MMORPG called Wyvern, which featured in the penultimate 'Out Now' post of last year. It was originally released as a Java client in 2001, with mechanics inspired by NetHack. It boasted a huge world, a rich skill system and unusually, for the time, offered mobile access via PDA (Man, remember when PDA's were a thing? -ED). It was an innovative enough concept at the time to win the game an award and a dedicated community of players. Sadly, due a tangle of legal issues, the game server has been in suspension since 2011.
Admittedly, It's not a game that had ever crossed my path until it got resurrected as an iOS app last December. For a nominal sum, I too got to experience the delights of a rich game world with mechanics that would feel more at home in the 1980's. But that's not the problem: as we've already discussed, mechanics from the 80's are enough to deliver a compelling experience. The problem, just like with NetHack, is making the touchscreen element work without having the player want to hurl their device across the room.
Since Wyvern has already had a mobile version in the form of the PDA application, it's clear the designer has tried hard to make it work. You can move and interact with most things in the game by tapping on the map. This minimises the need to use the menu icons situated around the edge of the window, which let you issue text commands, get status updates and access other functions with minimal fuss. However, it transpires that minimal fuss isn't minimal enough for fun, streamlined play. Doing anything off-map, like examining and comparing items in your inventory, is still a pain.
And while on-map tapping sounds good a good solution in theory, it fails in practice. Touching is maddeningly imprecise, often needing repeated fumbles to hit what you want. Even more so when a missed tap will often move you off the target, meaning you've got to move back before trying again. In one comical moment I spent a full minute circling round in an air balloon, trying to tap on its shadow to get out and back on the ground. And this is on an iPad, mind: I dread to think what it would be like on a phone. I can imagine it working better with a PDA-style stylus, but that's a rare accessory on modern hardware.
So what's the solution? Well, in Wyvern's case, there isn't one. The UI itself serves as a metaphor for the problem. You can help with the tapping by increasing the size of the graphics window. But doing so makes it harder to manage your inventory and read action messages. There's just too much going on to manage on a small screen with a limited interface. Unlike the UI issues we discussed before in games like 1775, which are the result of lazy design, these issues are insurmountable. For mobile games of this ilk to work, they just have to strip back hard on the detail. Either partially, remaining a recognisable RPG, such as Cardinal Quest. Or totally, like Hoplite, resulting in a procedural puzzle game.
This begs the question: Why do people keep bothering to port unsuitable games over to a mobile platform? My Angband addiction points to an easy answer. These games are time consuming and enormously enslaving. Having them on tap to play whenever you have a spare few minutes would be a colossal boon. The trouble is that in making them accessible, they lose a lot of the depth that makes them so brilliant in the first place. So brilliant that writing this has made me want to play Angband again. But after having tried the mobile app, I'm off to buy a plugin keyboard for my laptop instead.
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