Time Spent =/= Challenge

One of the latest crazes to hit the mobile market is Magikarp Jump, a perfect example of the thought put into your typical game for smart phones.

In Magikarp Jump, you’re tasked with feeding one of the titular Pokemon with berries or training it with equally repetitive tasks as to raise its JP stat until it reaches the maximum level. You then bear witness to automated “league challenges” which require no real input from the player and require no skill whatsoever. If your Magikarp has a higher JP total than the opponent, you win. If you don’t, you keep feeding the fish, training it, or if it’s already maxed out you get a new one and start the whole process over again.

And all this is achieved with a single input: tap the screen.

You tap it to feed the fish. You tap it to have the fish flop against a punching bag or tree. You tap the dialogue prompts to move the “plot” along.

There is nothing to this game. Hell, I hesitate to even call it a game. There’s no fail state to speak of, either. While it’s possible to “lose” a league challenge, it means nothing. In fact, the “game” is designed in such a way that losing is a necessity to be done with your current Magikarp so that you can get a new one at the starting level and stuff it full of food and tree bark to reach the level of the previous fish.

It’s also possible for your Magikarp to be killed. By wandering bird Pokemon. By rogue Voltorb that explode and kill the fish. These instances are perhaps some of the funniest, darkest moments ever seen in Pokemon. Being a kids’ series of games and media, the mere mention of death is almost taboo; the earliest games touched upon it with locales such as Lavender Town’s Pokemon Tower, which was later converted to a radio tower. But having your Pokemon die and permanently removed from the team? Never.

Shame that here in Magikarp Jump it means nothing. The potential dozens of fish you choose to feed and throw against hard surfaces renders any attachment you have to a single fish moot. You’ll probably have a fondness for the first fish, or some random one you give a funny or meaningful nickname to. But once that one has either been devoured by a wild Pidgeotto or retired after reaching its highest attainable level, you’ll never get to interact with it again. At most it’ll be seen swimming in the background of the main screen.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to touch on: time as a substitute for challenge.

Mobile games I feel draw much of their inspiration from arcade cabinets of old: their job is to suck a few minutes of your time along with a few dollars from your pocket. In the olden days, the dollars were guaranteed, the time was not. After all, you could drop some coins into a cabinet, and not 20 seconds later you’d be slapped with a GAME OVER screen because these games were designed to be ridiculously hard for that very reason.

Nowadays, it’s been reversed. It’s the invested time that’s guaranteed, while dollars are a gamble at best. The mobile market’s one (arguably) positive feature is the public’s predisposition to cheap gaming. If your game costs anything more than free, you’d be hard-pressed to sell copies. So instead, microtransactions were born. The core game is free to play, but everything is slowed to a glacial pace, with cash incentive to speed the process up. And for most people I imagine, time is money is so hardwired into their heads that it becomes easy to loose some spare bucks just to push this “game” along.

And don’t even get me started on this cancerous “gacha” aspect that has infested most Japanese mobile games. Recent examples include Fire Emblem Heroes, but I’ll write a Browny Blog on THAT some other day. I’ll just say now that if you have ever spent even a single dollar on that game or anything like it, I not only pity you, I think less of you as a person.

But this is a bit of a tangent I feel. Obviously I have issue with microtransactions and the general seediness of mobile games designed solely to suck cash from weak-willed individuals. What I have most issue with however is the growing tendency to make these games so easy that it stops being a game.

Magikarp Jump is a prime example of this: there is no way to win or lose. You just keep tapping away mindlessly at it until you grow bored. There’s no takeaway from the experience, no sense of satisfaction from achieving anything. Because nothing is ever achieved. You getting your fish to Level 25 means nothing; it’s just digital proof that you have not only the patience but willingness to spend X amount of time tapping on your phone screen.

Would a game that is borderline unfair to play due to cheap difficulty be better than something like Magikarp Jump? I don’t know– probably not. But I feel that at the very least it would engage the player more on some level.

And at the same time, I just know that such a game would be universally hated by the ignorant masses who just want to turn their brains off for 100 seconds at a stretch as they wait for a bus, stop at a red light, or casually ignore friends and family at social gatherings.

And boy is that not a grim takeaway from all this.

Time Spent =/= Challenge