Pokemon Go, Terraria, and Mobile Gaming’s Potential

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Two major and very different games seem to outright reject the sort of self-limiting play sessions we find in Clash Royale, Candy Crush Saga, and other big hits on mobile: Pokemon Go and Terraria. They’re anomalies of the mobile market, and they tell us a lot about the potential of mobile gaming.

Exploration

Both games encourage, or at least allow for, exploration of a map and collecting valuable items hidden throughout the world. Both games diverge from the self-limiting play session design model, now industry standard for addictive mobile games.

That said, there is one map in Pokemon Go. Where you end up on the map in Pokemon Go is determined by your physical location on earth (the layout of your neighborhood, et cetera) in relation to GPS satellites. Meanwhile, Terraria incorporates the Roguelike genre’s algorithm-based map-making. Maps in Terraria are procedurally generated from random seeds relating to your computer’s clock.

Gameplay

Pokemon Go’s simplistic mechanics have polarized critics. You go around searching for Pokemon – you, actual you, not your avatar. If a Pokemon appears on your screen, you fling your Pokeball at it by tapping an icon and pointing your phone’s camera. As you go about your day, you can check in at certain locations (deemed Pokestops) much in the same way Facebook users check in at locations. That’s about all there is to the game. If that sounds to you like little more than a Google Maps plugin, you’re not alone. Two days after Pokemon Go’s release, Julian Chokkatu and Mike Epstein at Digital Trends posted discussion of whether Pokemon Go is a game or just a camera app with a geo-cache, Pokemon sprites, and social networking elements.

Ported from PC to mobile by 505 Games with assistance from CodeGlue and RakNet, Terraria is all about grinding and exploration on the X- and Y-axes in classic platformer fashion. Smash up baddies, dig deep into the earth for resources, discover rare loot, slay mythical beasts, build a town, and inspire friendly NPCs to move in next door – or do none of these things. It’s one of the few games around that doesn’t really care how you play it. Terraria’s open-endedness can come as a shock. As Terraria’s Gamepedia wiki explains, “Players can be confused about where they should go and what they should do next. This is not a design oversight: Terraria is an open-ended game.” Particularly to players just starting out, Terraria can seem more like an interactive environment than a game.

By the Numbers

Per Polygon, Pokemon Go, a free-to-play app, has been downloaded 500 million times. Twenty million people still play Pokemon Go everyday. As reported by Nerdist in September, Nintendo’s partnership with Apple, a direct result of Pokemon Go’s success, has pushed its stock through the roof. In context, nonetheless, Pokemon Go at its least popular is still an unheard of success. According to Money Nation, Pokemon Go had generated 233 million dollars from in-app purchases as of September.

In contrast, Terraria’s base continues to grow. It took Terraria four years to sell 18 million units, according to Gamespot. That’s across all platforms, including last-gen and current-gen consoles and PC. Whereas Terraria’s player base continues to expand, Pokemon Go is already being discussed in the press as a passing fad. In August, a month after the game’s release, GQ ran an article called, “Are You Still Playing Pokemon Go?” Pokemon Go’s unprecedented current situation is reminiscent of the universal embrace of, and mass exodus from, all things Angry Birds, but on a much bigger scale.

Analysis

Terraria is a game that keeps getting updated and expanded. In fact, an entirely new codebase update is scheduled for the second quarter of 2017, according to Terraria.org. Content updates five months after an app’s release are rare these days. A full scale reinvention of the codebase five years after a game’s release is unprecedented.

Explanations for Pokemon Go’s sudden downturn abound. No explanation fully satisfies. The game outgrew the mobile market itself. It simply got too big, too fast. There wasn’t enough new content to hold players’ attention. It was designed to be a fad that would renew interest in the Pokemon property in the lead-up to the release of the NX console, not to become a new institution in mobile gaming. Close cousin of the Tamagachi, Pokemon Go runs in the background until it suddenly demands your immediate attention. Is its tendency to be a battery hog pushing players away?

And that’s to say nothing of the lack of interactivity in-game. Once you catch a Pokemon, it’s put in your collection. It’s as interactive an experience as old-school Pokemon card-collecting. You can’t do anything with the Pokemon once you catch them, lackluster “gym battles” aside. You can’t pit them against other Pokemon in turn-based combat like you can in virtually every other digital Pokemon property this side of Pokemon Snap. All you can do is try to catch more. Doing so runs the risk of losing the ones you’ve already captured as you open your Pokeball to collect another one. There’s simply no contest between the sparse game elements and half-baked social networking of Pokemon Go and the robust single- or multiplayer gameplay experience of Terraria, with its Minecraft-like crafting system and Metroidvania-style platforming and real-time combat.

Potential

Many mobile games encourage replay and in-app purchases not with tried-and-true grinding and exploration incentives but, rather, by cutting short play sessions. Pokemon Go and Terraria are examples of mobile games that reject conventional wisdom about mobile game design. Pokemon Go shows how branding and social networking functionality can create sudden interest in a mobile game. At the same time, it shows how an app’s appeal can be undermined by poor interactivity and a dearth of compelling content. Terraria’s success demonstrates how a steady sequence of free content updates can keep gamers playing an app for years.