Giant Bomb News


A Sobering Conversation About Mobile Gaming

While making The Room, Fireproof learned how toxic the mobile world has become. Porting the game to PC gave it a chance to look back on that journey, and it's not pretty.

This famous conversation from Clive Barker's Hellraiser seems to sum up mobile games today:

Pinhead: The box... you opened it, we came.

Kirsty Cotton: It's just a puzzle box!

Pinhead: Oh no, it is a means to summon us.

Kirsty Cotton: Who are you?

Pinhead: Explorers... in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.

Kirsty Cotton: It was a mistake! I didn't... I didn't mean to open it! It was a mistake! You can... GO TO HELL!

Female Cenobite: We can't. Not alone.

Pinhead: You solved the box, we came. Now you must come with us, taste our pleasures.

Kirsty Cotton: Please! Go away and leave me alone!

Pinhead: Oh, no tears please. It's a waste of good suffering!

The Room is an anomaly. Trends suggest the path to success on phones and tablets is free-to-play, but Fireproof Games charged $1.99 for The Room in 2012. Even as free-to-play continued to dominate, as Candy Crush Saga ripped through the charts, Fireproof launched The Room Two at $1.99.

Hi, Barry!
Hi, Barry!

Though The Room didn't turn Fireproof into overnight billionaires, the company prides itself on having kept its integrity intact. Fireproof co-founder and business director Barry Meade is not shy about sharing his experiences on mobile, his fears about how it might impact the console and PC market, and what it takes to succeed without selling your soul in the process.

If you haven't played The Room, it's never been easier. The reason we touched base last week was over Fireproof's announcement of The Room on PC, which launched yesterday on Steam. The Room is a game full of intricate devices for players to push, pull, and tease until the secrets are unraveled. In this case, though, torturous demons from Hell don't arrive, fully prepared to rip the flesh from your bones. (In my experience, anyway.)

I hadn't planned on publishing my entire conversation with Meade, but as we neared the hour mark, it seemed necessary. Besides chatting about converting a touch-based game to mouse controls, we speak at length about the confusing business that is making mobile games.

Apple has sold more than 600 million iOS devices since the iPhone launched in 2007, and Google's seen more than 900 million Android devices activated. No matter what your platform of choice is, that's a potentially monstrous base of customers. It's helped drive so many developers to mobile, but what are they running to? Who is playing these games? Are their values at odd with what we traditionally want from games? Is that a bad thing? The questions are big, but Meade isn't afraid to tackle them head-on.

Giant Bomb: I saw on the Fireproof blog that you have a primary team working on something else, but, then a strike force working on bringing The Room to the PC.

Barry Meade: Yeah. We actually finished the content a month ago. We've been doing various tweaks. All the artwork and the content side of it was pretty much completed a month ago, so now it’s only a small team. I think there’s probably two or three full-time now, but there was a period of months where it had the lion’s share of the company working on it. I mean, it was a big job. It’s not a hard job, it’s a big job. There’s a difference. A new game is hard, but you can't just “port” an iOS game onto PC. You have to really start again, rebuild all the assets, and all that. It was an awful lot of work in the long run.

We basically had the majority of the team working on the PC version, while we were working on our other new stuff with a smaller, more concentrated team.

GB: One thing that sticks out so much about these games is how natural they feel on a touch screen. I have to imagine a big day one problem was how to make that feel good with a mouse.

Meade: Oh, for sure. There are specific puzzles that will absolutely not work, and we had to rework them. Some puzzles we reimagined, and they’re slightly different from what they were in the original. Most of them took us taking a different tact with how the player manipulates the objects and puzzles themselves, and how all that works out. [It was mostly] trying to come up with something that was very simple, and wouldn't take much effort to get through. Initially, because the game is so touch-based--the idea of sliding the locks and the tactility of all that--we were very nervous about putting it on PC. We resisted for the past year, really, for that reason. We worried it would be a lesser game. We worried a lot of things, actually. [laughs]

Making any iOS game on Steam is generally a no-no, right? It’s something, generally, that’s a bad idea. It’s frowned upon. So there’s lots of reasons why we didn't do it. At the end of the day, we thought to ourselves, “look, point-and-click games are still plugging away on PC, and they’re making a bit of a comeback. If you take away the touch controls of our game, it’s just a point-and-click adventure. People on PC don't seem to mind those things, at the end of the day.”

Although we’re very aware of the loss of the feeling of tactility, the actual mechanics behind the game and everything else that the game managed to achieve well is still there. So we thought, in that respect, it’s still a short game, but it’s as good as any other point-and-click adventure on the PC. After that, once you get over the interface and how the player uses it, then you're just talking about taste. Is this game for someone’s taste? Maybe it will be. We don’t know, we’ll wait and see.

We’re very excited with the idea of getting something on Steam. This is a way for us to investigate that whole side of publishing and self-publishing and see what it’s like, compared to doing stuff on smartphones, etc.

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GB: Can you elaborate on what the fears are in terms of bringing a mobile game to PC?

Meade: It depends how far back you want me to go. [laughs]

GB: Go as far back as you want to!

Meade: Alright! I would say, traditionally, there’s definitely been an impression that mobile games are just shit, in comparison to PC games. Why would anyone want to convert a shit game onto a great platform? I’m speaking in the voice of PC users, of which I am one. I am a PC gamer at heart. We completely understand that point-of-view because all of us are PC gamers. We made a mobile game because that’s all we could afford to make. It wasn’t for any other reason. We couldn’t afford to make a PC game, we couldn't afford to make a PSN or Xbox Live game. Mobile was all we could afford, and we were just desperate to make a game somehow, someway. So we did that, and it really worked out for us.

I don’t know. When we made The Room, we did not, in any way, approach it with the point-of-view of “what do current mobile gamers particularly like?”

GB: Oh, you’re saying The Room wasn’t made based on trends in the mobile market? [laughs]

Meade: No, absolutely not! The one thing that we did do was make sure it was brilliant for the platform, which is just your fucking job if you’re a developer. We would never design a game for a mobile platform that didn't really suit the mobile platform. That’s just fucking stupid. We just thought to ourselves, “instead of making what we're supposed to make--you know, these stupid, twee, cartoony, dumbass games that have no depth--we wanted to bring all the same values with the stuff we've created for console and PC that we did for years. Take that to mobile and say “no, we just think a good game is a good game on any platform, and if it’s good enough, if you execute it well enough, and if you’re respectful to the audience enough, people will pick up on it.”

It’s not about pandering to perceived expectations or a perceived audience or a perceived group. It’s not about trying to market to the 17-to-24 bracket or whatever the fuck. All of that stuff is just completely alien to us. All we know how to do ourselves is how to appeal to gamers. What do gamers like? That’s the spirit in which we made our game. We hope that some of that will come across on the PC, where people will say “you know, it isn't just a typical mobile game.” Granted, it’s obviously going to not be as interesting with the mouse controls, but that’s simply down to mobile’s USP [unique selling proposition], which is the touch interface. It’s not down to a deficiency in PC in any way, it’s that PC doesn’t do this! This is something smartphones do. So you can’t complain when you lose that in the translation.

But, for us, that was there at the start. We were definitely very nervous. We don’t ever want to release something that PC gamers could accuse of taking the piss out of them, you know what I mean? We didn't want to make games half-hearted just to slapdash ports, just to get it up on Steam, and make a few extra sales. Granted, we couldn't reimagine the game, we didn't have the money or the resources to do that for PC, but what we did do was re-do everything to the quality that people expect, and to the quality that we would expect as gamers. That’s, really, all we can do.

It’s still an experiment, and we’re still approaching it as an experiment. We have no idea how it’s going to do. There’s literally no business case for us to do this for exactly the reasons you pointed out. [laughs] Who buys iPad games on Steam? But we were just like “fuck it. This is what we want to do. This is a platform we want to be on. This is the audience we want to appeal to long term.” That’s how we overcame our fears, I guess you would say.

GB: From the PC owner perspective, or anyone that’s a serious game player, the derision to the term “mobile game” is a matter of respect. Those games have only really come into their own because the platforms have matured…

Meade: Started to mature.

GB: Sure. If you really like playing games, you can jump into the App Store and find games like The Room or Sword & Sworcery. You can find games that respect that you love the craft of video games.

Meade: That’s exactly right.

GB: The derision to mobile games is that they often take advantage of people that don't know any better. That may be fine for that audience, but for people who identify as gamers, they look at those developers, those companies, as trying to take advantage of ignorance. That’s where the lingering feeling over that term comes from. It’s going to take a long time for that to go away, but we’re in the beginning phases of seeing that.

Meade: I would agree with you there, man. I really think we are in the beginning phases of it, if for no other reason than there are really interesting people working in mobile. That, alone, is all you need. What mobile has is that it’s so cheap to develop for. People who couldn't even afford to develop on Steam--and Steam is cheap in comparison to the consoles--are able to make games on mobile. So what you have is a very small but really highly active development scene of people who are making very interesting things, and who, maybe, don't have the baggage of the PC scene.

"The one thing that we did do was make sure it was brilliant for the platform, which is just your fucking job if you’re a developer."

But irrespective, down the line, these people are going to earn their bones on mobile, and they’re going to break out onto other platforms. Mobile itself is a great inroad to PC and into console. It’s allowing people to make stuff on mobile who literally couldn't make it on PC, certainly on consoles. They're coming with ideas and game ideas and visual styles and design mechanics that are unencumbered by all of the baggage that comes with what you're “supposed” to do to make a successful console game or PC game. That’s the one advantage it has.

On one hand, it’s extremely commercial, even moreso than PC and console. But on the other hand, the depth of the development scene is so deep that you just are going to get interesting stuff coming up. You just are. There are just too many people developing for it.

GB: It seems like there’s also an opportunity to develop an inroad to these really large audiences. A lot of people have hangups over what the term video game means. People that enjoy games don’t necessarily identify as “gamers,” but they very much enjoy games. They may have a preconceived notion of what games are or…

Meade: Really? Who are those people? I haven’t met those people. They play games but they don’t call themselves gamers? [laughs] There are always those people who buy a PS2, a copy of FIFA, a copy of Madden, a copy of F1, and, then, they never buy another game again. That’s all they play with their friends. Those gamers are actually a huge part of, say, the PlayStation and Xbox audience. These are non-gamer gamers. There are tens of millions of these people, who buy a console just to play the sports games.

And [it's] the same with mobile. They play free-to-play games and nothing else. They will never pay for anything because they don’t self-identify as gamers.

GB: Even if they don't self-identify or they largely enjoy free-to-play—and this is my experience with talking with friends and family—they just don't know any better. When they have an experience with a game that really respects their time and there’s a lot of craft, there’s a huge opportunity.

Meade: Why would they not recognize the difference? It’s exactly that. It’s not to say that one is substantially different from the other. It’s that you’re probably not aware of the spread that’s out there, and you're probably not aware of what’s possible. You may, in fact, find something that’s very particularly interesting to you as an individual, if you look a bit further. That’s perfectly possible on mobile. But it’s difficult. I do hear that argument made quite a lot in mobile circles: the people who play free-to-play games just don’t know any better. They're badly schooled in what video games can be.

GB: I think that’s the great hope for people who are spending a lot of time making really great games. The real question is whether, in the next five years, that’s proved out.

Meade: I think it’s 50/50, to be honest. To some degree, that attitude is true. These people aren't aware of what’s out there, and they could find stuff that speaks more to them. In fact, I know that’s true. The development community themselves--if we're not pushing that stuff, then what’s the difference? If we're out there making free-to-play games and doing stupid marketing campaigns because some fucking investor told us to because that’s how you make a hit, then we have no cause to complain there. We’re marching to the steps of someone else. You're part of the problem, effectively.

It’s up to people like us. This is one of the things about the toss up between the pay and free market on mobile is. People will say “we can't compete with free because their budgets are so big” and da da da da da. And that’s all true, unfortunately. That’s all true. What you have to do, then, is ask the next question: “what can I do in this situation?” Given that it’s like this, what can we do? What can we achieve? The idea would be, okay, set your sights lower than making $100 million dollars. Maybe it’s $10 million. Or $1 Million. Try that. Then, you can find that the decisions you make, the stuff you can make, the stuff you're pushing, and how you go about your business, can change really quite radically. You can still run a successful business. When I say successful business, I mean an ongoing business. You’re never going to make trillions, but forget about that fucking idea.

Candy Crush Saga is just one of many free-to-play (free-to-win?) games that dominate mobile game design .
Candy Crush Saga is just one of many free-to-play (free-to-win?) games that dominate mobile game design .

Given the industry, on mobile, is almost ruined by free-to-play, you have to figure out how to work with what you have. You can’t simply just sit and moan that free-to-play has killed everything. It’s up to us to offer something that free-to-play games cannot give. Something original that says something about your team, your view of gaming that you particularly like, or you’re trying to sell people on why video games are amazing. That’s why you should make a game. That’s the only reason you should make a game, because you’re trying to get across to other people why you think games are amazing. If you start off at that but start pandering to people, listening to marketing people, listening to analytics, checking out data, you're running 180 degrees from what you started out to do. You’re now an also-ran. You're now boring, in line with a billion other developers who are all doing the same thing.

Developers have a part to play in this, and part of that will be trying to get across to the market “you know what, if you just pay $1.99 upfront, you can actually get a fairly different experience from your mobile device.” And that’s what we have to do. Lots of developers don't bother, frankly. They just run with it. “Hey, this is the market we have, it’s all about free-to-play. So we're going to design and make this game that we have no interest in, we don’t know how to do, we don’t know anything about marketing, but we're going to have to do that as well. Because, hey, this is what running a modern business looks like.”

I just think that is just bullshit. These people are kidding themselves. It’s just a long form of failure right there. They should be starting off with what they could do well, [and] what audience they know. So that [ideas] they put across can be put across honestly and with some vigor behind it. Some rigor.

At the moment, I would say 50-to-60% of the developers I know on mobile don’t even know what the fuck they’re making. They literally don't care, they don’t even play the free-to-play games. They feel like they're railroaded into it because all of the publishers and all of the VCs [venture capitalists]--and this is no joke--want to see Clash of Clans. Because that’s all they know.

I don’t know. For us, we always went with our gut on this stuff. I could see all the numbers, I could see all the data, but it just doesn't add up for me. It doesn't make sense. Why don’t gamers play mobile games? Just as an intellectual idea. Why don’t they do that, in your opinion?

GB: They don't respect their time, they don't respect their money. They come across as very exploitative. They exist purely for the craft of making money, as opposed to what got people into games in the first place, which is good design.

Meade: Yeah. That’s pretty much my view on it. That’s our view, as a studio, actually. The reason they’re not buying mobile games is because we’re not making mobile games directed at them. We're making mobile games directed at god-knows-who. Literally nobody! There is no one on Earth who fits the profile of what the data says a mobile gamer is. There are probably 10 of them, and this is the problem. This is exactly the problem. We've always known, whether you're an author or a musician or whatever, we have always known that the way to get yourself known is to put yourself into your work. Make it personal. Put something across that is showing you a view that people haven't seen before.

Surprise is a huge part of stuff being successful. All of this is taken out of games development at the moment, in lieu of just a bunch of numbers, really, on a sheet. People will say the reason that free-to-play is really tempting is because of the efficacy of it. You're more likely to have a hit, you’re more likely to be successful, if you follow this route. But, really, what they actually mean is if you're successful in this route, you stand to make more money. That’s not the same as saying you’re just as likely to be successful. [It's] what drives the thinking in mobile gaming, and it’s now coming to console and PC. You can see it already. It’s the same thinking: it’s all about metrics, it’s all about free-to-play. Free-to-play is not the problem. Metrics is the problem.

It’s really just the amount of money they stand to make if they ever get to number one. That’s what drives it. It’s not to do with what people want, it’s not to do with what’s likely to succeed, it’s not even to do with good business, in my view. It’s literally to do [with the fact that] they're just too greedy. They can’t stand the idea of making $10 million when they could possibly make $100 million. Therefore, they just make these huge leaps in logic, which is to say that the more you pander to an audience, the more likely you are to be successful. Which is true in lots of areas, but not in creative businesses. It kinda isn’t.

No one wants to be the Nirvana rip-off band. Wouldn't you rather be Nirvana? This is the truth of things. This is the truth of creative industries the world over. At the moment, the mobile industry is ripping off Clash of Clans. Well, I would rather be Cash of Clans than a Clash of Clans rip-off! It doesn't matter how much money that might make me. I would feel much more comfortable in that position.

GB: But free-to-play isn't going anywhere.

Meade: No, it’s going to get bigger and bigger. I’m fine with that so long as the games get better.

GB: It seems like you’d want to look at Clash of Clans and see what people are responding to. Who is that game not serving? How could we create a better game or a better model? Look for why players are connecting with it. It's not because they’re particularly interested in the clashing of clans. [laughs]

Meade: Exactly. It’s because it’s fucking free.

GB: There’s going to be something else. It’s all cyclical. Clash of Clans is not like traditional video games, in which, 10 years from now, you're going to look back and really appreciate what it gave you.

Meade: To be fair, I think Clash of Clans might be because those guys did do something really well, and they did it first. I hate the word innovation, but they were the guys who nailed it. When they came out, they nailed it in a way that other people hadn't nailed it. And now everybody in the industry’s ripping them off. I wouldn't put them in that bracket. I would put them in the bracket of “they made a classic mobile game, those guys are amazing.”

If you talk to mobile publishers, they will always say Minecraft is an outlier, but they never say Clash of Clans is. They’ll say Clash of Clans is what you should be copying.

GB: One being easier to copy might be part of that, too.

Meade: Well, yeah. To be fair, Clash of Clans is a lot easier for businessmen, VCs, publishers, and executives to get their head around. You’re selling them on a list of features. “Hey, this game had these features. Our game has these features! We’re gonna make $100 million dollars.”

GB: The metrics are easier to break down and understand.

Meade: Exactly. That’s easy for them to understand. But you turn up to those guys and say “hey, I've got this other game, and it made just as much as Clash of Clans, but it’s got nothing to do with metrics! It’s only about making a wonderful experience for gamers, and that’s literally the only reason it made half a billion dollars.” That’s an outlier, suddenly. Why is that an outlier? It’s from the same business, it’s just as big a phenomenon, but one is an outlier and one is what we all need to be copying.

I’ll tell you why! It’s not because one is superior to the other, it’s because you don’t understand the other one--at all. You don't understand the game, you don’t understand the people who play it. Because you haven’t had some marketing dude break it down for you. You are making all the decisions about what is being made is in this industry--what developers are gonna get pushed, what ideas are gonna get played. Then, you have the gall to go back and say “the reason we’re making these games is because this is what gamers demand, this is what gamers want!”

GB: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Meade: They only want it because you’re checking the fucking data every day. It’s convincing you over and over that this is the only reality out there when there’s Minecraft and other huge games out there that make a fucking mockery of that idea. That’s what everybody should be doing.

GB: It feels equivalent to fast food. Yes, lots of people like it, but…

Meade: And there’s a place for it. There’s nothing wrong with it. But don’t compare it! Don’t dare compare it.

GB: There’s a difference between McDonalds and a sit-down restaurant where you get a gourmet burger.

Meade: Even if you wanna talk just burgers, McDonalds is no way the best burger house, but it makes the most money. These guys think that if you’re going into that market, you ought to copy McDonalds, whereas everybody knows, especially the gourmet burger places, that’s the last thing you want to do. You need to go the other way. You need to offer people something they haven't seen before.

GB: Who do you want to go up against? Do you want to make a better burger and get the gourmet people? Or do you want to go up against the goliath that is McDonalds? That seems ridiculous.

Meade: I’m not arguing for the superiority of one or the other. I’m merely saying [we] should stop saying this other part of the industry isn't important. It’s actually what’s driven the industry up until now. It’s why we’re in a $70 billion dollar industry. It isn't because of fucking metrics. It’s because of GTA. It’s because of Red Dead Redemption. It’s because of Mario. It’s because of all of these guys who were absolutely driven by their guts to make the best possible video game they could, and to entertain the most possible people. That’s how Spielberg works, that’s how Pixar works. It’s across-the-board, but in video games, for some reason, because we have data, we go the other way. We look at it as some engineering navel-gazing project about human psychology. It’s fine that stuff exists, but you cannot then say the rest of the industry doesn't exist.

For instance, going back to my question to you about why you think gamers don’t buy mobile games. Because you know they all have smartphone. They know that there’s more games available for their smartphone than all of their systems put together. But they’re still not buying them! Why not? Because we don’t appeal to them. We don’t tell them that there’s games for them on those systems.

"[Their] idea is to nickel ’n dime people to death. There’s no such thing as a smooth experience in video games now if you play a mobile game. It just doesn't exist. The idea is to design bad gaming to make you pay around it."

This is how most people come to mobile games. They log onto the App Store, they look at the grossing chart, they look at the top 10. They naturally will assume that this is the best stuff that’s out there, and they download it. Actually, all it is the most aggressively monetized stuff that’s out there. “Oh, look, the top 10 games are all free! Oh my god, the top 50 are all free! Well, fuck, I ain't buying that one at number 61 that’s $1.99.” That’s where we are.

And this is what’s coming to console and PC, and I really hope the industry remembers its experience, remembers its history, and has the balls to say “oh, right, this stuff is interesting, but this far, no further. We still have to make an entertaining, original, unique game that doesn't rip someone else off. That used to mean something, right?” I really hope that happens. I fear it won’t. I fear what’s going to happen to PC and console gaming is what’s happened to mobile gaming.

To want to entertain people is just really strange, and it doesn't fly with VCs, it doesn't fly with publishers. They’re like “who the fuck are you?” when you start talking about this stuff. I really hope that doesn't happen. I have fears that it will, but there’s also reason to believe it won’t. Some of that has to do with the history and the audience. The audience themselves will be like “get the fuck out of here.” I hope.

GB: You’ve painted a very dark future for video games. Hopefully you guys stick around.

Meade: Dude, you have to work in mobile. We’re already there in mobile. We’re long past. It’s a different fucking world. I never thought it was. I've always approached, and still do approach what we do, as “hey, we’re just game makers and we don’t care what platform it’s on.” That’s the attitude we've always had, and we always will have that attitude. But when it comes down to the intricacies of the business…have you been to GDC?

GB: Oh, yeah. I made a point at GDC this year to try and drop into a couple of the free-to-play tracks. It was as gross and as boring as I was expecting it to be.

Meade: It’s pretty boring. But, believe me, at GDC, you see see the tamer stuff. You really ought to go to a major mobile development conference.

GB: I’ve heard the ones where press doesn’t really show up and cover it is where they drop the conceit that they give a shit about making a good game.

Meade: It’s just the metrics, it’s just the psychology. It’s marketing. It’s everything but a great experience. It’s everything but that. It’s my experience going to these conferences that’s made me more strident in my belief about this. Before that, I didn't really give a fuck. “Hey, we’re all in this together, etc. etc.” And now? “You know what, your values are just different from the rest of the industry. I don’t feel like I’m a fellow traveler here.” They have this attitude that’s come from the IT and web industries. It’s an engineering project for them, and that’s all it really is.

GB: It’s why gamers are so hostile to the idea of free-to-play. If this makes more money, if it gets a bigger audience, the Mass Effects of the world disappear. At the same time, there are really positive ways this could go. If you look at DOTA 2, it’s free-to-play in its most idealized form. It’s a game where anyone that downloads the client gets to play the game, and people spend so much fucking money on that game. It’s forgotten that DOTA 2 is free-to-play because it’s just fundamentally a good game, and you feel good when you play it.

Meade: Hearthstone is the same, so [is] World of Tanks. I’d put that up there. These are all are amazing games first, and the business model second. This is proof that there’s nothing wrong with free-to-play. The business model requires that you love the game in order for you to make money. A game like World of Tanks, that is just a fantastic, hardcore, old school PC game. Alright, it’s about tanks ’n shit, but literally, you ain’t going to get many wives playing that game. There’s nothing universal about it. It’s very hardcore, and yet, as a free-to-play game, it’s a standard bearer.

There’s no clash between the business model and wanting to make great games. But there is a huge clash between the values of the people behind gaming and the moneymen who are currently behind gaming, what the audience actually wants, what gamers actually want and expect, and what they think quality looks like. This is the problem. The whole industry is shifting over to the VC version of what video gaming is, while the gamers themselves are expecting even bigger and better versions of what happened before. They want those massive experiences with the dazzling, epic visions. That’s what they want. But they ain't gonna get ‘em at the moment because of this games as a service idea.

[Their] idea is to nickel ’n dime people to death. There’s no such thing as a smooth experience in video games now if you play a mobile game. It just doesn't exist. The idea is to design bad gaming to make you pay around it. This is my worry about it. It’s not about the business model, it’s about the values and the people this kind of business model attracts to the industry and the voices that suddenly start getting listened to. [These are voices] who really should not be listened to when you're talking about creating a piece of cultural work that’s going to speak to an audience and make them go “wow” and have a great experience. That’s fairly lofty stuff. That doesn't really work with the navel-gazing noodling of data and of numbers and using that to dictate not only your second-to-second gameplay decisions, but your actual business model and how your company performs and what you look like and what kind of stuff you’re pushing on people. That’s my great worry about it, but it may well all balance out.

It may well be that free-to-play gaming on mobile is in for a big surprise in the next year or two. That’s also very possible. It could be that the players push back. For instance, there’s a lot of evidence that the people who pay for free-to-play games are all the same people. The people who are ripping off Clash of Clans--EA, Ubisoft, and all these pathetic losers who are trying desperately to do that--they’re all chasing the same market. That seems to be the case.

GB: They’re all chasing the same, small percentage of folks. These whales, as they’re called.

Meade: You know what the evidence about those whales is? Those people are hardcore gamers with a lot of money. So who are we making these games for, at the end of the day? They keep going on about the reach of casual and how broad it is and “these games are not for gamers, so all the values are different and all the old rules don't apply.” But, yet, the people who they say that about are not paying for this stuff, they have no interest in it beyond noodling. They just don’t. They don't care about them. They're not paying anything for them--at all.

And who is? It’s the hardcore addict gamers who are already the guys refuting the console and PC world. Some of them, who are extremely rich, can just piss away money on the slightest things. We’re not actually reaching anybody by making these games. At all. We really aren’t. It doesn't bother me how much Clash of Clans makes because I think to myself “well, they keep going on about the granny and the mother and the young kid and all these different players who all enjoy playing the game,” which I'm sure is true. They obviously have millions of players who think the game is great fun, but they ain't paying for them. These people pay for post-it notes, but they ain't paying for this.

It's easy to forget DOTA 2 is free-to-play. But more than anything, it's also a damn good game.
It's easy to forget DOTA 2 is free-to-play. But more than anything, it's also a damn good game.

GB: The grandma that spends $6 doesn't mean anything to make this a big business.

Meade: Well, I’m saying that 98% of them never pay anything at all. So 98% of them, in my view, don't care. Much as you might spout on about how many players you have who, daily, will check the game, if they're not paying, they don't care. Or, at least, it’s very difficult for you to say they care about your game if they're not paying anything at all. Not even 99 cents. Not even 69 cents. They pay more for toilet rolls and post-it notes than they do for your wonderful game you keep going on [about].

GB: People love post-it notes!

Meade: Post-it notes are useful. People see a point to actually paying 99 cents for a packet. But they don't see a point in paying 99 cents for most video games in mobile. In my view, that just says that you’re a cultural backwater, then. You just don't fucking matter. You're not in anyone’s brain, you’re not invading anyone’s space, you will not be remembered in 10 or 20 years time. Whereas the video games that I played 20 years ago, damn right I fucking remember them. I remember them every day.

And that’s the difference. This is what games as a service does. It pollutes the idea that we're actually supposed to give visions to people. It pollutes that idea by saying “oh, the customer knows best,” like they do in Burger King. “Have it your way!” That attitude is just the lowest form of pandering to an audience. The lowest form. It’s one up from “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and, yet, they go on as though it’s listening to the audience, that the audience is empowered, and da da da da da. When, in fact, what they're saying is “we actually don't have any vision ourselves, we don’t really know how to switch your brain on, but we do know that you have certain habits, and we've been tracking your habits. What we’ll try and do is make something that fits in with your habits.”

And they’re happy with that, and that’s good enough for them. But that’s not fucking art to me. That’s not anything that’s any value. Even if you talk to people who do play free-to-play games and don’t know anything about it, ask them about their tastes in other things. “Do you buy the worst author in the world? Is all your music by the worst musician in the world?” No. There’s value judgements there, and they make them every day, all the time. They don’t go for shit generally. I’m not saying shit doesn't sell, but great stuff generally does very well in all aspects of the creative market.

GB: That’s probably polluting their understanding of what video games are or can be, too.

Meade: There are definitely authors out there who write for a perceived audience--there’s crime writers and all that. They know their audience, they know they’re trying to appeal to certain people.

GB: But those are genres. That’s pandering in the way that you want pandering to work, which is some people have preferences and like to indulge. I love horror, so I watch a lot of garbage horror movies.

Meade: The thing is, you're into it, so you're prepared to wade through some bad shit in order to get to the good stuff. But you're really hoping for the good stuff. It’s an age-old argument, I suppose. People are supposed to find out new shit, they're supposed to be surprised and delighted by what you give them, and it’s your job to get across why video games are awesome in the stuff that you make. That’s your job. What I object to is this whole way of working just flies in the face of that. It says “well, video games aren't meant to do anything, let’s just pander to what people expect, let’s just make the simplest, stupidest stuff we can. Oh, and by the way, while we’re doing it, let’s absolutely rip-off everybody we can.”

What I hate about this, especially in the media, in mobile gaming, it’s absolutely okay to be the most self-serving, cynical, abjectly criminal rip-off merchant and get away with it, as long as you’re making money. If your game is making money, you will get a good review. That’s just a fact in mobile gaming. So mobile games get away with shit that any console gamer or PC game would be fucking crucified for.

GB: On console and PC, people still flip their shit about on-disc DLC or season passes. Those aren't settled arguments, even as the industry continues to try and experiment with them.

Meade: I know that free-to-play is definitely going to come to console and PC in a big way. My hope is that the industry and the audience tempers it, and sends the worst offenders back to fucking hell, basically. And tells these VCs to go fuck themselves. [They] are just backing all the wrong people. They are the guys who get all the money, they are the guys who get in the press. This is the way it works right now. I really hope they find that running up against an informed audience, like the gamer audience is on PC and console, will temper things and even it out, and make it so everybody wins. Gamers win, developers win, and platforms win. That’s what I hope happens.

But, anyway, we should probably talk about The Room?

GB: To bring this full circle, it seems like Fireproof is pretty committed to release games that respect players, the money they pay, the time they invest.

Meade: In trajectory terms, we’re feeling that long term, it’s hard to see mobile as our bread ’n butter. We really are alone in this. There is fuck all people out there in mobile doing what we're doing, and managing to make a living. There’s a few obvious exceptions--Capy, Vlambeer, and a couple of others--but, generally, there’s hardly anyone making money off doing paid games on mobile. So it’s difficult for us to see our future in the long term [on mobile], unless things turn around.

We've always felt our natural home was consoles and PCs because, as a team, that’s where we started. We all came from Criterion. Before that, I was making PC games for 10 years or so. Our sensibilities lie with gamers. We'll go where the gamers are. When we made The Room, we absolutely assumed that gamers would buy something on iPhone if it wasn't like all the other iPhone games, I guess. It was a bit more of a traditional game. That really worked out for us, but the market itself and where it’s going, that seems to be working against us long term. I don’t know.

We're really excited to see what happens with the Steam one, it’s a bit of a new world for us. But, again, we’d like to do more on Steam and on PC in the future--potentially a lot more, actually. We hope that this becomes an in, really.

GB: Did you learn anything specific from having to re-examine a previous project and adapt it? Moreso than just figuring out the interface.

Meade: Obviously, it did require some rewiring of the brain to make the PC version because it was so touch-focused the first time around. But, to be fair, we had a year to ingest the project before we even started it. Actually, it went very smoothly. It was difficult in terms of the sheer amount of work we had to do, but it wasn't difficult in terms of deciding what to do and how to approach it. We pretty much knew how to do that. We didn't really worry, before we started, that we'd be able to make a decent PC game. Our worry was more the more ephemeral stuff. How much of what the game did well will be lost, stuff we don't know. It’s really going to be up to the audience to tell us that, actually. As much as we designed and made the game, you'd be surprised how much we think is in the lap of the gods. [laughs]

GB: Obviously, The Room has been really successful for Fireproof. Will you remain in that wheelhouse going forward?

Meade: Yes and no. Yes, because there’s themes in The Room that we definitely identify with, such as the craftsmanship and wanting to create an interesting world--the tone, the mood. We really enjoy that side of things. We loved doing the wrapper, making the content, gameplay, frontend and the audio all work in symphony with each other. All of that stuff is very interesting to us. That’s something that we really want to pursue in the future.

"The box... you opened it, we came."

What we would do similar to The Room is that we really like this idea of a very crafted experience, where the player literally starts your game and might finish it four hours later in one sitting. While they're in that, it’s very highly crafted and takes them somewhere interesting, whether that’s interesting in gameplay terms or game world aspects. That’s the stuff that really motivates us. We love transporting people, and taking them to a place. We managed to do that with The Room quite well, judging from the feedback from the gamers. That’s what we were most proud of, actually, at the end of it. “You know, we could probably do something else.”

But if you're asking about specifics or genre or puzzle mechanics and stuff like that, absolutely not. The Room was a one-off experimental idea. It was just a number of them. We had planned to make three demos in a row, and spend a month of each. In January, we made one game. February, we made another. As it happened, we made one game in January, and the second idea we had was called “puzzle box.” Literally, the only idea we had when we started was “it’s like Chinese puzzle boxes." You have what looks like a music box or something, but you have to slide puzzles and move stuff around to get into it. That was the idea that we started with, and that turned into The Room.

GB: I always think of the puzzle box from Hellraiser. That’s always in my mind.

Meade: Dude, that’s totally on our minds. You would not believe how many people have said that to us. What always comes up is Resident Evil and Hellraiser and Lovecraft. People always quote that back to us as “your game is obviously based on one of those three things,” and we’re all “you wouldn’t be wrong.”

But we're really more interested in making games that transport the player somewhere. We will do whatever genre and whatever gameplay mechanics and whatever game world we think will do that. Then, we’re interested. And whatever platform! The Room seems like it’s a very mobile-focused game, and is it is, but that’s because that’s the platform we found ourselves on. It wasn't because we desperately wanted to do that. We thought “well, we're on this platform, so it’s our job to milk this platform, in particular, as best we can. Otherwise, why the fuck are we turning up?” But if we go onto another platform, we'll do the same on that platform, and we'll forget, absolutely, other platforms.

If I was to look forward and give you a hint about the future, I would say that you should think of us more as an experimental company that would leap from one genre to another and one platform to another with no problem at all. We'll completely leave behind what we did before--no problem at all--in order to do something else that we think is interesting. So, no, don't expect us to continue down that route.

In fact, our very next game is nothing like you'd expect.

Patrick Klepek on Google+