How to avoid awful mobile games — 6 tips you should know
Anyone who's ever perused around the games section of the Google Play Store knows that there are simply too many games for one human being to play themselves. Here at Android Central, one of my primary tasks is to cover the best mobile games available for Android, which necessarily means part of my job involves playing a lot of games that are, to put it mildly, far off from finding a spot on any of our lists.
That has lead me to develop a pretty keen sense for determining whether a game is unique and engaging in the right ways. Those are the games that I want to recommend to our loyal readers, because once it's published online, my name is attached to it forever. I want to be able to stand behind the games I recommend and point to them as sterling examples of the best that mobile gaming can offer.
First off, it's okay to like the mobile games you like
Before I dive in any further, I just want to make it clear that I'm not intending to shame anyone for enjoying any games that give them joy. People can like what they like, and as long as they're getting some sort of enjoyment out of the experience, I'm not one to judge. So keep crushing those candies or auto-crawling those dungeons if that's your thing.
Having said that, the trend in mobile gaming has become heavily slanted towards wanton monetization of player engagement often at the expense of enjoyment or diminishing returns on entertainment value. And that can take a toll on the player over time.
The Play Store is filled with so many games that are virtual carbon copies of others just with different branding or a slightly different theme, and you get an app store that often makes finding a new game to enjoy can feel like finding a needle in a haystack.
When a game wants too many permissions
This is a common complaint that I see all the time in the reviews section of the Play Store. Why does this silly little mobile game need full access to my contacts, SMS, and location?
The reality is that there are perfectly valid reasons why some games require those permissions. One might ask for access to your contacts to see which of your friends are also playing the game so it can create a ranked leaderboard. Other games might ask for storage and SMS access because it has a feature that lets you share your progress or achievements.
But it's also important to trust your gut feeling. Downloading a throwaway game from a developer you've never heard of before that seems to be asking for access to all your personal information? They could be sharing that information with advertisers to deliver ads that are better tailored to your location or demographics. Maybe you're okay with that trade-off, but if you're not, then it's probably best to find a different game that isn't so data-hungry.
For more information on why apps request the permissions that they do, our own Jerry Hildenbrand has an excellent deep dive on the different permissions requests from apps that's worth your time.
When a game starts abusing your notification shade
Speaking of permissions, one particularly egregious way that game developers attempt to build player habits is by dogging you with constant notifications. This is especially the case with games built around an energy or stamina meter that spoon-feed small doses of gameplay on an hourly schedule.
If you're like me, you like to keep your notification shade relatively tidy. Ideally, I really only want to be notified about messages from friends and family, alerted about upcoming deliveries, important weather updates, and the latest sports scores.
Meanwhile, mobile game developers are all about building more user engagement, so they want to keep reminding you to check back into the app to collect new rewards or whatever. Personally, I'm burnt out on this exploitation of app notifications by games.
If I like a game and want to keep coming back to play it day after day, I don't need to be reminded on an hourly basis that yes, it is still installed on my phone and ready for me to play at any moment. I've straight up deleted games just because they abuse their notification permissions and will continue to do so because I just don't have the patience for games that don't respect my time.
When the game is actually all about micro-transactions
Okay, this point is big and complicated. So many games these days are free-to-play, and micro-transactions exist to help cover the cost of ongoing development and actually pay the developers and digital artists who make the games.
Micro-transactions are just a reality of the free-to-play business model, and I can respect the developers who do a good job of balancing the implementation. Some of my favorite mobile games use that same exact model without leaving me with an icky feeling or that I need to buy in to get the "full game."
But then there are games where it feels like the gameplay is almost an afterthought compared to the focus on getting you to buy things.
One recent title that's a prime example of this tactic is Mario Kart Tour, a game that I had high hopes for and, in turn, was a major disappointment. Not only does it masquerade itself as a multiplayer experience by skinning bots with real usernames, but it is beta testing the actual multiplayer mode behind a monthly subscription.
Nintendo also had the gall to offer the titular character, Mario himself, as part of a one-time in-app purchase of around $20 on day one. Of course, you could grind away and try to unlock him as a loot box rewards, but even there you're probably going to need to spend money to get him. In my opinion, Nintendo should have just made it a premium title and I would have gladly paid $20 or more for a genuine version of Mario Kart for mobile instead of a crass version of the game that wants only wants you to spending money on the regular to play with friends and acquire the characters you actually care about.
When the whole game just feels like an extended tutorial
So you're playing a game for the first time, and the game is walking you through the opening tutorial that shows you how to complete your first mission, collect your rewards, and then upgrade your characters and home base.
The tutorial ends, and you keep playing for a while until it slowly dawns on you. Everything you were shown in the tutorial — that's basically the whole game. You can keep grinding through each level with the simplistic gameplay that it basically could (and sometimes does) play itself for you, collect your rewards to upgrade your characters. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, you'll reach the next cookie-cutter world to "explore" or hit a difficulty wall that is designed to incentivize you to pay for in-game currency to help upgrade your characters that much faster.
This describes so many games that I've tested that I'd be hard-pressed to single any one game out for it, but I'll use Game of Thrones: Conquest as the example since I still had some old screenshots kicking around. This is a very common mechanic in action RPGs or any game that break up battles into bite-sized chunks and want you to instead spend most of your time managing resources and upgrading troops and different buildings around your home base.
Granted, there are people who love games built around resource management, and some games implement them in novel ways that might be worth the effort. Personally, I've come to view that as a major red flag that this game is going to rest on its laurels and just offer the same uninspired experience over and over again while demanding my continued and endless engagement with no foreseeable conclusion in sight — hard pass.
Always dive deep into the user reviews
This should almost go without saying, but user reviews can be a great way to see at a glance whether a game or app is worth your time to download in the first place. In particular, be sure to look through the most positive reviews and the most critical reviews and see how they contrast and differ.
Reviews are an important way for games to get exposure in the Google Play Store just the same as Amazon reviews or any other place on the internet that aggregates ratings based on user feedback. That's why so many games and apps pester you to leave a positive review with pop-ups, and occasionally offer in-game rewards for doing so. I get why the devs decide to do that, but it also almost always has the opposite effect that they're looking for.
After a short while, you should develop a pretty keen sense of which reviews are just fluff and which are genuine critiques of the game or app itself. It requires some critical thinking and, frankly, those are the types of skills we should all do a better job of implementing in our daily lives. Also, it should inspire you to leave your own substantial reviews for the games that deserve praise and those that simply suck.
Paying for games can help you avoid most headaches
The last point I want to make is basically a plea to support mobile game developers who make the bold decision to ask for money upfront to play their games. Android users are especially notorious for their love of free apps, and I'm just as guilty of that behavior myself. But if you're sick of apps that require too many permissions so that it can send you targeted ads and clog your notifications like an ex trying to win you back, you won't find that with most paid games. Furthermore, those premium games are usually just that — premium titles that are worth dropping a couple of bucks on and won't waste your time with dumb mechanics for the sake of user engagement.
One of the true perks of my job has been the exposure to some genuinely unique and engaging indie games that offer a truly premium experience that you pay for upfront. I want to plug Alt-Frequencies (opens in new tab) here because it's a game with an admittedly short story, but that's so unique and engaging in the way it tells that story that I still think about this game on the regular months after completing it.
It's also a game that I may have never discovered if not for my weekly task of finding a cool new game worth sharing with our readers and not turning back when I see a price instead of the "Install" button in the Google Play Store.
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Marc Lagace was an Apps and Games Editor at Android Central between 2016 and 2020. You can reach out to him on Twitter [@spacelagace.
Thanks for this article. For all the apps I truly like I buy (if it exists) the paid version. One gets rid of those irritating ads, usually get more features and show appreciation to the developers for their endeavours.