Friday, December 21, 2012

The Rise of CSR Racing

I’ve been ignoring mobile gaming for a while now. After testing it out last year when I first got my IPhone I had dismissed it out of hand. With the exception of a few games, mostly made by traditional game makers like Epic and SquareEnix; everything I played felt derivative. I dismissed mobile gaming because I felt that it would never rise to the level of quality that we see in console and pc gaming; that we’ve longed for and only rarely saw in handheld games like The World Ends with You for the DS. With the barest of exceptions mobile games have always felt like businesses first with a secondary, far smaller concern that they be fun. Enter CSR Racing.

CSR Racing was a game I hadn’t even heard about until my younger brother talked about playing it. As with most things, I tucked it into the back of my mind, and turned to other things. Then last week I was reading an article about mobile gaming from; it was talking about how CSR Racing had made 12 million dollars its first month. I wasn’t exactly pleased that the most important idea the panel was taking was how much money the game had made, but it was a panel about the monetization of digital games. To be fair, the article did mention that CSR was a new kind of game, and that it was necessary for it to make money, and a lot of it, unless mobile gamers wanted a return of me-too word games and copy cats.

From the moment I pressed the tab for CSR Racing, I was taken aback. CSR racing is prettier, better made, and cleaner than 95% of the games on the mobile market. It’s akin to playing Epic’s Infinity Blade for the first time. The game is impressive any way you cut it. It plays well, it sounds good, and for a person such as myself who traditionally stays away from racing games it was fun, kinda. NaturalMotion Games and Boss Alien the companies behind CSR Racing, made sure that the money side of the game was akin to putting more quarters in the arcade machine. Much like the arcade days of old, if you’re good enough and patient enough you can play the whole game without spending a dime, but if you want things to go quicker and smoother you pay a little money. And there lies the rub.

I cannot deny that what NM Games did with CSR is amazing, and worthy of praise, that they are also making boatloads of money is good for mobile gaming as a whole. But I was left thinking after playing the game for a few days that it never really felt like a game. I was playing it and getting into it; but was it a game or was it a business? It’s unfair to believe that mobile gaming is going to catch up in a few years what took console and pc gaming decades, but I wonder if the fact that making money is the primary focus of mobile gaming is hurting the industry.

Whatever happens, mobile gaming’s success or failure is unlikely to adversely affect the gaming industry as a whole. Yet its failure is not likely to bring about good things for the gaming industry either. Mobile gaming needs to succeed as a business, but unless it bothers to make sure that at the end of the day people are enjoying its products as games, I can’t believe that the industry has long-term viability. CSR Racing is a better mousetrap; all of the features that rose to prominence in the Facebook era of gaming are here. Fundamentally there is very little difference between this game and one like Mafia Wars. Like a man once told me, ‘my job is to make the most money while keeping the customer happy and their job is to get what they want for the least amount of money’. CSR Racing does it better than most, but it’s still not there yet.

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