With the recent release of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, fans of Harry Potter are being introduced to (or meeting once again with) game-imposed wait times.
As enthusiastic as players may be, they can’t blow through the entire Hogwarts experience in a single day. Characters have a set amount of lightning bolts, which represent energy. It takes lightning bolts to do certain timed actions. The longer the task, the more lightning bolts are required. Lightning bolts are generated over time or through purchase via jewels.
This gives the game a built-in way to slow the player down. It’s also not totally unintentional that it’s a way to create reasons for in-app purchases. This model is basically identical to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. In fact, the entire game is basically reskinned Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. It’s no surprise. This game was wildly successful. It was a fun, addicting game, but it was also nearly impossible to play without making in-app purchases. So far, Hogwarts Mystery is playable without the purchases, but it significantly slows down gameplay.
Even though the clock is literally ticking, this style of gameplay takes all of the urgency and spirit out of mobile gaming. Part of the appeal of mobile gaming is that, for most people, their phone goes anywhere they go. With energy-based, event-locked gaming (note that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood did not lock users into events, though the events were timed), it becomes a chore to time out for half an hour before returning rather than relaxation.
The main difference between Kim Kardashian and Hogwarts Mystery is that Kim Kardashian used the energy system in a meta narrative in a way that Hogwarts Mystery has not. In Kim Kardashian, unless you want to spend real money, it’s nearly impossible to balance a social life, romantic relationship, and career. Your avatar just doesn’t have enough energy. There is a nuanced narrative about career priorities and how much time your avatar spends being their celebrity personality rather than themselves. In Hogwarts Mystery, your character is just stopping in the middle of their lessons for… some reason?
There are ways to make this timed system work so mobile gamers are not finishing the entire game in a single run. Mystic Messenger is one of the most aggressive examples. When playing Mystic Messenger, you have the option to keep really strict hours or miss chats/phone calls from your potential love interests. If too many calls and chats are missed, the player gets a bad ending. However, the player can time travel with hourglasses. These can be earned or purchased, and they are used to unlock different storylines and epilogues. It’s possible to play the entire game and never make a purchase. It’s just usually helpful.
Making a mobile game that uses real time as an element automatically takes it into odd territories. No longer is the game a way to pass time; it becomes an obligation. It can be a fun obligation, but sitting down to play only to have your character run out of energy with no option to explore or come to a narrative conclusion of a conversation or action is ineffective design.
One of the mobile games that uses real-time mechanics the most effectively is Neko Atsume. The game has very simple mechanics: put out food and toys to get cats. Cats will give you gold or silver fish to buy house upgrades, toys, and food. There’s no way to lose, and the game is as low stress as possible. It’s true that, short of flipping through the catalogues of cats, toys, or pictures, it’s difficult to play this game for an extended period of time, like all wait-based mobile games. However, opening Neko Atsume leads to immediate reward. If the player has food and toys out, they are always treated to cats. If they do not have food and toys, then they still get the background art, which is beautiful in and of itself.
Built-in waits go against the instinctual reasons to have games on your phone or tablet (to kill time). However, they also only work on a phone or tablet. Even other mobile devices, because they are used primarily for gaming, would normally not have the same type of wait mechanics. Owning a gaming device implies that the player is already committed to gaming, so forcing them to slow down makes less sense. However, mobile games can draw users in with a recognizable name (like Kardashian or Hogwarts) and a free app. It’s not hard to make an at least sort-of-fun-but-very-addicting mobile game. With that, comes in-app purchases that fund the project and studio. The solution these games have taken is to get players addicted and then paying to continue in ways that aren’t essential, but are certainly easier.