I’ve been playing a couple of Kairosoft games on iPhone recently — specifically, Game Dev Story, which most gamers with an iPhone have probably heard of, and Pocket Academy which, as a recent release, may be a little more obscure.
These games, while initially seemingly slightly impenetrable, are great, and bring to mind strategy games of the past, complete with super-adorable pixel art. Specifically, stuff of the SimCity ilk, where there were no set goals, no Achievements, no “win conditions”, even, save the ones you set for yourself. Unlike SimCity, Game Dev Story and Pocket Academy do end after 20 years of in-game time (you can keep playing but your scores aren’t recorded after that) so you do have something to strive for, but other than that, you’re on your own.
I hadn’t realised how long it was since we’ve had a game like that until I started playing them in earnest. Do you remember the start of a game of Sim City? “Here’s a blank bit of land. Off you go.” No tutorial. No “you should probably build this first”, no initial setup. Blank canvas, palette of Stuff to Build. Begin building, build too much, lose all money, fail. Try again, pace self better, experiment with big thing, fail. Start again, pace self even better, don’t build big thing until you really need it, slowly start making money. Repeat until map full.
Contrast this with one of the modern equivalents of the genre, which is the Facebook/phone-based city-building game. I tried CityVille on iPhone for a little while just to see if there was any strategy or experimentation involved whatsoever. There wasn’t. It was an endless string of objectives which theoretically I could have been free to ignore were it not for the fact that you unlock things to build painfully slowly by levelling up like in an RPG — and the most efficient way to level up is to complete said objectives. This is, to misquote Aristotle, “balls”.
Now we come to Kairosoft’s titles. While they don’t quite give you the completely empty canvas to start with, the tutorial is rudimentary at best and barely explains the basics of gameplay — the rest of it is up to you to discover. Why should you level up your staff? Why should you pump money into advertising? What effect does having couples in your school have? Why does a combination of a tennis court, a tree and a library make my students happier?
I don’t know the answers to all of those questions… yet. And like in SimCity, my first attempt at Pocket Academy saw me hire too many teachers too quickly and send my school spiralling into debt that it wouldn’t be able to recover from because I didn’t have the capital to build the things that would make it more attractive to new students. So I had to swallow my pride and start again. Game Dev Story is a bit easier — there’s always a means of getting your team out of trouble with some contract work, for example — but still challenging if you want your company to reach the upper echelons of awesomeness.
The nature of these games puts them somewhat at odds with what appeals to a stereotypical iPhone gamer, who wants something that they can pick up and play without having to take time to learn it. The beauty of Kairosoft’s games is that they can be played for a few short minutes while waiting for a bus, but similarly they can be indulged in for hours at a time if you so please, too.