The kids’ games aren’t alright…

Angry Birds happened – that much is clear. Having attracted the attention of more than 500 million casual gamers, it is a cultural phenomenon which future generations will have to observe and explain: an anthropological event subsuming billions of human hours. A thought-diaspora, where gamers left their bedrooms, their living rooms, and wandered out into a mobile wilderness to fling avian missiles at smug, green, somehow architecturally-gifted pigs. The app release has spawned a gaming franchise, a film, a theme-park. If its influence lasts, we may well even be teaching our children about the world through the eyes of an Angry Bird, having totally forgotten a time when birds were not angry, and when pigs did not raid nests for eggs.

But I’ve recently been concerned with how the massive success of these games has changed our approach to entrepreneurship – particularly the way that we teach the next generation of entrepreneurs to think about game design. The Young Apprentice, a BBC TV series recreating the format of The Apprentice for a group of young business-types, has been a clear example of our over-awed appreciation of Rovio’s achievement translating into bad lessons.

In the final show of the series, Lord “get out there and bloody sell” Sugar challenges the two remaining contestants, James and Zara, to create and promote a downloadable game. The viewers aren’t spared any of the “going viral” cliches. The expectation for these games is that an epidemic will ensue – more potently viral than Rovio’s bird/swine blend. The judgement will fall on the apps at an investor presentation – with the two business hopefuls trying to prove that their game has the greater potential to wreak biotoxic haoc on the already-weakened minds of gamers worldwide.

None of this is inherently worrying. The games industry is an exciting place to be, and mobile gaming is an exciting segment. With the industry segment growing at c.30% annually, and with the industry’s biggest players making big (initially at least) IPO claims, it would be foolish for a programme about young entrepreneurs to overlook mobile gaming. What was so badly disappointing was the sense in which everything the winning entrepreneur produced was so completely derivative of the Angry Birds ilk of animal-character-based side-scrollers.

Zara’s pitch to the investment panel of industry gurus was “Piggy Panic”, where players must guide a wounded, cute piglet to safety from the butcher’s knife. The game was a favourite with the panel – scaleable, monetisable and banal. Piggy Panic looked sufficiently like other mobile games that the industry recognised to pass the sniff test (James’ app – a ministerial strategy/time-management game failed this test it seemed), and even more like the most successful mobile games which they hoped to emulate, to win their approval.

The morass of “entrepreneurship advice” available means that young self-starters have to be careful when choosing their role models, and if I could, I would guide them towards Mick Mountz before Alan Sugar. Mountz, the founder of Kiva, has an excellent mantra for entrepreneurs: “solve a big problem, take a big swing.”  The reality is, in creating a derivative, uninteresting game, the winning contestant was not far away from a trend which I expect will emerge within the mobile gaming industry. The huge potential audience and very low barriers to entry provided by portals such as the App Store and Android Marketplace are too inviting for entrepreneurs to ignore – but few are taking a “big swing” in terms of creativity.

Although the quality of new indie titles elsewhere shows that the Mountz mantra is not lost on the world of game designers, someone should warn the next generation of gaming entrepreneurs and investment-seekers, before they waste too much time and wrongly-placed investor faith developing Farmville clones for an overcrowded market.

The Young Apprentice final was to gaming what S Club Juniors was to music. It seems wrong to lead bright, young business-focussed minds so astray.

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