Angry Birds changed the game. It legitimatized the mobile space and made smartphones a viable platform for gaming. Even though there may be fewer candies, plushies, and themed paraphernalia in stores these days, the franchise is still a force to be reckoned with.
But what launched Rovio’s $200 million/year brand wasn’t a silly cast of characters, but a finely-crafted game. The simple, slingshot-centered physics-based puzzler was an excellent example of how a touchscreen could improve the feel of a game, and an excellent example of phone game design. You could play it anywhere, for any length of time. Whether you are in line at the grocery store, ignoring your boss or teacher in a meeting or class, or just sitting in bed, you could always queue up a game of Angry Birds and pass the time.
But since that explosion of popularity, Angry Birds has become about everything else. It’s a franchise, one that has seen ten iterations in four years, with two spin-offs and a compilation besides. The games are still enjoyable, but the magic is gone. The recently released Angry Birds Transformers isn’t exciting—it’s tragic.
Enter Desert Golfing.
Justin Smith’s Desert Golfing is freeing. It plays kind of like Angry Birds. It’s Angry Birds as Modern Art. Maybe you could call it “pretentious” Angry Birds. (You wouldn’t really be wrong.) It takes that simple gameplay mechanic—which Smith calls “possibly the greatest mechanic invented for touch screen games”—and applies to it an endless game of golf in a desert. “Angry Birds is a small fun game plus a lot of pointless garbage,” Smith tells me. “Desert Golfing is the distillation of Angry Birds into its purest essence.”
But this isn’t just Angry Birds at its purest; it’s gaming at its purest. There is no loading screen or menu. There are no cutscenes or tutorials. When the game starts, there is only sand, a white ball, a flag indicating hole 1, and a “0” at the top of the screen. (The golfer seen in the game’s cover image is nowhere to be found.) You put your finger on the screen and slide it back. An arrow appears indicating the direction you will launch your ball. Pull back further, and the ball will go further. If the ball gets in the hole, the screen shifts to reveal the next hole. If the ball goes off the screen, it teleports back to the starting position. Each stroke adds to that number at the top of the screen.
That is the entirety of the Desert Golfing experience.
It may not sound like the sort of game that would find itself on multiple lists of “The best games of 2014” (including my own), but when you actually experience the thing, you realize that it is the perfect game for a mobile device.
Desert Golfing is the gaming equivalent of putting TV on in the background. You’re aware of it, enjoying it, but you’re able to keep your wits about you. You could probably even play it while driving—it’s definitely less dangerous than texting. You don’t need to constantly keep your eyes on the screen. If you look up after you’ve let go of the ball, you don’t miss something crucial. Angry Birds at its simplest was the same way, though you wanted to watch things collapse and explode. You want to look at Desert Golfing too, but you don’t miss much if you don’t. If life gets in the way, Desert Golfing totally understands. It will be there when you get back.
Desert Golfing costs $1.99 on both iOS and Android. That took guts. Most mobile games these days offer a no-initial-cost option, where in-app purchases can potentially remove advertisements or in some other way expand the experience. These “free” games display ads, often in obnoxious places, in lieu of the entry fee. Flappy Bird was famously making $50,000 a day in ad revenue for its creator at the height of its popularity, with no paid option available. It’s hard to imagine the game going so viral if it had cost anything at all.
But an ad-supported version of Desert Golfing was impossible. The clean, pure aesthetic would be ruined by popups. And in this way, it follows not what Angry Birds became, but how it began. When Angry Birds launched on iOS, it cost a dollar. Here was just this brilliant new thing that totally changed the way people viewed mobile experiences, and it wasn’t bombarding them with all sorts of outside distractions.
When it came to Android, however, it was ad-supported but free. Research indicated that Android users don’t pay for applications, and Rovio paid attention. (Apple customers, on the other hand, are used to paying premium for perceived quality.) Sometimes the ads would get in the way of playing, and a perfectly lined up shot would be ruined. This was an infuriating feature exclusive to the ad-supported version, and it would be months before Android users could pay to remove it.
Desert Golfing never bothers you. It just sits there, waiting for you to return. And as soon as you do, it’s as though you never left. You’re back to the same hole, with the same number of strokes. And that gets to the heart of what makes the game so incredible: By staying silent, it turns the player into the game master. By setting no goals, the player must find their own purpose. Go for a hole in one, or maybe try to only use huge arcs to get it in. The game doesn’t care. But there is no redo button. As soon as you’ve made a stroke, it’s been made. As soon as you’ve completed a hole, the screen transitions and that hole is gone forever, a fleeting memory at most.
Only the most difficult holes last more than 30 seconds. Most don’t even last 15. Well over a thousand holes in, I average less than four strokes per hole. Occasionally, a level will take 20 or more strokes to complete. The nineteenth stroke might accidentally send the ball flying off the screen, followed immediately by a perfect shot—a hole in one that occurred (possibly by accident) nineteen strokes too late. But the stroke count goes up by 20, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Every once in a while, the game surprises you. In between hole 316 and 317 is a cactus. It took me 1,015 strokes to see this shade of green in a world of orange, and my jaw nearly dropped. The description for the game on the Google Play store says, “To see a world in a bunker of sand / And a heaven in a wild cactus…” I didn’t read it before playing, so I didn’t know to expect anything at all. It all sounds a bit dramatic, but that cactus feels like something special. It would be like if after the 40th pipe in Flappy Bird was a scarecrow. You would only see it for a second, but it would drive you forward. Now you know that the world isn’t just dark orange sand and a lighter orange sky.
What if there’s something else? Now you have a new mission: Find out. It took me another 129 holes, and then there was water. Instead of going for the hole, I hit the ball directly into the water. It teleported back to the start point.
After hole 537, I saw a tiny rock. I didn’t even realize what it was at first. It was just a grey and white blob. But here, I thought, was something interesting. What if the rock wasn’t just background? Rather than golfing over it, I aimed the ball right at it. My ball bounced back and the rock rolled just a little bit forward.
I wanted to hit the rock into the hole. I didn’t expect anything to happen if I did that, but it would have felt like an accomplishment on its own. I hit it a half dozen times, bringing it ever so close, but then I got cocky and accidentally overshot the rock, watching as the ball fell into the hole. The screen shifted, and the rock was gone. There is no retry.
The game never congratulates me for my work, or even acknowledges it at all. Despite conventional wisdom, there are no rewards just for participating. I don’t need it. Every time I land a particularly difficult shot, I audibly exclaim and pump my fist in the air (much to the chagrin of anyone nearby). I don’t need the game telling me that I just did something cool. I know it. Mobile games are so often caught up in congratulating the player and making them want to come back with little pats on the head at each and every turn.
Desert Golfing doesn’t do that. In fact, it doesn’t do a lot of things people expect from their mobile games, but developer Justin Smith believes that this is just the beginning.
“I sense that mobile games are starting to shed their skin, getting rid of all the dead things they carry around,” he says. “Bouncy cartoon graphics, big pop-up numbers, coins, achievements, tutorials, primary colors, pointless congratulation. None of these things are interesting any more. We add them to our games because we see other developers add them to their games. I hope Desert Golfing is remembered as a game that helped lighten the cognitive load of playing mobile games and bring back to the forefront the pleasure of flicking a ball around.”
Desert Golfing is the antithesis to the modern mobile game. That makes it the perfect modern mobile game.