Over the last few years the absence of a comprehensive reference site for games comparable to the Internet Movie Database has become increasingly frustrating. For a long time the nearest thing we had was MobyGames, but that was lacking in many ways – huge gaps in their database, and a weird inconsistent patchwork of data within entries, with endless duplication, bizarre fields such as “Perspective”, “Genre” and “Non-Sport”, and a fundamentally broken automated credits system (which probably seemed clever in 1999).
Later, Wikipedia (and a plethora of gaming-themed wikis) came along, but the nature of wikis has meant that the formatting and quality of entries has always been wildly inconsistent. General-purpose wikis just can’t be easily searched and filtered as data. Elsewhere, small groups of enthusiasts have been working on databases such as Hall of Light and World of Spectrum, which exhaustively catalogue the software available for a single hardware platform only.
More industrious people than I had also noticed that this problem was still unsolved, among them Vince Broady and Jeff Gerstmann (both formerly of GameSpot), who in 2008 launched Giant Bomb. Billed as “the world’s largest editable video game database”, Giant Bomb has two immediate advantages over MobyGames and everything else that has come before: firstly, it’s running on a sane, modern software platform (based on Django), and secondly the administrators have put a huge amount of thought into the structure and extensibility of the database, ensuring that entries can be tagged and connected to other entries in meaningful ways with the minimum of duplication and clutter. For instance, for any game it’s possible to see a breakdown of all the published SKUs, or to easily find games which use the same rendering engine or feature the same characters, or any other useful criteria the contributors include.
The site is not without problems. Adding and editing data is still a little clunky and unintuitive (albeit nowhere near as daunting as trying to add a game from scratch to Wikipedia). The “Concepts” and “Objects” tag categories, while flexible, are full of frivolous entries (do we really need to tag every game that features “Gravity”?), suggesting that the site’s XP system might be weighted too much towards rewarding busywork rather than adding useful information. The site currently sells t-shirts riffing on this (“Space Neon Lobsters That Have to Work Cooperatively”). It also has a really ugly logo.
From my perspective, having been closely involved with the mobile games sector for several years (biassss!), the lack of a generic “Mobile Games” platform category on the site seems like a glaring omission. At present there are only categories for iPhone and N-Gage. A simple Mobile category could be used as a catch-all for games released for J2ME, BREW, Symbian, DoJa, Blackberry, WinCE and other platforms not beholden to a single device or manufacturer, which prior to the launch of the iPhone App Store made up the vast majority of releases (and still represent a large market even today, especially among demographics who aren’t well served by the expensive, credit card-tied iPhone – such as children, teenagers and casual users).
I’ve pointed this omission out a couple of times (on their forum and via Jeff’s twitter), but they are adamant that such a category wouldn’t work.
Their main beef with the idea is that mobile games are typically released in many different variants to support different handsets and operating systems, and that because the experience of the game may not be consistent between devices, it is difficult to usefully review them. (Giant Bomb is an American site, and as such its staff lack first hand experience of the mobile situation in Europe and elsewhere in the world, where free annual upgrades are common and users aren’t locked into buying content from the carrier only, and where as a result mobile games tend to ‘just work’ and to be ubiquitously available.)
The Giant Bomb database already has categories for “PC” and “Arcade”, which make no distinction about hardware architecture or operating system, even though these vary wildly within said categories. (The even have a “Pinball” category, for goodness’s sake.) It also has categories for digital distribution platforms (such as the aforementioned iPhone App Store, as well as Xbox Live Arcade and DSiWare), which punctures any argument that mobile games are too “transient” to cover. If a publisher decides to remove a game from a digital distribution platform then that’s it, there’s no longer any legal way to obtain it.
Jeff also argued that there would be “no interest” in such a category (even though many hit mobile games have sold in the millions, and that Giant Bomb already has categories for dozens of ridiculously obscure legacy consoles). He also suggested that it would cause undue “clutter”. It’s true that (as with Flash, the iPhone, and other platforms where the barriers to entry are low) there are many thousands of unremarkable mobile games that someone looking to harvest XP could ostensibly spend days of their lives entering into the database, but this doesn’t seem to have happened for other formats with large, junk-filled software libraries (such as the PC, Playstation 2 or Game Boy Advance).
So what’s missing from the Giant Bomb database as a result of this decision? Quite a few interesting things, as it happens. Most of the output of Glu (Transformers, Super Monkey Ball), Gameloft (Might & Magic, Zombie Infection), Digital Chocolate (Tower Bloxx, Rollercoaster Rush) and EA Mobile (Tetris, SimCity) for one thing. John Carmack’s (definitely notable, and highly commercially successful) mobile experiments such as Orcs & Elves and Doom RPG. Most of the early works of 5th Cell, developers of the eagerly-anticipated Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts, were mobile-only. Scores of original games by most of the major Japanese development houses (Konami, Capcom, Sega, Sony, Namco – with the obvious exception of Nintendo). Lots of ports or clever adaptations of games from other platforms, from God of War to Archon to Puzzle Quest. And Nokia’s Snake, of course, one of the most widely-played games in history.
Giant Bomb are right to point out that there is a lot of rubbish released in the wild, woolly, largely review- and demo-less world of mobile games, but after ten years there is also a lot of notable stuff as well. If you want more examples, just check out Pocket Gamer’s reviews archive.
If Giant Bomb’s over-riding aim is to be a repository of user reviews, then I don’t suppose that anything I can say can convince them to change their minds. I think that aiming to make the site a definitive reference source is a separate aim, and one that can’t be arbitrarily restricted to certain platforms if it wants to succeed in the long term.