Without an ounce of hyperbole, I can confidently say that Tap My Katamari is the most egregious game I’ve played all year.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
Tap My Katamari takes the quirky, beloved cult franchise about pushing a “katamari” ball to roll up objects increasing in size and turns it into a casual mobile game. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a developer giving a classic franchise like Katamari a new spin to appeal to mobile users and reach a larger, more casual audience. We wouldn’t have games like the excellent Hitman GO if that alone was the problem. No, Tap My Katamari’s problems are much more insidious than a base level objection to casual mobile adaptations of console games.
Tap My Katamari’s problems begin and end with its shift into a new genre: the “clicker.”
Sometimes referred to as “idle games,” the burgeoning clicker genre has emerged as probably the most casual distillation of the concept of a video game ever. Basically, the point of Tap My Katamari is to tap the screen as quick as you can to move the katamari forward; the faster you tap, the faster it rolls. As with traditional games in the series, your katamari starts small but steadily grows as you absorb objects of increasing size. As you pick up new objects, they’ll drop coins you can use either to upgrade the power of your taps or to summon helper characters that will slowly tap the katamari for you — even while you’re not playing the game. You can upgrade these characters as well, and at specific levels, they’ll gain new bonuses to help you further.
In addition to coins, candy is a more rare form of currency that has several uses, from summoning special helpers to buying one-time use items. The easiest way to get candy is to take up the game’s offer every few minutes to watch a 30-second video ad in exchange for 10 pieces of candy, which is a decent amount. You might earn a couple pieces of candy through chance during normal play, or you can of course opt to buy candy using real money via an in-app purchase.
The game is structured quite simply, with each “stage” being a set of nine items you need to roll over by dwindling down a distance bar and a final tenth item that you’ll only get if you can complete a longer, more difficult time trial. Once you complete it, you roll smoothly on to the next stage. Your goal, then, is to tap fast enough to collect coins to upgrade your tapping abilities to collect coins faster to upgrade your tapping abilities to collect… You get the idea.
As your tapping abilities ramp up, the difficulty of the challenges moves with you at an identical pace, so you’re rarely, if ever, seeing true progress. Distance challenges previously measured in the hundreds will eventually scale up to billions and beyond; likewise with upgrade prices. Sure, after a big upgrade in your abilities, you’ll burn through the next few distance bars and get your quick endorphin rush, but then everything will level out again into the exact pace you were operating at before the upgrade. But Tap My Katamari moves so fast you likely won’t notice or care, and that’s where it begins to get really insidious.
You are never more than a couple minutes from buying your next big thing in Tap My Katamari. Whether it’s an upgrade to your own tapping power, an upgrade to a helper, a new item or even until the next opportunity to watch an ad to score more candy, you’ll always find yourself craving some new thing in easy reach. After all, you’re just tapping. The game never demands anything more than tapping of you, and often less. All you have to do is keep tapping for another few minutes, or even just leave the game and come back, and you’ll be able to buy that thing in no time. But the game’s secret is that nothing will change. You’ll buy your thing and feel happy as you observe a feint of progress; in response, the game will simply increase the distance to nullify it to keep you on the hook for your next thing — which, hey, is only a couple minutes away.
Given that description, you might be wondering what makes Tap My Katamari different from traditional games. After all, when you upgrade Dante’s sword in a Devil May Cry game, for instance, the challenge level increases by throwing harder enemies at you. But that right there is the difference: a traditional game has unique challenges to overcome, techniques to master, behaviors to learn. Every new enemy that gets introduced will force you to adapt to its specific mechanics with a new strategy, or the game might throw familiar enemies at you with a twist like a warped environment. There’s an element of skill there that simply isn’t present in Tap My Katamari, where the fundamental experience never changes.
Tap My Katamari is nothing more than a numbers game. You watch the numbers go up, then buy your upgrades to make the numbers go up faster. The game responds by demanding greater numbers, and you meet the request by buying more upgrades that make the numbers go up even faster. It’s a vicious cycle where you’re never truly rewarded for your actions, only prodded along like cattle through a slaughterhouse. The most you can hope for in terms of deviance is the occasional difficulty spike to tempt you into purchasing upgrades with real money.
Again, you might be wondering what the big deal is. It’s just a silly, harmless mobile game where all you do is tap the screen — and you don’t even need to do that. What’s the problem?
Well, it’s not harmless, for one. There is a very real physiological response to activities like Tap My Katamari. Every few minutes the game is giving you an exciting new reward and your brain responds with little blasts of dopamine that keep you hooked, not unlike gambling. The striatum center of your brain lights up and begins to associate those dopamine blasts with the game. You crave that next reward not because the game itself is fun, but because it feels good. It gets hard to stop. Even fully recognizing the trap Tap My Katamari had set for me, I still wound up playing it for nearly four hours before finally wrenching myself away and deleting it.
It’s completely simplistic and pointless, sure, but that’s by design. The game is addictive because it’s designed to be: the deeper in the game can get its hooks into you, the more time you’ll spend playing it, the more ads you’ll watch and the more likely you’ll be to spend real money. The action demands so little of you that you’re hard-pressed to find a good reason to stop playing. If you’re getting bored, the game will throw a dozen new rewards and incentives at you to keep going. If you don’t have time to keep going, simply minimize the app, go about your life and the game will continue in the background; just make sure to double your rewards when you return by — of course — watching an ad.
Games like Tap My Katamari can exist because they’re regulated and evaluated as typical video games rather than as potentially harmful sources of addiction like gambling. But they carry similar risks all the same. These games prey on those with addictive personalities. You might be immune to these tactics, but not everyone is so lucky. According to a 2014 study by Swrve, “0.15% of mobile gamers contribute 50% of all in-game revenue.” That’s staggering, but that’s how free-to-play games work: attract a massive player base, hook as many people as it can, then let the big spender “whales” emerge to fund the game for everyone.
The next time you’re playing a game like Tap My Katamari, take a moment to ask yourself why you’re still playing. Think about the kinds of rewards the game is giving you, how and when it rolls them out. More importantly, think about why.