Thoughts On Mobile Gaming

19 Jun

The other day I had one of those moments where technology blew me away. You know, one of those times when you’re suddenly amazed at how much technology and media has changed in our lifetime. The popular web-comic, xkcd, actually put it best in the way I look at it. All of this to say/type, I’m amazed at what mobile gaming has become in just the past 4 years.

Remember just a scant few years ago? The days before the iPhone? Back in those days I was perfectly fine with Snake being the only game on my phone. I said, “If I wanna play games on the go, I only need my Gameboy!” I didn’t understand the point of buying games for a cell-phone; none of the games seemed worth my money.

Then something changed…

iPhone and Jobs

The iPhone was released on June 29, 2007. Followed by the App Store on July 10, 2008 and with that came all kinds of exciting ways to turn your phone into a flashlight with ad support. Oh and there were also games.

After I got an iPhone, I still wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of playing games on it. The thought of playing a full game with a story, virtual D-pad, and fancy 3-D graphics seemed ridiculous to me. I knew the experience could never be as deep or graphically amazing as a console game. The first two games I tried out on my iPhone were Wild West Pinball and Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles. Pinball hooked me almost immediately. It just made sense, I would pull back the plunger to shoot the ball and touch the bumpers in an attempt to keep the ball in play. Heck, I could even shake my phone to “bump” the virtual pinball machine. Assassin’s Creed just couldn’t keep my attention. It tried too hard to be a graphical powerhouse and an acceptable handheld representation of the console game. Plus it ate up my battery life, like a fat kid at a candy buffet. I kept Wild West Pinball and dropped Assassin’s Creed immediately.

Sometime down the line, I attempted to get into another “hardcore” game. This time it was the iPhone port of Need for Speed: Shift. I bought it during an EA sale for 99 cents. I bought Tetris at the same time. While I could tell that the concepts put into NFS: Shift were neat, with being able to tilt the phone to steer and so on, it still didn’t hook me. The loading was too long for me and the races too time-consuming to play while waiting in a McDonald’s line. Now these aren’t negatives per se for everyone; these may just be problems for me.

Tetris became my game of choice instead. Then so did Angry Birds and Cut The Rope and Tiny Wings. “Casual” games began to clutter up the gigabytes on my phone. I was becoming a casual gamer much like all the moms and kids. I loved it.

I started to reflect on what made these casual games so addictive verses the so-called “hardcore” titles for the iOS. First of all, I noticed that many of the titles I so thoroughly enjoyed were of the puzzle variety or something similar. Secondly, the pocket change price made the titles more appealing, because I was more likely to try something new. Thirdly, the games controlled intuitively; this factor I think is of the utmost importance. Finally, the games had short, self-contained levels that made them simple to play for a few short bursts of time or hours.

In light of all of that, it’s hard for me to see the purpose of a dedicated handheld system these days. Look at the recent launch of Nintendo’s 3DS, for example. It’s under-performing according to sales figures and Nintendo realizes it (Wired and CNet). Personally, I know I don’t want to carry around both a smartphone and a 3DS/PSP/etc. I don’t have the pocket space. Not only that, but I don’t have the money to plunk down $250 and then $40 for each game I want. Not for a device that essentially has only one purpose.

In contrast, let’s look at one of the most popular titles in the App Store (and the world for that matter), Angry Birds. The setting is simple; evil pigs stole eggs from some birds, now the birds are angry. You, the player, can help those birds by launching the many different birds to destroy structures and the pigs hiding in them. How is this accomplished? You use your finger to pull back and release the slingshot holding the birds. Perfect tactile response. Finish a level with enough points and you’re awarded 3 stars. Good job! Only get 2 stars? Try again! Play for a few minutes to complete a level or play for an hour to complete a whole set of levels. It’s only 99 cents and the developers constantly update it with more levels for free.

The progression of difficulty in Angry Birds is something else that really impresses me. It starts out extremely basic with one type of bird that is only used simply to launch at the pigs. As you play on, other birds with different traits such as being able to explode or split into three are introduced. You start to notice which blocks are weak to certain birds and form a strategy based on that. The game trains you without holding your hand. The only penalty for failure is restarting the level, which can be frustrating. On the whole though, that just drives you to keep playing until you beat it or take a break and come back with a fresh perspective. You’re encourage to keep practicing.

I believe this is the future of great games for the handheld world. Don’t try to wow me with ultra-realistic graphics, virtual d-pads, or complex stories. Give me a little puzzle game with colorful animations and let me control it with one finger; then make it quick and simple enough so I can play it in line at the grocery store. This is the key to mobile success and the key to my heart for handheld titles.

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