8 years ago, Apple released the iPad. For several years, every game developer and their grandmother believed that tablets were the future of portable gaming. With larger screens, batteries, larger software libraries and more accessible stores than Nintendo’s dominant DS and 3DS handhelds, it looked like tablets were the place to be.
2018 is a different place. I haven’t used a tablet in years, and it seems most tablets are used as either as a video player for the kids or an actual productivity tool. Tablets have a fundamental gaming flaw: they’re portable devices that require a bag to carry them. Tablets are fine for when you’re at home or in the office, but when you’re on the go and you want that gaming fix it’s going to be too cumbersome to pull out of the bag. They’re just too much of a compromise.
Enter the modern smartphone.
Large, clear screen? Check. These screens are double the size of a 3DS screen. HD or HD+ too. Stunning quality too. Even smaller phones are now big enough to hold comfortably with two hands in landscape.
Great battery life? Check. 2018’s round of top-tier phones have higher capacities and better battery management, giving you many more hours than the AAs in your unlit Gameboy ever would. 2019’s mid-tier phones look like even better deals, with great performance at lower prices.
Performance? Check. Quad-core processors, 4 – 8GB RAM, 32GB-512GB of storage – plus SD cards, even goddamn fluid cooling (kinda)!
Exhaustive game libraries? Oh, please! How much more could you possibly want? You can have console ports, retro games, homebrews, not to mention the mobile game market itself which is maturing gracefully. About that last point:
But mobile games suck…
Two years ago I would have agreed with you. Free-to-play was looking like a black hole of misery with quick cash-grabs, IP tie-ins, and clones of clones of clones running throughout both Google Play and App Store. These games are still there, and they have their audiences.
This year’s Harry Potter game, Hogwarts Mystery, used the scummiest monetization tactic I’ve ever seen – literally strangling your character (and the player) for money; the wave of Pokemon Go clones with ridiculous forced IP marriages has begun (Ghostbusters, Jurassic World, Catholic saints) and I’m hesitant (yet hopeful) that the new Command & Conquer game will be as appalling as EA’s shoddy attempt at a Dungeon Keeper mobile title.
(I’ll be honest, that paragraph of negativity went on for longer than I planned and I’ve barely scratched the surface, but nevermind…)
However, even with all that, look at my phone’s game menu now:
I have so many worthwhile experiences on this machine that I’m not just using my phone as a distraction on my commute, but I’m choosing to game on it at home too. It’s convenient and, most importantly, it’s fun.
Knights of the Old Republic, Max Payne, Oddworld New ‘n’ Tasty, Ittle Dew and Don’t Starve are all good games, even great, and they control really nicely on the phone. Touchscreen controls have come a long way, and while they obviously aren’t comparable to a controller, they have the one thing mobile gaming has always needed more than anything else: convenience.
But the real gems are games like Reigns, Ballz, Hole.io, Rymdkapsel, Monument Valley, and The Room. These games are built from the ground up to be played on a screen. They’re either cheap or ad-supported free and they feel so damn good to play. The interface between man and machine has never felt as thin and intuitive as when you’re flicking through the Tinder cards of Reigns, or flinging the balls in Ballz, or even placing tiles in Carcassonne – an adaptation of a board game that sacrifices nothing but gives you online multiplayer.
Convenience is mainstream
Remember when games were niche? I don’t, it was decades before my time. My dad would buy magazines with code in them that he would have to type in character by character and compile to play whatever game it was. Even when they were cool when I was young, I had to use a terminal to type in a path to open Disney’s Aladdin (complete with “Find word x on page x in the manual” piracy prevention) and Myst was the epitome of exploration. Neither is an easy, mainstream experience.
Games became mainstream when they became convenient. Consoles allowed you to put in a cartridge or disc and press a button to start playing. The Gameboy let you do that on the go, and now, finally, Nintendo has seemingly hit the nail on the head with the Switch – a console that you can pull out of your (alright, it has to be large) pocket on the bus and then plug into your TV when you get home. It has the best of both worlds, and it’s selling like hotcakes. (Side note: hotcakes are pancakes? Why call them hotcakes?)
Consoles are dead – Don’t be that guy
Consoles and PCs aren’t going anywhere. I still want to spend a few hundred bucks on a PS4 so I can play Spider-Man, and there’s no way even my $1000 Samsung Note 9 is going to be playing that on the bus to work. Nope, instead, I’m suggesting we’ve reached a golden age. We’ve never had more choice of what we play or when we can play it. And isn’t that beautiful? There’s a phone for every budget, a console for every commute, a $400 PC will play in 1080p60, and we even have multiple SKUs and price points for our AAA black box machines!
My message here is this. If you think “games” are only what you find on the Xbox One dashboard or your latest Humble Store email, stick your hand in your pocket and open the App Store. Take a look. See the wonders that it can behold. Retro, arcade, remake, casual, indie, ARG, RPG, FPS, RTS, MOBA, Battle Royale… it’s all here in the palm of your hand. You just need to open your mind to the possibilities and go for a walk with the continually growing Pokémon Go.
This post was inspired by the fact that I’ve spent 12 hours across the last four days flicking balls at boxes in Ballz – and I haven’t spent a cent on it; and I’ve spent another 12 hours playing the Witcher 3 on Xbox One, which I’ve now bought twice because my PC doesn’t work. Consumer choice!