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Is It Time to Take Mobile Gaming Seriously?

Nintendo recently announced their new game Super Mario Run, an entry in the Super Mario franchise for iOS, and later Android. The game is primed to be a huge win for Nintendo, much like Pokémon GO turned out to be for The Pokémon Company. So, with a massive mobile gaming market and plenty of developers finding ways to monetize it, why are people still not considering the mobile platform “legitimate” gaming? We’ll look at may be contributing to holding mobile gaming back.

Super Mario Run

Hardware

Some believe mobile phones just aren’t capable of running bigger games. They’re smaller than consoles and PCs, they’re limited to a small touchscreen, and they have lower specs. But how much of an issue is this on running and playing mobile games?

Screens

iPhone7
This will probably be the norm for phone screen sizes.

Screen size is a big concern. While the portability of a phone could be useful for a short, casual game, could it come close to a AAA experience? It may seem like it can’t, but in reality, it depends on what experience you want. The average phone screen of today is normally 5 inches, while larger phablets tend to be 5.5+ inches. To many who are accustomed to playing console or PC games on larger screens, this just won’t provide them with the gaming experience they want.

Tablets, on the other hand, are anywhere between 7 and 12 inches, which may be much more desirable. Between Android and iOS, there are dozens of device options, and any one of them may appeal to a different gamer. We know that this is possible because we’ve seen it with portable consoles.

Portable consoles always allowed something close to a AAA experience on the go. This was because RPGs like Final Fantasy or Fire Emblem are perfect to play on the go. Those sorts of games are long and grindy, but can be awesome to play in short bursts. Similarly, platformers like Daxter or New Super Mario Bros. don’t take too much thought and can be great to play during downtime. So, in that regard, small screens can allow for a different experience. Is it comparable to The Last of Us? No. But it’s a different style of gaming for a different platform.

Touch

Minecraft can be enjoyed greatly on a tablet.

Mobile gaming is limited to touchscreens and don’t give the same feedback as controllers. Touchscreens aren’t as comfortable to hold or press, and often the controls take up too much space on an already limited screen. To make matters worse, developers often just include huge and awkward touch buttons to replicate console controllers.

There’s a remedy to this. Android and iOS tablets or phones already have Bluetooth gamepads available. For several games, this will feel a lot better than using touch inputs. A great example is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s hard to blame anyone for struggling to play it with touch.

In the past, Sony experimented with putting PSP controls on a phone, with the Xperia Play (back when its mobile division was still Sony Ericsson). While many people knew about it and loved the idea, it didn’t sell well. This is probably because it lacked a killer app or any new game that made people want it.

The problem here has little to do with touchscreens and more to do with developers. Some developers don’t want to make games that use gamepads for fear of turning off an audience, especially when that audience isn’t used to paying for a game at all. Yet being forced to use touchscreens makes it hard to compete with some genres.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge racing game
The Galaxy S7 edge marketed its gaming capabilities quite a bit.

The specs on phones are lower than those of PCs. They have to be given their size, and unlike PCs, phones are designed to be replaced within two years. Tablets can get away with higher specs, but it’s not normally wise to. They’re still viewed as “lesser” than laptops, meaning a more expensive tablet is a hard sell.

However, the real story here is that phones are catching up. The newly announced iPhone 7 has a powerful A10 Fusion CPU and packs 3GB of RAM. Its biggest rival, the Samsung Galaxy S7, has 4GB RAM and a Snapdragon 820 Processor. The OnePlus Three has the same processor but with 6GB RAM. These pale in comparison to the CPUs and 16 GB RAM most gaming PCs have. However, as phones are replaced more frequently, the hardware will only continue to improve and catch up. They won’t be the same as PCs, but it’s reasonable to assume they’ll be similarly powerful.

Games

The games released on mobile are a bigger culprit. As we’ve seen, the hardware will always define mobile gaming differently, but it shouldn’t hinder its legitimacy. What hinders its legitimacy, however, is the games.

Quality

Clash of Clans
Clash of Clans, while fun, is hardly as deep as an RTS on PC.

A common assumption is that mobile games are just bad. They don’t reach the levels that AAA games do. It doesn’t help that most big mobile games are more casual in their gameplay. Angry Birds may be fun, but it’s an extremely simple experience. Clash of Clans may be neat, but it doesn’t reach the complexity of most real-time strategy games. Pokémon GO may be a joy to play, but its battle system is lacking compared to other Pokemon titles.

Is this a valid complaint? Yes and no. If you look at bigger mobile games, they’re often simple, casual games. They’re designed specifically for touchscreens, they’re repetitive but fun, and sometimes based around a gimmick. But that’s exactly why they catch on. They play to the mobile market and rack up far more downloads as a result. Meanwhile, many higher quality mobile games already exist. In fact, older console games exist on mobile. LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga is playable on a tablet, and most pre-X Final Fantasy games are on mobile. In particular, Final Fantasy IX is perfect for a touchscreen.

Most mobile games aimed at the triple-A audience are simple side games. Lara Croft GO is an example; cool as it is, it’s nothing like Rise of the Tomb Raider. SEGA has Sonic Rush, but it is basically Temple Run with Sonic.

Casual games have become synonymous with mobile gaming because those are the ones that caught on. That may turn off many gamers who want more from their experience. It’s a real shame because plenty of games on mobile do offer a lot more.

Length

Lara Croft Go mobile game
Lara Croft GO features plenty of puzzles, but as many hours of gameplay as Tomb Raider?

The other assumption is that mobile games are a lot shorter or repetitive, that they’re bite-sized games with little substance or that they’re neverending games that just add new content.

There are several key factors here, but the biggest is game size. Console and PC games don’t normally have issues downloading a 40 GB game. Meanwhile, that’s 4 GB more than the low-end iPhone 7 hard drive. It’s hard to pack a lot into a mobile game and have many people download it. In fact, the Google Play Store and iOS App Store won’t let you sell an app bigger than 4 GB.

Of course, the size of a game’s files doesn’t automatically affect its length. As previously mentioned, many console-size experiences already exist on Android and iOS. But doing so means one of two things: extra development time, or a bigger price. Mobile gamers aren’t used to paying for a game at all, and they’re unlikely to pay for anything over $15. So it’s much more profitable to make shorter, cheaper experiences than it is to develop a full-blown console game.

Does that mean a longer game can’t be successful on mobile? Of course not. But developers aren’t interested in making longer games right now. Older games that are longer are available for purchase, but we won’t get many new ones. Mobile gamers don’t want to pay too much for bigger games, and they don’t want to run out of HDD space so quickly.

Business Model

This is probably the biggest factor by far. While fun, casual games are harmless, but predatory casual games are a real threat. To many, the free-to-play business model is why they view mobile gaming so negatively.

Free-to-play models have become synonymous with mobile gaming. Games can make millions with cheap in-app microtransactions. But that means balancing a game around those in-app purchases. Developers need to make the game more difficult to proceed without these in-app purchases in the form of wait times, handicaps or randomness. Rather than being additional premium options in the game, many seem to force people to buy these things to continue playing. It’s why fans of The Sims on PC don’t enjoy The Sims FreePlay nearly as much.

What’s worse to gamers is how microtransactions appear in AAA games. Unlike mobile games, console games already cost $60. To charge players on top of that for in-game items is, to many, an insult. As it stands, you can play Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, or you can pay to cheese the game. But the worry is that won’t always be the case. Will future entries balance the game around microtransactions? It’s a worrying idea.

To remedy this, the onus is on developers. If they make microtransactions seem like a nice bonus, it’ll probably work out better. More gamers will download the apps, and more will turn into buyers. Whereas obtrusive microtransactions turn many more gamers off.

Does It Have to Change?

Pokemon Go battle screens and walking around
Pokemon GO caught on hugely.

Do mobile developers have to change mobile gaming? Do they have to consider console and PC gaming audiences seriously?

On the one hand, no they don’t. Mobile gaming earns millions of dollars. It reaches different audiences and demographics in ways console and PC gaming can’t. Its audiences are more diverse, larger, and easier to monetize with different games.

On the other hand, it would be in their best interests to try to reach these gaming audiences. Players of AAA games spend far more on their hobby than casual gamers. They may even be easier to monetize. Mobile gaming is also a much safer investment than PC gaming or consoles. There’s no guarantee those rapidly changing industries will stay as they are, but it’s very likely that mobile/touchscreen gaming will. Developers already release some nice side games to go along with them, but all it does is reinforce the perception.

Mobile games are often perceived as weaker games by the more traditional gaming community. Until developers play up things like gamepads and release bigger titles, that’s unlikely to change. As hardware continues improving, bigger and more complex games that appeal to this audience could encourage more gamers to take mobile gaming seriously. But right now, most game developers don’t see this as being in their best interests.

Explore some great new mobile gaming titles with our ongoing series Phone Fun.


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