Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Phone Gaming

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now so I figure I should write it down somewhere. So sales of the 3DS have been softer than expected. Some are using that as the first major sign that as smartphones like the iPhone become more and more capable game devices they will take over the handheld market because, you know, everyone will have a phone.

Also, download-only marketplaces like the app store give developers more opportunities to put out more games and more riskier games since they don’t have to worry about supplying retailers with boxes full of expensive cartridges. However, the stuff that dominates the app store is still the same populist stuff that would probably also sell well on cartridges or discs. Anyone remember a game called Boom Blox? It was a casual Wii game that sold pretty well and was pretty awesome. The gameplay was also basically Angry Birds in 3D crossed with Jenga.

Despite valiant attempts like Nintendo’s eShop and the upcoming Playstation Vita’s ability to download games, the app store and services like it have a lot of that market cornered due to the quality of their design (although not necessarily their quality of games) and their sheer ubiquity.

It's fun, I guess
So are the phones going to destroy the handhelds? Maybe. Is that good? Maybe.

Here’s the thing, I absolutely love the download-only model. The whole point of handheld gaming is gaming on the go and digital distribution is a far more conveniently way to get the games on the devices anywhere that has a connection. It also means you always have the all the games with you.

The Sony Xperia Play. I'm really interested in knowing how well it's doing
However, I don’t like the idea of the gaming hardware being controlled by people who don’t really care about games. That includes non-discerning customers just looking to kill time as well as the big tech companies that view gaming as another box to check off on their smartphone’s feature-set. Sony and Micosoft may not be primarily game developers but at least they do real game development unlike Apple or Google. But if all the major publishers move over than they’ll bring enough quality software with them to hopefully offset this.

What they can’t offset is the design of the hardware itself. An all touch-screen interface is intuitive, non-threatening and really elegant…for a phone. It simply does not work though for all kinds of games and if phones are going to be the primary way of playing handheld games they’re going to need to work with all kinds of games. Honestly, if phones just had like a d-pad and a few buttons, I would be so on board with them being the future because of all their other positives. But right now so many phone games are so hamstrung by the control limitations, despite how good they look their playability is too compromised. And trust me I’ve played a fair amount of iPhone games for extended periods of time.

In understand though why companies are hesitant to add game controls to their phones. It would clash with their sleek form factors and possibly scare off consumers. I just want the future of gaming to be bright for everyone.

As a side note, the bigger screen of the iPad makes touch-only gaming slightly more feasibly I guess, no fingers obscuring the view, but then it’s competing less with handhelds and more with PCs and consoles and that’s a whole other topic.

Another side note, I find it interesting that it was the iPhone that seemed to start this whole debate. Cell phones had throwaway download games way before that thing came out but it’s funny that only once Apple got involved did it become a topic with discussing. For fairness sake though I’ll chalk that up to advancing hardware rather than blind, brand worship.
The future

But don’t worry, it’ll all be fine once the Nintendo phone comes out.

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  1. Well you know the 3DS's sales have been soft (I love that word in this context) because no gaems. Should change soon.

    Mobile gaming really started with the iPhone partly because of hardware, but it was the whole "app" craze if you recall. What started that was good hardware, but also a quality hardware and software end user experience which lead to widespread adoption which lead to developer interest.

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