Mobile games have come of age
Posted at 18:04 on 28th August 2007 - permalink

The topic of mobile games (by which I mean the more commonly understood definition of games played on mobile phones, rather than the whole spectrum of portable handheld devices) is one that I’ve become closely familiar with over the past few years, having been involved for an extended period in mobile publishing and development. I’ve avoided writing about them out of slightly paranoid concerns that it would be present a conflict of interest (I can hardly complain about corporate blogs if I start hyping/trashing my employers’/competitors’ products myself) but I think I’m now in a neutral enough position to be able to share some thoughts about the sector as a whole.

The two things that everyone knows about mobile games are that they’re going to be worth billions of dollars (the exact value and timeframe for this occurence varying depending on who you ask), and that they’re currently a bit rubbish. This second piece of received wisdom must surely be true as even prominent figures within mobile games biz (as well as armchair pundits who keep making the same game over and over) habitually complain about the lack of quality, or inherent shortcomings of the platform, as a preamble to their proposed ‘cure’ – which usually just so happens to involve the exact bit of technology or design philosophy their company specialises in.

This crisis of confidence needs to be addressed. It would be difficult to imagine the early PC game developers in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Id, Lucasarts, Origin, Sierra, etc.) offering up caveats about how the PC wasn’t really meant to play games, so they should be cut some slack. Nintendo and Sega didn’t draw attention away from the incumbent home micros in Europe by wringing their hands over their systems being uncompetitively priced and not being brilliantly well-suited to slower, keyboard and mouse based games. They just concentrating on making the best games they could with the tools available.

So, the first thing that the industry needs to do to establish mobile games as a legitimate gaming option is simple:

Stop telling people they’re crap.

The second thing may (also) sound a bit trite, but having read countless interviews with industry luminaries over the past two years where every other possible avenue is desperately explored (like the pub landlord who’ll gladly invest in fruit machines, garden heaters and karaoke rather than considering selling good beer cheaply), it bears repeating:

Make fun games and champion them.

Seriously. If you can’t get people who are already comfortable with the idea of paying money for computer games excited about your product, what chance do you have with the “expanded audience”? Nor are any amount of spangly 3D effects, community features, cross-platform wizardry or portability-exploiting gimmicks going to help if you’re still struggling to nail down the core gameplay experience.

Typical scapegoats cited to explain why mobile games haven’t taken over world yet include device fragmentation, the shortcomings of Java, poor controls, an unsatisfactory purchasing method, games not being designed to appeal enough to ‘non-gamers’, or not effectively exploiting the unique strengths of the platform. Most of these arguments are weak – the expectation that these problems are ever going to be completely eradicated is unrealistic. It would be nice to have ideal conditions where games development was risk-free and success was based purely on merit and not an unpredictable mixture of branding, popular trends and word of mouth. It would be nice if making games for the traditional formats was like that too.

Device fragmentation (the inconvenient upshot of different people having different priorities regarding the design and functionality of their phone) is always going to be with us, although the massive headache of porting to hundreds of devices may be eased somewhat as some of the older and drastically under-specced devices (such as the hopeless Sony Ericsson T610) start to fade out, resulting in a baseline specification that requires less programming contortionism to fit a decent game onto.

Another fairly frequent complaint is that the Java ME platform (the de facto standard for mobile games in Europe) causes an unacceptably large performance hit compared to coding directly to the hardware. Technically it’s true that BREW and Symbian games can better exploit the processing power available (although neither are suitable alternatives for reasons I won’t bore you with here) – but even with Java’s baggage, most modern phones are performance-wise somewhere between the SNES and the psOne – not a million miles away from the Nintendo DS in fact. 3D performance could be a bit better, but again, as with handheld consoles, the proportion of games that benefit from 3D (constricted by a small screen and digital controls) is not enormous.

The issue of control methods is something where personal preference is a major factor. A typical phone gives you an 8-way joystick (and/or the number pad) and a smattering of fire buttons. If you have a particularly small or unresponsive phone and particularly large hands, this may be a show stopping problem, but the majority of people seem to be able to cope quite well. As with every format, the standard input device makes a few game genres (where lightning fast reactions are required) impractical. The same can be said for the PC (traditionally passed over as a venue for joypad-oriented fighting and platform games) and consoles (not ideal for RTS and other cursor-driven games). As games aren’t the primary function of a phone, you can expect a long wait before phones with dedicated gaming input methods become commonplace.

A point that occasionally crops up is that mobile games must exploit the fact that they’re running on a portable, network-enabled device. There’s no reason to think that the wider functionality of a device will have any bearing on how users will choose to interact with it as a games platform. I’m not shooting down the whole idea of multiplayer or ‘location aware’ (or whatever the buzzword du jour is) games on mobile, but they introduce another layer of complexity which doesn’t sit well with the immediate, dip-in-and-out nature of playing games on a phone. It might turn out that asynchronous games, or ones where communication with other players isn’t vital for the game to progress, turn out to be a better fit that the traditional model where each player has to dedicate some time to playing the game. Maybe someone will crack it, but as with online gaming on consoles, it’s likely to remain a niche interest rather than the main event. (This is Blizzard’s cue to announce a mobile version of World of Warcraft.)

The fact is that genuinely good mobile games are out there right now. Even though the climate in which they’re being developed and marketed is far from ideal, in the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum, life finds a way. Some mobile games succeed by playing it safe, delivering a polished game within the boundaries of a genre that’s proven to work well (such as puzzle, quiz and parlour games). Others are insanely ambitious, trying to condense a complex PC or console style experience onto a handset. In many cases such efforts fail to take into account the quirks of the format (being scuppered by intrusive loading pauses or complicated controls), but once in a while they succeed.

A slowly expanding core of publishers have reached the stage where they can consistently deliver high quality, commercially viable games. It’s true that there should be more of them, and the process of converting that quality into commercial success is still haphazard, but anyone making sweeping claims that all mobile games are rubbish is clinging on to an outdated stereotype. They’ve either not played very many or are making excuses.

Although good mobile games are being released more frequently, the amount of information available to the customer hasn’t quite caught up. Sites like Pocket Gamer and MobileGameFAQs are making inroads into this problem, but there’s still a perception among mainstream gamers that mobile games are being subjected to different (and less stringent) standards than games on established formats. Publishers need to get more games into people’s hands, and gamers need more sources where they can get trusted opinions.

As I see it, mobile games have currently reached the point that console games had done at the dawn of the Mean Machines era. Gamers are willing to give them a chance but are wary of making uninformed choices. Good games are still discovered by the intrepid few rather than being introduced to the public through a widely understood PR/media ritual as exists for games on established formats. While this will ultimately change, it could be seen as one of the attractive things about mobile games at the moment which publishers and the media haven’t really capitalised on – there’s a ‘frontier spirit’ similar to that surrounding the indie development scene on the PC in recent years. You can still get a kick out of finding (and introducing others to) hidden gems.

Mobile games that I currently kill time with include:

Centipede (Glu/Atari) – A good conversion of one of my favourite classic coinops. Most of the notable early 1980s arcade games have been blessed with decent mobile versions at this point.

Orcs & Elves (EA/Fountainhead) – Carmack-engineered flick-screen dungeon romp. Zero replayability (a random dungeon feature would have been nice) but excellently paced and extremely addictive while it lasts.

Driver: LA Undercover (Gameloft/Ubisoft) – Amazingly manages to implement a working free-roaming city environment (by the skin of it’s teeth) using a Road Rash-like driving engine and some technical trickery. Lots of mission types and amusingly (presumably mobile operator-decreed) sanitised dialogue. Tanner is still useless out of his car.

Hitman Blood Money (Eidos/Morpheme)Another game I can’t really present a remotely objective view about. The fact that it fits the whole of the original PS1 Hitman’s play mechanics into less than 100k (on some phones) is quite slick, I reckon. Although considering games routinely weigh in at over 400k these days, I’m not sure what the point of this was.

Lego Brick Breaker (Hands-On) – Well presented Arkanoid-style game which has you rescuing Legomen trapped among the bricks. Simple but effective and worth playing for the unbelievably pun-filled dialogue alone (“I’m bricking it!”).

Pico Pix (Global Fun/Runestone) – Good version of Picross, of which there are surprisingly few versions on mobile – possibly due to the surprisingly large amount of screen real estate required to fit all the number lists around the board.

Worms (THQ/Team 17) – There are lots of versions of Worms on mobile (both official and unofficial). The latest version is pretty much what you’d expect.

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