Smartphones are killing mobile gaming, but not in the sense that might first come to mind. In order to mitigate the number of vitriolic diatribes composed in the comments section, let me first say I’m not speaking in a business sense.
The truth is that smartphones are making gamers out of more and more people, and the number of titles installed is increasing at an almost exponential rate, thanks to the arrival of very competent smartphones. Billions of apps have been downloaded on iOS and Android platforms, and no small percentage of them have been games. They are a cornerstone of the smartphone experience, and the industry will do nothing but grow. And therein lies the problem: As portable gaming shifts to the smartphone, it does so at the expense of the old guard of the portable gaming industry. While the proliferation of smartphones has opened many eyes to the portable gaming scene, the portable gaming experience is further diluted by the adoption of this uninspired hardware.
As much as last-generation mobile gaming was marked by outrageously divergent hardware and form-factors, the new generation is defined just as much be sterility, by a boring, buttonless design that reeks of uniformity. Smartphones come in the slate form factor almost by default, and while this is perfect for web browsing and pretty much any other work you can do on a smartphone, it is a depressing experience for the mobile gamer.
Tactile, pressable, squishable buttons are superior to the touchscreen. Don’t tell me that they’re not. Don’t lie to yourself. Buttons and bumpers allow for greater precision, more kills and more fun. How many times have chubby fingers cost a player his virtual life? How many times have they slipped, gripped and tapped out of the control area? I want to focus on the game, the action, not where the controls are.
The biggest problem with gaming on a smartphone is simple to pinpoint. Immersion. When I’m playing a game, I want to feel like I’m there, like I am that little man running, jumping, blasting around on-screen. There’s something about the abstraction of buttons, the fact that I’m not looking at my fingers when I’m playing the game that let’s me do this. Conversely, when I’m playing a game with a touchscreen, I feel less like the protagonist and more like a giant trying to crush him with my thumbs.
That’s not to say that touch doen’t have anything to add. It certainly does. But not in the volume that smartphones require.
Fingers aren’t the only distraction. A smartphone is exactly that, a phone. Text messages, calls, emails, all of the other annoying grown-up business-y things that can be done with smartphones become a burden when you’re playing a game. All you want to do is quest through the magical fairy forest with Pip and his trusty canine, Macks, but now all you can think about is that email you got from your boss saying that he wants you to review the changes he made to the proposal.
The point I’m trying to make is that mobile gaming used to be the console-lite experience. You could take games on the go, but they could still be immersive, captivating, serious and wonderful. Now, mobile games are just time-wasters, boredom killers. No longer do we sit for hours playing Pokémon or Zelda. We’ve grown accustomed to slicing fruit and tossing birds at blocks. We’ve accepted the mundane as amazing. We’ve lowered our expectations.
Smartphones are forcasted to make larger and larger in-roads in a market traditionally dominated by Nintendo and Sony. If the current trend continues, the next iteration of portables by those companies may be the last. The imaginative form-factors and intriguing designs may be forever lost, their need obscured by panels of flat, boring glass. More and more consumers are being introduced to the world of mobile gaming. Unfortunately, it’s not a world I recognize.