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Five years later, mobile gaming is still taking its first baby steps

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Mobile gaming is still trying to find its feet. Over the past five years, we’ve been treated to games such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, games that are great at passing short bursts of time yet fail to linger in the memory after you’ve put them down. Angry Birds and its ilk deserve due praise for bringing mobile gaming to the masses, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’re little more than Flash games with HD graphics.

Developers have definitely tried different approaches. Infinity Blade, for instance, is extremely impressive graphically, but still limited in scope. Epic – the studio behind the Infinity Blade series – piqued some interest with the promise of a Diablo-esque spin off dubbed Infinity Blade: Dungeons, but the game was canceled earlier this year after developer Impossible Studios was closed down.

There have been titles from smaller, independent developers that have rightfully reaped the internet’s praise – Sword & Sworcery, for example – but genuinely unique and innovative mobile games are extremely hard to come by. And if you stand back and recognize the core issue, it’s not hard to see why.

Controls have always been the sticking point for mobile games. Angry Birds rocketed to success thanks to its sheer touchscreen simplicity. You drag a finger, release, and rain hellfire down on unsuspecting green pigs. Even a child can grasp the concept. But when you try to mimic “hardcore” titles you’d find on computers and consoles – Shadowgun, Nova, et al – you quickly discover that on screen virtual controls are messy and inaccurate.

Your thumbs and fingers will be covering all the action, and you don’t get any of the physical feedback that you would from a traditional controller, least of all a keyboard and mouse. Games leveraging the accelerometer – mostly in the racing or puzzle genres – face similar issues.

For one, phones from different manufacturers will have different sensitivity across the board. And in reality, it’s an awkward way to try and control a virtual vehicle. Sure, it makes sense on a fundamental level – turn the phone, turn the car – but your perspective of the screen has changed as soon as you move the device. You won’t necessarily have the freedom to move in certain situations either – think public transport.

Trying to apply some of the more traditional gaming approaches to a smaller screen is the wrong approach, and will only lead to more frustration and weariness. There are also other features that no one has really cracked yet, like multiplayer.

The best multiplayer games work right now because they only take short snippets out of your day. Words With Friends, Letterpress, Draw Something… they all require a minimal attention span, and you don’t need to focus on them in real time. You can easily fit them around your schedule rather than dedicating blocks of time towards them like traditional multiplayer games.

Again, the appeal can wear thin. Draw Something was hugely popular when it first launched, but has since fallen off the radar. Such a simple style of play is great for the masses, but there’s little to keep them coming back for more. It becomes too simple too quickly.

No one has really tackled the MMO approach either. A massive mobile world that brings people across the world together through constantly connected devices could be huge. Getting to that point, though, would take a tremendous amount of effort and resources.

Ingress is the closest thing so far, but Google has traded a virtual world for the real thing. The game has you visiting various locations in your town or city to physically interact with virtual objects. It’s a clever way to get gamers out of the house and actually look at the city around them, but it does require some dedication, not to mention valuable time.

The solution, then, could simply be for developers to try taking more unconventional approaches. There’s only so much you can do on a small screen, so why not shift the focus from interaction to immersion? Titles like Blindside, Vanished, and Papa Sangre all rely on audio-only gameplay, an unusual approach that works surprisingly well.

Games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls could also make the transition to mobile relatively easily. The emphasis isn’t on repeated interaction – instead, they try to place the player inside an interactive movie. A movie that can easily be stopped and started, that can be taken at its own pace, and that can arrive at different conclusions depending on the choices the player makes. Given the way we use our smartphones and tablets, those types of games make perfect sense.

Ultimately, though, money talks. Rovio turned over $195 million last year thanks to the success of Angry Birds, and other titles often found near the top of the charts – like Candy Crush – combine addiction with lucrative in-app purchases. That’s no doubt great for business, but it’s hard to look at the current mobile gaming situation and not see a bleak future.


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