Friday, March 31, 2017

The Future of the Phone Game

If you take a critical look at modern video games, there are two basic opinions about the mobile phone. Either a) games on a phone are the extent of known video games or b) games on the phone are not even considered games. Now, both of these opinions are missing part of the story, and I would disagree with either one.

The history of playing video games on-the-go is not a recent one. Nintendo’s Game Boy has been popular since 1989; Sony has been at it for a few tries as well. Many times, games on these handhelds follow in the footsteps of their larger market console versions, and while perhaps at a smaller scale, they are accepted into the broader canon of a franchise. For instance, Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Metal Gear Acid are two games that are a part of a grander franchise on consoles. Regardless of quality, these are two examples of franchises continued on their proprietary handheld consoles. Phones do not have the same luxury. Of course, licenses would preclude many franchises from appearing on certain consoles and on phones, but that does not mean equally affecting experiences can turn up there. Instead, phone games are for passing time on a boring commute. Why is it that games released on such consoles are more legitimized than games appearing on phones?

The first opinion is that games on phones are the only games to play. This would be someone whose idea of playing games is hours and hours of Candy Crush on an iPhone. If this sounds like fun to you, then that is wonderful! But there are longer experiences on phones that can be so much more rewarding and enjoyable.

The second opinion is that phone games do not “count” as proper video games. An example of this person would be someone who self-identifies with the detestable term, “hardcore gamer.” In such a person’s view, games require at least a few hours of dedication and are played on high-end computers or retro consoles. At least if it is a “real” handheld game, it had better be on a Nintendo or the like. Again, if this sounds like your concept of a traditional video game, that is perfect! But there are a handful (no pun intended) of great games that, while not being as graphically intensive as those on a modern TV, can deliver the same amount of exciting or emotional punch.

Mobile video games exist in a truly bizarre realm. People who play games regularly refuse to take phone games seriously. Those who exclusively play one or two endless mobile games are not aware of what other great opportunities they can get on their tiny computers. People who do not play any games at all disdain mobile games as a waste of time altogether. Mobile games really can be valuable in their own right, more so than just a time waster.

One hindrance to the phone’s ability to compete with established handhelds is the ratio of quality to bulk. If you watched the Super Bowl this year, or any amount of TV for that matter, you have probably seen huge ads for certain mobile games. It’s true, there are some insidious games that use addicting feedback loops to pry quite a bit of money from consumers. The sheer size of the respective app stores means that thousands of games can be produced at virtually no cost and only a small few will gain any sort of notoriety. The games of lasting quality, then, can get easily buried if the market is not followed constantly.

I predict the increase in valuable mobile game experiences will be akin to that of television. There was a time when the sheer production value of television shows could not attempt to compete with those of film. As TV began to tell more sophisticated stories, however, we began to see shows advance to a quality, which (in my opinion) now rivals many films. Sure, there will still be mindless puzzle games that sadistically trick millions of dollars out of its player base, but here and there, worthwhile experiences will come to fruition on mobile phones and anyone interested in games will take notice. In many cases, that renaissance is already here; players just need to start accepting it.

We have already seen the rise of independent games, or simple, short, artistic experiences that do not rely on action to draw in players. There is no reason such games cannot transform the mobile game market in years to come.