The State Of Mobile Gaming 2012 (Part 2)

8/3/2012 11:41:06 AM

The current state

There are those who will argue that many of the games available on mobile devices are not 'true' videogames; they're more akin to Flash-type games which, while fun and cheap, offer less in the way of production values, depth and longevity

For the most part this was true - Angry Birds, for example, while hours of fun, provides a different kind of gaming to Uncharted or Call of Duty. Until recently this has mostly been a matter of hardware, with consoles possessing graphical power far outweighing that of a smartphone. In the last 12 months, though, the balance is beginning to shift back towards the mobile phones, and gaming on these platforms is being taken very seriously indeed.

We have devices that are embedded with powerful GPUs - the iPad 2012 is the most powerful yet, capable of handling not only high-definition video but also demanding games. In 2010, Apple famously showed the iPad pushing impressive polygons with mapping and shading like no mobile device before with Epic's tech demo, Epic Citadel. Apart from looking like a console title and not like a phone game, Epic Citadel showed that desktop engines like the Unreal Engine 3 were equally at home running on these powerful new mobile platforms.

There is an increasing trend for many games to have mobile versions also released, varying from simplistic 2 dimensional versions in the same setting (for example, Mass Effect Galaxy) to nearly the same fully featured title (see EA's FIFA and Tiger Woods titles). We can see as devices are becoming more powerful, so are the risks developers are willing to take. Take, again, the example of Mass Effect, in 2009 the iOS version, the aforementioned Mass Effect Galaxy, was a nice if simple Alien Syndrome-sty\e, top-down shooter that the devices of the time were capable of handling. Here in 2012, though, and with the release of Mass Effect 3 on consoles, we now have Mass Effect Infiltrator, a fast paced, fully 3D shooter that's much closer to the core game it stems from.

Description: Apple’s Airplay playing games on your TV
Apple’s Airplay playing games on your TV

“Rovigo’s Angry Birds will cost you a matter of pence, not pounds”

Let's take a look at some of the best in mobile gaming. Apart from Mass Effect Galaxy and Epic Citadel, there are still many excellent examples of near console-quality games on mobile platforms.

Fibble might be a strange name, but it represents another benchmark in mobile gaming. This time it’s another legendary PC game engine making the jump - Crytek's Cry engine. The game itself is funs physics puzzler in the vein of Subbuteo, with unsurprisingly excellent graphics, so the long-running question, 'Does it run Crisis?' may soon find an answer in your hands.

Arguably iOS's first triple-A franchise, Infinity Blade was the game that was to come out of the Epic Citadel demo. Released properly in late 2010, Infinity Blade is a game set in stunning environments that has you hacking and slashing at equally stunning foes. Granted, both it and its sequel Infinity Blade II are very much on rails, and still lack some of the depth found in console games, but they're great fun and extremely impressive to look at. The forthcoming finite Blade Dungeons transports the world to a similar top-down plain to Diablo or Atari favorite Gauntlet, adding more depth to this bestselling series.

If you don't invest much time in mobile gaming, then the name Fire-mint may not mean much to you. That's a shame, because you're missing out on Real Racing 2, a genuinely stunning racing game on mobile platforms. Though it only runs on high-end devices, RR2 has near console quality graphics and stays locked to the full 60fps you racing nuts love. What's more, on the iPad 2 it'll hook up with the Apple TV for full-screen HD racing with the iPad as your controller. It's also one of the first games to support the higher resolution retina screen of the 2012 iPad. It's also a great game with a fun racing model, very much in the Project Gotham Racing mold.

Description: PS Vita - state of the art or dead on arrival?
PS Vita – is state of the art or dead on arrival?

It’s not all GPU crushing 3D engines, though; if there's one thing mobile gaming is doing well, its social gaming, and it has it down to a multimillion dollar tee. Draw something is best described as social Pictionary; the game is a series of rounds between players who draw 'pictures' to describe a word. This simple idea has caught the world alight, though, with Draw Something becoming one of the most talked about games since Angry Birds. Notably, it's a true cross-platform game, with users on iOS able to simply play users on Android and vice versa. Further proof of the old adage of simple ideas being the best, Zynga bought Draw Something's author, Omgpop, for $180 million (that's a lot of Farmville credit).

“The other standout problem is one more prevalent on the Android platform: fragmentation”

Not All Plain Sailing

Of course, it's not all plain sailing into a console-less sunset for these pocket behemoths. One of the biggest bugbears is the substitution of physical buttons and pads for touch-screen alternatives. For those whose playing is partly guided by touch to locate buttons in the midst of action, having to look away to find the section of the screen you need to press is not the same. This is one area 'real' consoles such as the Vita and 3DS still hold the high ground.

For those who ache for hardware, there are solutions. Sony's Xperia play came with the hardware but for some reason being able to play 1 5-year-old PS One games didn't quite catch on with the public. You can also use Bluetooth controllers with Android and jail broken iOS devices. A great example is the iControl pad from the maker of the Pandora homebrew console. You can even use a PS3 controller too.

The other standout problem is one more prevalent on the Android platform: fragmentation. Yes, Android's broad spread of devices is also its Achilles' heel, because with so many variations, there are few applications that work on all platforms, especially with 3D graphics involved. Different combinations of processors, CPU, GPU, screens and OS versions make putting together games much more difficult than on iOS, with some like Zombie-land USA developer Mika Mobile actively dropping the platform.

Description: The iControl pad adds buttons to the touch-screen
The iControl pad adds buttons to the touch-screen

The fact that Android is the biggest platform will still keep many developers onside, but unless Google addresses this properly, it's difficult to see how much longer this will be the case.

The future

It could be argued that the future of mobile gaming is among the strongest in the gaming world. Recent years have seen many of the big players in trouble or at a crossroads. Both Sony and Nintendo have felt the bitter taste of failure, with both posting huge financial losses this year and both releasing handheld consoles that have failed to set the world alight. In fact, both the 3DS and the PS Vita are still being outsold regularly by the previous generation DS.

Description:  PS Vita 3G 'Our Investment In The Future,' Says Sony

 PS Vita 3G 'Our Investment In The Future,' Says Sony

With the iPhone and Galaxy S2 doing well in Japan, we're even beginning to see Japanese developers such as Capcom, Sega and Square Enix develop for mobile platforms, albeit so far with varying degrees of success.

Microsoft will be bringing the mobile phone into the whole gaming experience, its Windows Phone platform forming part of the same ecosystem that Windows 8 and the next-generation Xbox will inhabit. Certainly until now the Windows Phone platform hasn't taken off as well as Microsoft will have hoped. Let's not forget, though, it has enough money to burn to make it a success.

At the moment, though, 'real' handheld consoles have the 'real' gaming edge. They are more powerful, have deeper gaming experiences and hardware controls. However, the turnaround for a change in the mobile industry is far faster than that of the console industry Both Nintendo and Sony will be aiming to give their consoles at least a five-year life-span, a period unheard of in mobile circles. A console that appears advanced now will be eclipsed technically in 12 to 18 months, leaving them only with the deeper gameplay and physical controls over mobiles.

However, if established studios begin making 'console quality' AAA titles on mobiles, and iOS and Android introduce hardware control APIs, it could spell the very quick end for handheld consoles. If they further combine these with HDMI outputs or wireless video, we may even see a point where home consoles begin to suffer. Certainly, the mobile platform is going to be one of the most interesting gaming platforms in the next few years.

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