The Great Disparity of Handheld Gaming

by

As a young man-child, I wouldn’t go far without my trusty sidekick, the Game Boy Color. The ability to play games anywhere was some kind of witchcraft that allowed me to succumb to the temptations of gaming without needing to be glued to a TV. Although, you did need to stay out of direct sunlight and have an ammo-belt filled with double As.

At a time where home console gaming was shifting into the 3rd dimension, there was something humbling about taking a step back into a bygone era. And whilst games often resembled those of the previous generation of consoles like the SNES, NES and Mega Drive, they still felt fresh and entirely worthy of playing. I’m not talking small releases either. Pokémon, which recently had a huge resurgence with Pokémon Go, sprung to life on the Game Boy. Tetris, a game that is often crowned as the best game ever made, also gained its success on the Game Boy. The handheld market, although not as technically advanced as the home console one, wasn’t to be ignored.

Not long after I started secondary school, mobile phones crept onto the scene with most kids being given them as security measures – “If your bus is late call me on…” etc. In reality, they were used to learn the art of condensing a message into 120 characters to save being charged 20p for two messages. That’s right kids, messages were 10p a pop! There was, however, another bonus of owning a mobile and that was Snake.

Snake took my school by the metaphoricals, spawning the whole ‘zombie teen’ craze, turning playground meets and sleepovers into phone stare-offs in an attempt to beat one another’s score – who really enjoys talking to people anyway? Snake was a bare-bones game. It looked poor in comparison to ‘real’ games and the gameplay equalled that of trying to draw that strange S without removing the pen from the paper. It was simplistic but that was its charm and it was incredibly enticing as a result. Whether it was down to the novelty of playing a game on your phone, the playground rivalry or the simple fact that raw gameplay sells I’m really not sure, but it worked.

But as time has passed, the mobile phone has evolved into an incredibly sophisticated pocket computer which barely resembles the first in its lineage.

The almighty smartphone has completely taken over and their primary usage has changed from the traditional talky-speaky typy-texty phone stuff to anything but.

These fountains of duck pouts and social acceptance sims are now so highly-advanced that they match the spec of current handheld gaming devices. You’d think this would be great for gaming but somewhere along the line, the magic has been lost.

The smartphone era has brought with it the humble app and it wasn’t long before these apps turned into games. Games such as Angry Birds, Canabalt & Doodle Jump started the revolution with incredible success. Anyone who owned a first-gen iPhone will have more than likely played one, if not all, of these games.

One thing stood out, though, these game were all sub £3. This was a massive difference when compared to the £20-£30 people would spend on handheld games, which at the time felt completely justified. Game Boy games weren’t quite as technically advanced as their home console brethren so came at a comparatively cheaper price, but still substantial enough to know you were getting a quality bit of content. Strangely the first generation of games on smartphones played similarly to those on the old Game Boy but the price point fell completely short. It’s worth noting that by this point handheld gaming had also evolved. The Nintendo DS and PSP were commonplace and both offered 3D. Maybe this had a bearing on the price but the extremity in price difference was off.

I remember purchasing Angry Birds for 69p. 69p! That’s roughly the price of a Freddo. For that, you’d think there would be an hours worth of content in there at best but nope. It turned out to be one of the biggest successes in the mobile-gaming market, which has now branched out with multiple sequels, spin-offs, license deals and a bloody Hollywood film focussed on these pissed off Aves. With Angry Birds being a huge success it’s no surprise that others followed suit and this is where the downfall of the mobile gaming began.

Once the technology in the mobile market evolved, more and more developers and even non-developers started to get in on the action. The market was no longer locked out to those that had a vast knowledge of game development. Any Tom, Dick or Harry could make a game, I should know. The beauty of the accessibility of building games for mobile was incredibly enticing, particularly for those who sought to make a quick buck. The problem with this, however, is that the ‘see what shit sticks’ approach completely tainted the mobile market.

The free-to-play model is prevalent in the mobile scene. However, unlike bigger games, the mark is often missed. In said bigger games, namely MMOs, you play the game for free but there are certain items locked out which require you to part with your cash. The model itself is met with mixed opinions but if you’re asking me this model can work well. You play the game for free but can optionally spend a bit of money if you’re enjoying it. Plenty of mobile games have adopted the free-to-play model but have implemented it poorly. One major bugbear of mine is timed access to the game, which requires you to wait for ‘x’ minutes to carry on playing the game or part with your pennies. It’s ridiculous.

More often than not if the gameplay isn’t hidden behind paywalls you’ll be faced with an onslaught of advertisement. Adverts often plague free-to-play games with some offering a one-off fee to remove them whilst others make you sit through a 30-second unskippable ad. All of these practices have built a stigma for mobile games, regardless of their quality.

Quite often when a new game is announced for mobile you’ll see comments such as “I was excited until I saw it was a mobile game”. The game is completely dismissed before it’s even played.

It would be easy to point the finger at in-app purchases and ads, asking for them to be completely removed from the scene, but you can’t deny someone their income. These are the reasons for the negativity aimed towards mobile games but it’s the implementation of these systems that is the issue. There’s a great case study on Unity talking about the implementation of Ads in Crossy Road (read here) and the game certainly stands out positively as a result. Ads are there, but they’re completely optional. You can purchase items in the game, but again it’s all completely optional. Not only that but financially the game is a huge success.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done and developers of fixed-price games, i.e. no in-app purchases are also being overlooked. The issue stems from the initial price of mobile games. They were priced at such a small cost that anything releasing nowadays is deemed far too expensive.

Super Mario Run was the latest victim of this skewed value of mobile games, with many exclaiming that £8 was simply too much to pay. This was true of me. The thought of shelling out £8 left a sour taste in my mouth and that shouldn’t be the case. Whilst Super Mario Run didn’t tickle my fancy it was worthy of a price tag similar to that of older handheld games. It looks great, it plays well, and it has a similar amount of content to its handheld parents. And this isn’t something strictly tied to Super Mario Run. Many mobile games are worth these prices but the damning nature of pricing models has skewed the value of otherwise decent games.

Developers now have a choice. Do they release a standard game (no in-app purchases or ads) on mobile or do they release it for PC? PC game development is just as accessible as mobile development with marketplaces on Steam or Itch for visibility, and in turn, can warrant higher prices. But if developers did shift their focus onto PC titles, rather than mobile, that would leave only one type of game. Those with in-app purchases and adverts. The dream of having handheld quality games on mobile would wash away and that in itself is a major problem because I’d bet money on mobiles superseding handheld consoles.

Can anything be done? No. We’ve fucked it. But it’s not all bad. There are some credible mobile games out there but you’ll have to wade through Candy Crush and Flappy Bird clones to find them.

Dad. Designer. Web Developer.

@KieranMcClung

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