// 7 April, 2013

Mobile gaming

It's certainly made a splash, but is there anything more to it?

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I own a handful of devices, but they're not gaming machines for me.

Despite a general disdain for the output of the mobile gaming world, one of my favourite games originated on the iOS platform. Sword and Sworcery was a wonderful, intimate experience, and one that seemed perfect for the iPad: the controls were simple and intuitive enough, and the visuals lent themselves to being viewed at a close-up range to pick out all the details of the world. Yet, I first completed the game on my Mac, following its release over a year later; furthermore, I’ve never finished it on my iPad, but have finished numerous times on my Mac.

It’s easy to be flippant about the state of the mobile gaming scene. It’s made a colossal amount of money, and has been by most quantifiable metrics a success, but it comes at a price of over-simplification.

Input technology on most mobile devices (disregarding dedicated handheld gaming devices) currently consists solely of a single touch screen. As such, any and all games made for these devices must design around, and utilise mechanics, that involve having the player’s finger or fingers cover a portion of the screen most times that input is required. This is the crux of my general disinterest in mobile gaming: compared to a controller-based console, or a PC, both of which feature dedicated, unobtrusive input devices, the necessity to partially cover up the screen the player is viewing in order to issue a command feels wholly inelegant and archaic. If I have the option to either use a full, unobstructed view and a dedicated input device, or a single device that requires me to obscure it with my hand at various times, then I will always pick the former.

Given that complex interactions with most mobile devices is fairly limited, the types of games that can be played on them should, in theory, be limited or tailored too. Unfortunately, this is not the case: games ported from dedicated gaming systems, for instance, arrive on mobile devices with all manner of emulated control inputs such as on-screen joysticks and buttons to gyroscopic movement, none of which offer a remotely satisfactory experience.

Rayman 2 for iOS gameplay. Note the on-screen joystick and buttons: without tactile feedback, playing this game becomes very messy.

If the Wii has taught the world anything, it’s that the best games are the ones that are built around the physical control mechanics. Nintendo has known this for years: the Super Nintendo added four extra buttons to the controller compared to its predecessor, and the first flagship title, Super Mario World, utilised them for further moves; the Nintendo 64 added an analog joystick that not only made traversing a 3D world simpler, but also offered players the pleasurable tactility of spinning Bowser around in Super Mario 64; and the GameCube added pressure sensitive shoulder buttons, allowing the power of Luigi’s vacuum in Luigi’s Mansion to be controlled in a more realistic and satisfying manner. Nintendo’s design philosophy has always rotated around what its consoles feature as input devices, and the games tend to be all the better for it.

However, the tide is certainly shifting, and games like Jetpack Joyride are ample examples of it. Jetpack Joyride is perfectly suited to touch as an input device, as its entire control scheme is based around pressing and holding any part of the screen to make the main character rise, and letting go to let him fall. Word puzzle games, such as Letterpress, tend to fit the devices adequately as well, as the method of input does not interfere with visual clarity for the most part.

Jetpack Joyride trailer

So where does that leave it? Put simply, touch controls require certain types of games to be designed. These games almost always need to be simple in scope, and that is generally why I do not play them. These types of simple experiences hold no interest for me: if I think about the most simplest games that I enjoy, none of them would be simple enough to successfully work on a mobile device. There is nothing complex about Tetris, for example, but playing it on an iPad is a utterly horrendous experience.

There is nothing inherently wrong with touch-based input. It is, at times, a novel way to manipulate content, but the efficiency, flexibility and ergonomically satisfying properties of dedicated, off-screen input devices will always trump touch screens for me. However, there is one piece of upcoming technology that will certainly be interesting to experiment with: the Leap Motion sensor. With units shipping next month (I have had one on pre-order for quite a while now), it represents a potential paradigm shift in the potential ways we could interact with computers, and the way we play games. The sizzle reel for the device features Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, two games that rose to prominence as touch-screen exemplars. The comparison between the two versions will tell all.

The Leap Motion sensor

Game developers are starting to find the best format for mobile games.

Logic & Trick By Logic & Trick

It’s taken a few years, but mobile games are slowly improving. While I can’t say I’ve followed phone and tablet games all that closely over the years, I know enough to say that, for the most part, they’re not games that I would want to spend a lot of time with.

But that’s starting to change. Ever-so-slowly, tablet games are starting to mature. I don’t mean "mature" in the sense that most AAA developers seem to think (i.e. blood, gore, and violence), but rather mature as a medium. While the infinite spam of clones and terribly-made cash-ins that makes me dislike the app store will always be there, the signal-to-noise ratio is starting to creep upwards.

Recently I bought the latest Android package from the Humble Bundle which included 6 games, some of which I enjoyed more than others. It’s very clear which games are more suitable for tablet gaming than others, and I just want to go few a couple to point out why this is the case.

Firstly, The Room. The Room is a short but well-made room escape game, except that you’re opening a box instead of escaping a room. The game itself looks very nice, has smooth animations, and is implemented well – it played perfectly on my tablet. It uses the touch screen well and even takes advantage of the gyro sensor for a few parts.

The reason The Room is a great game is because it was built for the platform first, rather than built as a port to the platform. The wiki page includes a quote from the developers: they wanted "to make the best iOS game we could, not just try to make a big console game for iOS". This is a step in the right direction for the future of mobile gaming.

Let’s look at something that’s not so great: the port of Metal Slug 3. This is a little sad. The Metal Slug games are up there with my favourites, and the Android port retains the excellent graphics and music of the series. The problem is that the controls are some of the worst you could imagine. Metal Slug 3 is an excellent example of why the mobile platform is a terrible option for many ported games.

The reason why the controls don’t work is simple: the emulated joystick and buttons. Having no physical feedback from the controls makes playing Metal Slug an incredibly painful experience. It’s not just limited to one game either – pretty much any tablet game with emulated buttons is a headache to use. The rush for phone accessories with joystick and button attachments is as panicked as it is ridiculous – a half-assed attempt to provide controls for games that were never suitable for the platform to begin with. The sooner bad ports like this die off, the better.

Some games, however, port to tablets so well that it’s surprising that they actually started out as PC games. The first of these that I’ve played is Plants vs. Zombies. The tablet version of this game plays really well and the gameplay is a natural fit for the platform. The style of the game is fun and light-hearted. It’s easy to pick up and play, but it also has enough depth to keep a more serious gamer entertained.

Plants vs. Zombies is an example of a game that was very suitable to be ported to the mobile platform. Another example is World of Goo, which is another of my favourite games. The Android port of World of Goo was a pleasure to play, and if you didn’t already know, anybody would think that it was designed primarily for the platform.

Mobile gaming still has a long way to go, and I think that ported games will still be the biggest focus for the larger developers for the next few years. The most important thing is the choice of which games to port. Ones that require the joystick-and-button setup of the consoles should be kept well away from the platform, while ones that work well with touch screens should be the ones to port across.

Eventually, we’ll start to see more professionally-made games (such as The Room) that are created primarily for the mobile platform. As they start to grow more popular, we’ll really see the world of mobile games grow up and grow more mature. I look forward to the day when I can play an original title with the same kind depth as a traditional RPG, designed primarily for the touch screen interface.

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