Before we begin in earnest, I have two confessions to make. First: This was not the original format of this series. The original plan was to do a quick overview of the best cell phones on the market and a quicker overview of the games available, and answer the question: “Is 2013 the year when smartphones grow up as a viable gaming platform for hardcore gamers?”
Second: I went into this assignment with that question already answered – an optimistic but certain “No.” Bad form, I know, but you have to understand, prior to getting my hands on the LG Optimus G for this article, I had never owned what could be considered a “top-of-the-line” phone. Not even close. So my initial brainstorming revolved around talking about how phones still have a ways to go, ranting about the beautiful elegance of Where’s My Water for a paragraph or two, and then moving on to bemoan the lack of quality gaming available. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.
So that out of the way, we can begin. As a lifelong PC gamer, I’ve been in the position to scoff at inferior gaming products for the last 25-odd years. Gaming consoles ranging from the Atari 2600 to the PlayStation 3 had little allure for me. Why settle for outdated technology that only does one thing (play games) when I can have a monster desktop rig that does everything at the cutting edge?
Game developers didn’t take the smartphone seriously, and phone developers fed off that energy.
And for many years, I was absolutely right. Game developers didn’t take the smartphone seriously, and phone developers fed off that energy. Why wouldn’t they? It’s far more profitable to knock out a game a week that sold for $1.99 and provided roughly an hour of entertainment. The price points were so low that no one complained, and studios didn’t need to invest large chunks of time or development cost into big-budget titles. So we got a lot of crap, the occasional gem like Angry Birds, and a ton of copycats, knockoffs, “social games”, and the like.
The phenomenon of the burner game is not new to anyone who grew up with a computer in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Back then, the proto-internet, BBS services, and the oft-referenced “sneaker-net” were full of freeware, shareware, and vaporware titles that came and went. For a while in 1994, it seemed like every week would bring a great little time-waster that was fun for an hour and then quickly cast aside. Most of these were derivatives or outright clones of major video game franchises, though occasionally something truly new and exciting would come along.
It made sense then as it does now. Gaming studios were largely not taken seriously, and developing video games (at least for the PC) was still very much seen as a hobby. It was something programmers did in their spare time while working a day job creating “real” software for monolithic companies. High production-value games cost a lot of money to make, and few people took the opportunity seriously enough to invest that kind of money. Remember, this was the day when a video-game company was essentially one man and whoever he could talk into donating some time in exchange for a nebulous future payout (Peter Molyneux, Richard Garriott, Sid Meier, John Carmack, Gabe Newell…few people realize that they essentially built their companies on their own backs, with tiny staffs and smaller budgets). It wasn’t until 1997 or so that things really began taking off for the PC, and when it took off, it took off in a big way.
So that’s where I expected to find myself, LG Optimus G in hand, as I waded into Google Play’s paid section for the first time in several years. After all, who take phone games seriously? Surely no one important is investing money into these things. I was wrong. My god, I was wrong. It appears that while I set my mental time machine for “early 90′s remix,” I had accidentally pushed the wrong button and it was 1997 all over again. It looked like some people in fashionably-cut suits suddenly discovered that investing in smartphone games was big money, and poured half the financial contents of the Cayman Islands into it. Here were huge names: Square Enix, EA, Rockstar, Inxile. Companies that I had grown up gaming with were all of a sudden pouring resources into smartphone gaming, and not just here and there, but in a torrent that looks like it’s only going to grow larger.
I was stunned. I did a double-take. I saw The Bard’s Tale (one of my favorite classic series of all time), clicked download, and disappeared for a week until my fiancé finally told me that if I didn’t pay her some attention, she would set my phone on fire.
Granted, there is still a lot of crap in the Android market. The democratic nature of the platform means that anyone, no matter how unscrupulous or shady, can make an almost exact duplicate of the top-selling games and release them as his or her own work. From what I understand, there is not all that much oversight on the Android market as of now. Moreover, as smartphone games begin to make even more money, expect to see an even bigger gold-rush, à la Facebook games, in the next year or so. Still, this is good news. For all that crap, there are some phenomenal titles by phenomenal developers in the market now, and more planned for the near future.
Even more encouraging, we’re starting to see prices begin to edge up on premium games. A Chrono Trigger, for instance, is on sale for $9.99, and Final Fantasy III is going for about $15. Granted, that looks more like Square Enix thinking way too highly of themselves and trying to milk as much cash from their former glory days as they can to offset the losses from the crap they’re pushing out now, but still. Bigger sticker prices mean more money in the smartphone game economy, which means bigger development budgets, which means (hopefully) better “real” games. Real games like the kind that you play because you are seriously engrossed in the world, or can’t get enough of the story, or actually care about the characters. A sharp departure from the “I have a 30 minute train commute, let me pass the time by cutting ropes/fruit/birds/whatever”.
My current phone, with a GeekBench2 score of 2262, is more powerful than the 4th gen iPad.
This is a game that, had I picked it up for my Xbox 360 3 years ago, I would have enjoyed, and I would certainly not have complained about the graphics. What’s more, the multiplayer experience actually seems to run smoother over a cellphone data network than many CoD matches I’ve been in on a land-line. Console developers are getting lazy, and cell developers know it.
All this is underscored by the performance potential in today’s top cell phones. My current phone, with a GeekBench2 score of 2262, is more powerful than the 4th gen iPad. It’s also just a hair less powerful than my laptop, which was a top-of-the-line gaming laptop when I purchased it for my birthday in 2008. Let me say that again: my phone, a handheld device that fits in my pocket, is almost as powerful as a 4-year-old top-of-the-line gaming rig. It’s only going to get crazier, as form factors blur between phones and tablets, batteries improve, and processors shrink in size. The recent introduction of quad-core chips, lead by the Nvidia Tegra family of chips, makes many phones more powerful than most budget laptops as it is. In fact, the quad-core Krait chip in the new Nexus 4, for instance, is rated at 1.5-GHz with a dedicated GPU with 2GB of RAM. You can still purchase a computer from Best Buy with specs worse than that, and there are already rumors of 2-GHz chips with over 4GB of ram shipping sometime this year.
For many people, the cell phone will suddenly simply make more sense as a gaming platform. Shortly after that, they will surpass mobile gaming devices for battery life and ability to render complex graphics. Sorry Vita and 3DS, your days are seriously numbered.
So, with all this said, is 2013 really the year that smartphone games mature? Is it finally time to ditch the PS3 for a phone? Well, not quite. For one thing, controls for phone-based games are still iffy, relying on a weird and not altogether pleasant mix of gestures, tilts, and touch that feels disjointed and unnatural. There’s also the fragmentation issue: with three major operating systems, and countless devices and setups under two of them, game companies face a challenge in building really wow-inducing games that work on all, or even most, devices.
Still, these are relatively small hurdles, and ones that we’ve seen game developers overcome before. Is 2013 the Year of Hardcore Smartphone Gaming? Maybe. We’ve got some great phone content coming out in the next month or so, and I think we’ll let it speak for itself.
You can buy the LG Optimus G at Amazon.com.