Do Controllers Make Mobile Games Less Mobile?
The idea of the smartphone as a major gaming platform kind of snuck up on me. I was a sales rep with AT&T when the iPhone 3Gs — and with it, the App Store — launched. Like many other gamers I knew, I kind of scoffed when I heard Steve Jobs call it a no-joke gaming system.
Now, a little over four years later, and I don’t know a single person who carts a 3DS (or any other portable game-focused hardware) with them to work or school, and the newest so-called portable system runs Android and works as a phone. Though he was only talking about his own platform, I think it’s fair to say Mr. Jobs was correct in his claims about smartphones changing gaming.
The format makes for a lot of really cool games. Where earlier titles might have included a phone’s tilt sensor or maybe included their own small social gaming aspects, today’s developers use everything at their disposal: Contacts, Facebook friends, media players, GPS.
This is why the emergence of Bluetooth controllers confused me at first.
It still does, I guess, but I can rest a little easier knowing that I have a moral standpoint on it. Yes, I’m that big of a dork.
Let’s take a look at the (semi-) recent release of GTA III on the Play Store. Here we have a title that in no way, with or without custom controls, seems touchscreen friendly, and for the most part it very much isn’t. Playing it on a tablet’s screen is sort of okay. On my phone (a relatively gigantic Galaxy SIII), it’s impossible. I spent twenty or thirty minutes bumbling around the game’s starting missions — missions I know as well as the layout of my childhood home, dammit! — before quitting in disgust. Subsequent attempts ended the same way.
Then I got a bluetooth controller. Things improved a lot, though finding a way to prop my phone up was kind of a pain. On the tablet, the game was fun, responsive, and without my ham hands blocking half the screen, visible. It ran even better on my phone’s smaller (yet much higher resolution) screen.
There are other games like this, too. My most recent experience was with League of Evil, a game that probably requires a controller for enjoyment more even more than GTA. If you haven’t played it (and you totally should), imagine the twitch, techy gameplay of Super Meat Boy, only played on a controller with about half the accuracy (and none of the tactile feel) of a traditional device. If you haven’t played either, well, I can’t help you.
As you can imagine, it’s a nightmare. Then, you add a controller, and everything’s great. It’s a game that (in my opinion) goes from unplayably difficult to sleeper hit with a $30 addition.
To the point: Should this be necessary? My first thought was to say no — an opinion that showed in my original score of League of Evil — but the more I think about it, the more okay I get with the idea.
Smartphones have spawned a number of subindustries. They’ve also revitalized the idea of the indie software developer. Anyone with a good idea and a basic understanding of programming can make some money, which is a huge change from the days where SEO, word of mouth and luck were the only things feeding some smaller operations. The flexibility of the devices, like we talked about above, makes it so any combination of basic features can make a one-man garage act into a Fortune 500 business.
Because of this, as well as advancement in hardware with each new generation, game developers have all kinds of options: Older and so-called “casual” games have a perfect venue for their pick-up-and-play philosophy, while more advanced titles can run under specs that would have looked impressive in a desktop tower not ten years ago.
My point? Mobile games fit, and sell in, every format. It’s like printing money. As much as services like Steam help the indie developer,almost everyone has a smartphone, especially as compared to the number of people who use a PC to game. The democratization works both ways: If we don’t like a title, we don’t tell our friends, we don’t click in-game ads, and we (maybe) avoid the developer on the future. If we do… we do all those things. Or we’re a lot more likely to.
If a game developer wants to make a game harder (or impossible) to play on a touchscreen, why should I care, especially when the Play Store allows me a refund within a set amount of time? If the title’s selling, good — it’s more money to a platform that has indeed changed gaming. If not, the developer’s unlucky, or they’ve released a substandard game. Voting with dollars and all that.
To the same end, it doesn’t matter that I, personally, would rather sit down in front of a console or PC to play a game with a controller. I couldn’t imagine whipping out a game and controller on the bus, but games like GTA III and League of Evil selling shows that there is a market.
Smartphones are designed for flexibility. Whether you need a level for a carpentry project or a lunchtime diversion, there’s something to help you out. If your personal enjoyment of your device requires a peripheral, awesome. Even better? It’s possible your hobby has enough support to make someone else money doing what they love.