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The Great Disparity of Handheld Gaming

As a young man-child, I wouldn’t go far without my trusty sidekick, the Gameboy Color. The ability to play games anywhere was some kind of witchcraft, but allowed me to succumb to the temptations of gaming without needing to be glued to a TV. Of course, you needed to stay out of direct sunlight and have an ammo-belt of double As but it was such an incredible experience.

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 Gameboy. Tetris, a game that is often crowned as the best game ever made, also gained its success on the Gameboy. The handheld market, although not as technically advanced as the home console one, wasn’t to be ignored.

Not long after starting 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 as to not be charged 20p for two messages. That’s right kids, messages were 10p a pop! There was, however, an amazing part of owning a mobile (namely a Nokia) 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 scores – who enjoys talking to one another anyway? Snake was a bare-bones game. It looked poor in comparison to “real” games and the gameplay equalled that of trying to draw a weird ‘S’ thing without removing the pen from the paper. Fundamentally it was an incredibly simple game but something about it was enticing. Whether it was down to the novelty of playing a game on your phone, the playground rivalry or the fact that raw gameplay sells I’m really not sure, but it worked.

As time has gone by the mobile phone has cocooned 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. You’d think that but somewhere along the line, the magic has been lost.

The smartphone era has brought with it the application and it wasn’t long before 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 just. Gameboy 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 Gameboy but the price point fell completely short. It’s worth noting that by this point handheld gaming had evolved too. The Nintendo DS and PSP were commonplace now and both offered 3D. Maybe this had a bearing on the price but the extremity in difference was strange.

I remember purchasing Angry Birds for 69p. 69p! That’s around about the price of a Freddo nowadays. 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 various sequels, license deals and a damn film made about it. With Angry Birds being a huge success it’s no surprise that others followed suite but this is where the downfall of the mobile game starts.

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 vast knowledge. Any Tom, Dick or Harry could make a game, I should know. The beauty of the accessibility of building games for mobile is incredibly enticing, particularly for those who want to make a quick buck. The problem with this, however, is that the “see what shit sticks” approach has completely tainted the app stores.

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 in my opinion, it works well. You play the game for free, spend a bit of money if you’re enjoying it. Plenty of mobile games have adopted this pay model, whilst poorly implementing it. 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.

Because of this, the mobile gaming scene has massive negativity attached to it. More often than not if the gameplay isn’t hidden behind pay walls you’ll be faced with an onslaught of advertisements. All of this has built a stigma for mobile games, regardless of their quality or indeed method of earning money. 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 them to be completely removed from the scene, but you can’t deny someone their income. Ultimately these are the sole reasons for the negative feelings towards mobile games but it’s the implementation of the tech rather than the tech itself. Just because it’s there it doesn’t need to be used, or indeed abused. 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 for me. 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. Here is a game that has had a massive impact at no cost to the user playing it.

Unfortunately, the app store is in a bit of a rut now. On one hand, you can push out a free game with optional in-app purchases. Or you can sell your game for a fixed price. The problem with the latter is that the mark was set extremely low back when games first surfaced on the platform. When a game is released for say £8, it causes an uproar because why should we pay for mobile games?!

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. Now whilst I personally felt the game was a little disappointing, and the thought of shelling out £8 left a sour taste in my mouth, it shouldn’t be the case. The problem is, the games themselves are worth the price and probably worth the price of old handheld games, but the damning nature of pricing models has skewed the value of otherwise decent games. Contradictory to my thoughts on Mario, I know.

The problem now is that if a developer wants to build a high-quality game, they may as well release it on PC or a console, at a higher price. Accessibility of the platform is high but at a cost of the value of the game. That only leaves the other games, the ones with in-app purchases and adverts. It also means that we’ll probably never see handheld quality games on a mobile anytime soon, it’s simply not worth the investment. And that in itself is a major problem as I’d put my money on mobile games outliving handheld ones.

There is a lot of generalisation in this post so I want to state that the app store isn’t all bad, there are some credible games out there! Unfortunately, they tend to get swamped by Candy Crush and Flappy Bird clones.



Written by Kieran McClung (who doesn’t have a writers account yet, which is why it says Jonathan Markwell at the top. Don’t be fooled). Kieran is on the twitter at @kieranmcclung

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