You’re taking the train to work, you’re sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, you got to the place where you’re meeting your friends too early. You need to kill some time, so what do you do? You reach into your pocket or your bag, and you pull out your smartphone or tablet and play a game to pass the time. Widespread proliferation of these devices has made mobile gaming a viable time-killing option for most people and has led to the rise of mobile gaming on devices that aren’t dedicated handhelds.
But this type of mobile gaming is starting to get more serious. The hardware is beginning to evolve, and it’s tailored to gaming. The question is, will it be enough to eliminate the need for dedicated gaming handhelds all together?
Dedicated gaming handhelds aren’t completely irrelevant yet, but they’re not nearly as popular as they used to be thanks to the competition from gaming on mobile operating systems like Android or iOS. Nintendo’s current-gen handheld, the Nintendo 3DS, for example, has only recently hit 19 million total sales worldwide since its release in February of 2011, and that’s under ideal conditions; game selection has vastly improved after an abysmal launch lineup, while Nintendo also issued a price cut after poor initial sales. The PlayStation Vita, meanwhile, has sold a paltry 2.2 million units worldwide as of the beginning of July; the Vita was released last December.
But one of the major factors keeping these handhelds in the game is the fact that they have ideal hardware and controls for playing video games, something that smartphones and tablets are lacking. It’s true that the appeal of gaming on smartphones and tablets is high since nearly everyone has one (or has access to one) these days, and many of the most popular games can be downloaded for free. But the greatest knock on this type of mobile gaming is that these devices can be woefully underequipped for certain types of gaming given the fact that they have very few (if any) physical buttons; and even then, they’re not always conveniently placed to serve as gaming controls.
Without proper, physical controls, certain genres like shooters are out of the question (though not for lack of trying; there are plenty of crummy shooters out there that attempt to get by on horrible virtual controls). As a result, most mobile games — and nearly all of the best ones — are relegated to having simple controls and being relatively basic in concept (e.g. Words With Friends, Angry Birds).
So with the rise of gaming on mobile operating systems, some hardware manufacturers are attempting to bridge the gap. By providing hardware that’s better-equipped for gaming, certain companies are creating a whole new world of possibilities for gaming on mobile devices, including innovative and more complex types of games that we’ve never seen perform (at least not well) on devices like smartphones or tablets.
Take, for instance, the Wikipad, and Android tablet that comes with an attachable set of physical controls. The 10.1-inch Wikipad slides into the sort of U-shaped frame of the controls, which include everything that you would find on a standard Xbox 360 controller: two analog sticks, a d-pad, four face buttons, start and back buttons, two triggers, and two bumpers. Not only is this control scheme preferable to using touchscreen controls, its implementation is relatively seamless, as it’s compatible with any Android game that has gamepad support. (The mere fact that there are so many Android games that have support for external gamepads is proof in and of itself that Android gaming is being taken more seriously and, as such, calls for more legitimate controls.)
Support for the Wikipad is a testament to the benefits of such a product; Wikipad CEO James Bower has said that it is working with Unity and other game engine companies to ensure that their games support gamepads. The device will also be compatible with Sony’s PlayStation Mobile service, and support for Gaikai on the Wikipad was announced earlier this year. Bower has commented in the past that OnLive support was a possibility, but given the recent developments surrounding the cloud service company, that seems questionable now.
One could even point to the Xperia Play as a relatively successful attempt — at least in execution — to provide a proper set of hardware to promote mobile gaming on devices other than dedicated handhelds. Admittedly, it was not a huge success critically or commercially, but the reason it failed had little to do with the physical controls. In fact, the general consensus was that the slide-out gamepad was good for gaming, while the drawbacks of the device revolved around poorly implemented software, confusing (i.e. multiple) storefronts for games, and a meager selection of titles that supported the controls; the Xperia Play shipped with only one PS One game and the storefront for PS One games was not even available at the time of launch.
There are other companies that are looking to capitalize on the popularity of this mobile gaming including Razer, which is currently testing the waters with its Project Fiona concept tablet. Though it has not decided whether or not it will actually bring it to the market, Razer knows one thing for sure: that gamers need a legitimate control scheme. Like the Wikipad, Project Fiona also sports two thumbsticks on grips that jut out of the sides of the tablet, but it’s somewhat different in that it has eight face buttons (four under each thumbstick) in addition to the triggers.
With Project Fiona, Razer seems more enamored with the tablet form factor aspect as opposed to the mobile OS side of things, as it runs Windows instead of Android, giving it access to a wider variety of games. It may seem like a daunting task to run legitimate PC games on a tablet, but the rest of the hardware is no joke either; though Razer has been tight-lipped about the specifics, it is supposedly powered by an i7 processor and can run Skyrim on ultra-high settings.
Where gaming on smartphones and tablets goes from here depends on how devices like these fare. There’s no denying that the popularity of gaming on mobile devices is growing, and that it makes sense given how widespread the device adoption is. Even Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said in a recent interview with Kotaku, “I don’t think that opinion is completely nonsensical,” in reference to those that argue that gaming handhelds are past their prime due to the popularity of gaming on “a device that you’re always going to be carrying with you at all times.” But until we see a manufacturer achieve critical and commercial success with a physical control scheme that’s merged with devices like smartphones and tablets — though the works of Wikipad, Razer, and even Sony suggest that that time may come soon — there will always be a place for handhelds.
For more coverage, check out the rest of our Gaming Special Report.