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Opinion: Why smartphone gaming is broken, and how it can be fixed

When people talk about smartphone gaming, they mean one of two things. Either they’re talking about cutesy, time-passing puzzlers like Angry Birds or Cut the Rope – something quick and challenging and perfect for the bus. Fret not, casual-game developers; I’m not here for you. I’m after the “high-end” stuff, the spin-offs from the big name PC franchises or re-releases of the PlayStations and N64s of yore, showered with cash, spruced up and polished to a shine and ready for you to enjoy all over again. While the Dead Spaces and the Rages of the App Store are as good a go at PC-games-on-smartphones as we could ask for, be honest: would you ever take them over their proper, big-screen releases for an evening?

Currently, despite the marketing blurb, there are no hardcore games for smartphones. That’s because most PC and console games aren’t even suitable for hardcore gamers. Hardcore gaming is like any other all-consuming hobby – it’s an altar on which to lay all of your free time in a prayer for great reward. A hardcore Call of Duty or Battlefield fan will play for hundreds of hours in online multiplayer, unlocking rewards and upgrades that developers know most people won’t even after months of solid play. Then there are the massive single-player experiences, the Oblivions and Fallouts of this world, which are so rich with content and dynamic storylines that fans play them through two, three, four or five times over, at fifty hours a playthrough. There just isn’t anything like that available on a smartphone yet, and with good reason: nobody wants to play for hundreds of hours on a 4-inch mobile display.

The problem is that developers for smartphones only have today’s PC and console gamers to draw on for inspiration for their own pocket-sized products. Hence every clunky first person shooter that appears on your 4-inch smartphone boasting about its amazing graphics and environments. Except, of course, when you come to play the game, none of these things are amazing, not in the true sense of the word. No-one who plays Rage or Nova 2 on the iPhone is ‘amazed’ by the graphics, because the graphics look just like PC games did ten years ago – and for as long as they aspire to the PC and console standard, smartphone games will forever be judged by this invisible yardstick.

But I’m not saying that smartphone developers should give up and just go back to making Angry Birds clones. They just need to tailor their games to fit the medium. Think it can’t be done? Check out the iPhone game Papa Sangre, so totally original there just isn’t a handy genre pigeonhole for it yet. The developers were clearly aware of the limitations of the medium; they looked at the iPhone screen and said “nope, that’s too small to be an effective story-telling tool, so let’s not use that. What else is there?” and that’s when they, in the scenario I am constructing in my head, they happened upon the new binaural, directional sound functionality of iOS 4. “Well, we can’t make things look awesome,” said one to the other, “but we can make stuff sound great. Let’s base something around that.” And so we ended up with this atmospheric, darkly charming and nerve-jangling little game that you can play without even looking at the screen. And that’s why it’s the best game on the iPhone.

So why not expand on this idea? Why should gaming necessarily be a visual pastime at all? Just because PCs and consoles put the visual experience ahead of everything else, doesn’t mean that gaming in general needs to be visual-first. Why even accept the idea that gaming needs to be stationary pastime? There are practicalities that PCs and consoles have to adhere to: they’re heavy, require a wall socket and a TV or monitor before you can even start to play anything. That’s not the case with smartphones, as a very limited number of treasure hunting apps have shown us.

Take the upcoming “Zombies, Run!” fitness training app that sets jogging routes through your city and then awards points for avoiding a virtual horde of pursuing zombies. The big console developers have all taken a stab at making gaming physical by releasing motion-sensing peripherals, but for serious gamers, they’re gimmicky, much like the PS3’s Sixaxis control. But a physical game that took gaming off the telly and into my street and town? I’d play that. How about an audio-based survival horror game you play in the local woods? Or a Destruction Derby racer you play on the motorway? OK, not that last one, but the point still stands.

The phones we carry about with us aren’t just phones anymore; they’re personal computers that easily outperform the PlayStations and Nintendo 64s many smartphone owners grew up on. But however good Sony and Nintendo’s intentions are releasing golden oldies on their App stores, they’re sailing the good ship mobile in the wrong direction. What we need now are some more brave developers to take a gamble, chuck out the PC and console school of game design and start building games from scratch for mobiles. After all, you wouldn’t play Call of Duty on a checker board.

In the meantime, show some love to Papa Sangre and Zombies, Run!. Think we’ve missed out on a mobile gem? Let us know in the comments below.

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