Critics eager to wail over the dismal drop in console sales— a cataclysmic 21% in 2012—should take pause. While the jury is still out, it’s safe to say that this figure simply reflects the current mobile (r)evolution that affects how many people do just about everything, not just play games.
Indeed, Americans are still spending over $25 billion a year on games; a growing proportion of that figure reflects on consumers who are making the transition to pay-to-play downloads and online subscriptions for mobile devices (this is in addition to the untold number of free downloads that gamers are as well, despite the deluge of freebies).
How is this mass migration changing the nature of the games themselves? Two words alone serve to illustrate a dominant chord in the world of mobile-centric games: Angry Birds. Love or hate this zeitgeist of addictive toon angst, you have to admit it’s no flash (animation) in the pan. If we’re to believe one of Rovio exec’s estimates, the world spends a collective 200 million minutes per day slinging their furious feathered onscreen avatars pig-ward.
Angry Birds is such a perfect symbol for the most popular phone games because it has all the elements that you can see in other breakout hits. Instead of the labyrinthine narratives and complicated mysteries we associate with state-of-the-art console games, phone games tend to manifest a set of more simplistic features:
Simplistic, easy-to-digest goals. You are a good cat out to thwart bad dogs (or vice-versa). Zombies are everywhere: avoid them. Save the girl (or guy, even). Or so on. In other words, the new breed of mobile games presents challenges you can understand just from taking one look at your touchscreen.
An endless array of levels. Whatever your objective may be, chances are you’ll be doing it over and over and over. Rather than resolving in a big, splashy Hollywood movie climax (a la many console titles), mobile games give you the satisfaction of small victories at the completion of increasingly difficult stages.
Old school graphics. As powerful as your Smartphone may be, its small screen doesn’t give much room for nuances. As a result, handheld apps are populated by cartoon heroes, primitive icons and keep-it-simple retro-chic.
The reason for these factors is that mobile gamers spend a different kind of game time. Rather than long, dedicated hours in the den, smartphone players seek games that can be played on-the-go, with the possibility of many interruptions and distractions. To wit, if your gaming life is something you do between subway stops, this is hardly conducive to solving the new Bioshock.
This transition is not only affecting the way designers are programming, but also expanding the demographic of users beyond hardcore gamers. Since you don’t have to go out of your way to download Fruit Ninja or Doodle Jump—and maybe because it’s easier to keep your gaming habit a guilty pleasure on a phone—mobile games are wrangling in new kinds of audiences, including senior citizens.
Another development of the level-oriented, low-res nature of mobile games is the return to first-generation console and even classic arcade titles, such as Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong—games whose very nature lend themselves to Smartphone translations. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a deluge of more cheesy rip-offs and bootlegs than you can find on Canal Street, with obviously tweaked titles such as “Krazy Kong” and “The Legend of Zenda”.
Even cross-platform and multi-player games like as Modern Combat reflect a similar Smartphone-logic. While devotees of said games may find the back-to-basics addictive repetition of the average app game less than stimulating, they still seek the option of jumping into—and out of—a game from any location.
As with anything else in cyber world, it’s inevitable that mobile games will morph into unexpected and increasingly sophisticated forms; however, it’s probably a safe bet they will continue to accommodate the legion of avid players aiming for fun on the run.