We see mobile games as cheap and simple because most of them are absolute trash. Clones of popular indie games, slapped together in a week with underpaid upwork devs and smothered in ads. The appeal of the mobile game is that it’s free to play but pay to have the latest skins or extra plays. The problem is that this turns into constant popup video ads for other games after each level you play, or totally locked content that would take months or years of play to unlock without paying for in game currency.
From 2014-2018 I competitively played a game called Marvel Contest of Champions. It is a mobile fighting game much in the vein of Tekken or Street Fighter but with much simpler controls. The characters are all Marvel super heroes that you acquire by opening crystals that contain a champion of some rarity. The common ones are 1-2 stars, then 3-4 stars. Five and six star champions were introduced over the years we played because of the economy of the game would cap play at a certain level.
Here is how it worked, you would create an account and the game would give you a few crystals to start and you would have enough 2 and 3 star champions to fight your way through the available levels. Then once you got to about level 10 or so you would need to start leveling up your champions with various in game components won during fights. The level up components could not be purchased with in game credits but the crystals could. You could go in and buy $100 worth of crystals and win a handful of 4* champions and easily finish levels that would unlock more in game components. It was a race to rank up your champions.
Our alliance of players would play every day, at least 4-5 times in order to finish group maps, reach event minimums, and all that. Playing in the alliance events cost in game components which meant you might have to grind maps and arenas to pay your share of the entry fee. Not doing an alliance event could cost your whole group rewards that they might have paid real money for the units to play. Some of our guys were spending $100 a week, and we were a casual alliance. As leader I had to make decisions to kick players from our group who so much as missed a few events.
If you asked me to pay $100 a week to play 3 hours of Skyrim a day I would laugh in your face. But mobile games are designed to be a money sink because that’s how they can afford to host their content and pay their bills as opposed to charging a flat fee upfront. A constant revenue stream allows them to pay devs to make lightning fast bug fixes and keep the servers running full steam ahead. This is what every free to play game has to do to keep it going.
The Season Pass
Then there are the season pass mode games that are free to play but instead of bombarding you with popups and ads they simply offer a shop with in game components, skins, or whatever that aren’t required to play the game but make the experience more enjoyable.
I don’t consider game passes as a form of subscription service because you only pay for them once in theory. If you don’t like the skins and coin amounts being offered for that season/month then you aren’t forced to pay for it. The ones I’ve bought before were for Magic Area back during covid when I was playing FNM online. That one gave me more packs and gems as I played and got me a few cool card styles. My kids like to save up money to buy a season pass for Fortnite on occasion when the skins are from something they like.
Many of the season passes can be bought with in game currency earned through vigorous play as well. The point there is you can still maintain a “free account” and have all the same stuff as the folks who drop $20 on the pass because they don’t have time to game all week. That and games with passes like this make it easier for the users to buy the specific skin/item they want for $5 and play casually vs being forced to grind 40 hours to get it and the game company and still stay afloat.
So that’s great for pay to play systems. But for most of the major gaming world, folks will pay upfront for the game to not be bombarded with bullshit like VBucks or ads for casino games. My oldest son got the new Zelda game for the Switch for his birthday which comes to a whopping $70. We realized after getting my daughter her own Switch Lite for her birthday that you can’t share games across devices (Keeping me logged into both won’t let them play games I bought in the digital shop.) So now we are moving from buying digital versions to physical because in three years he will be in college and we don’t want to have to repurchase games.
The Xbox lets us snake past this a bit, my account is the one with Xbox Live Ultra Game Pass. As long as my account is logged into the console, the boys can log into their account and play a game from my Gamepass.
Most of the statistics I see are lumping the Nintendo Switch with normal gaming consoles. This isn’t a correct grouping because the Switch is a mobile console solution. The Switch isn’t a phone, and “mobile” is defined as “phone”. You can use some app and controller peripheral to remote into your Playstation from your phone or computer, using the console as a server. Sorry if this get’s confusing as to the definition of mobile vs handheld gaming.
Why would Nintendo bother making a big beefy console and a lightweight handheld device when they could make a midrange handheld device that can play most things that wouldn’t otherwise require a custom gaming PC? It was clearly the right choice because were seeing now that there is going to be a shakeup in the console gaming world.
Electronic component shortages have wrecked the availability things like computers and vehicles. I only finally saw a PS5 in the wild a month ago and it’s been out how long now? Folks aren’t dumping money on custom PC builds the same way they were a decade ago. Laptops are taking over as many users main computers, specifically MacBooks, myself included.
If folks like me who use a MacBook or linux laptop for work and want to play a new game what are our options? Build a $5k oil cooled gaming rig? Absolutely not. We’re buying a console for an absolute fraction of that price that already connects to a monitor or TV. Both the Xbox and PS4/5 accept keyboard and mouse controls as well and many folks I know have their consoles at their desk instead of the living room.
Living Room Play
The TV in the living room is no longer the gaming screen. Not all games are family friendly or someone else in the house wants to watch a show or the baby is asleep. Even if you don’t have a house full of kids, thanks to the housing market you most likely have roommates who don’t want you hogging the TV for a Brawlhalla tournament.
This is where the handheld console shines. You can take it with you anywhere, to another room, to work, to school, on those things called trains I hear so much about – just like your cellphone but with the major titled games.
The Olden Days
I started with the original Gameboy, I still have it, yall know that. Yall know I have seven more that I’ve put lights and custom buttons in. This is my jam. My early teens were spent playing handheld games that I could play in my room and in the car on trips because 1 the GB games were cheaper than NES games and 2 my family wanted to watch TV in the living room. I could bring it anywhere and with a few batteries play it all day.
Same thing in college when I had my Advance and SP, I would bring it to class to play during long breaks in my schedule. My phone just had snake. But something else popped up then with Sony’s PSP. Sega’s Game gear was doomed from the start with it’s garbage battery life and price tag, but the PSP was a proper Gameboy Killer.
Unlit games from grey cartridges vs full color wide screen 3d gaming that could also play MP3’s and movies? Then it could stream games from your Playstation? in 2006! How did this not do better? Why aren’t we playing Elden Ring from our PSP Pro? Oh right, the iPhone…
Future of Handhelds
Mobile games have a stigma of being scammy garbage. By the nature of the current technology – battery life and processing power – mobile, tablet, and portable gaming is obviously limited to a level far below that of consoles and computers. For now. Until the hardware (or internet speed) catches up, mobile and handheld options still have to be developed with space and battery life in mind. Yes, you can stream from a gaming server (which was attempted way too soon, sorry Stadia) or your console, you still need the internet to do so which requires more than wifi if you leave the house. That will keep true mobile games in the app/play store for a while.
The Switch is an extremely early fix for this. While you still need wifi to play online games you can stay offline and play games from the SD card or cartridges like the GameBoy. Having the cart option is what makes the Switch a winner at the moment due to limited connectivity in some markets. But there is a limit to what games the Switch can play. Given its age there are phones with more power and higher rez than a Switch. But I can’t play the latest Zelda game on my phone. Nintendo keeps its user base thanks to exclusivity but I think it will need to step things up if it wants to stay competitive once the other hardware companies start making handheld devices for stronger games.
A new console is what, $600 plus tax? Then you have to pay $70 for games. Go to any game store and the place is void of most physical games. When I worked at EB Games in 2003 the store was wall to wall with back plastic game cases because there was no option to pay for and download the games directly to the console. Now the shelves of any game section are 5-6 main physical titles and a wall of little game specific gift cards to buy the title in the online store. The rest of the place is Naruto T-shirts and Funko Pops.
How much longer until you won’t need to buy the console either?
Stadia and Luna were a step in the right direction as far as streaming the game from a remote server but that requires an amazing internet connection, something not everyone still has these days and won’t have outside of a cell phone network for a while. So what do you develop for while waiting for the infrastructure of all mobile communication to catch up to the demand?
You make better handheld gaming computers.
Remote Play is the current Xbox/PC/Playstation answer to the Switch. For a few extra hundred dollars and a beefy phone you can stream and play your games from your console remotely. Your phone can’t run Windows (anymore, RIP Windows Phone) so it can’t run the AAA titles locally.
Enter the handled gaming computers:
- Steam Deck – Yall know this guy, Valve created a handheld device to allow users to play games they already own on Steam while away from their desks. It’s been around a bit but it costs more than a PS5 and depending on the game might last you 1-4 hours before needing a recharge.
- Anbernic Win600 – This one came out last year and It’s not as powerful as the Steam Deck but also doesn’t cost as much. It also runs Windows, or the Steam OS so if you don’t want to run Steam via Windows you don’t have to.
- Asus Rog Ally – This one is new, and has similar specs to the Steam Deck but uses Windows like the Anbernic. Battery life on this one is not super great but it’s a start. Because it’s Windows based you can play your Xbox Gamepass games or play steam games via the Steam app.
All three of these handheld gaming devices support docking to a TV in some way which just like this Switch turns them into mobile consoles. For those with limited internet or lack of cell service this is the best option in the next 5-6 years until that AT&T/Version coverage map is 100% solid. (And it won’t be for a while due to, yet again, hardware supply chain issues.)
Until Apple puts controllers on the sides of an M3 chipped iPhone and makes a deal with Valve the handheld gaming future is going to be with these portable gaming PC’s.
But, but, gaming laptops!
Now, I can technically play a game or two on this Macbook Air, but it’s going to last about an forty-five minutes and even as I type this in VS Code the little fan that could is getting ready to launch. You should hear it when I hook it up to my breakout cable and plug it into a keyboard, mouse, and monitor to play WoW at graphic settings from 2004. Laptops do not make good gaming consoles, they never have, especially for the money you’re better off investing in a stationary desktop computer. Don’t melt a $2k laptop when a $200 xbox can play the same game in its sleep.
When All Games Are Mobile
Can Microsoft and Sony keep the ads out of the games and keep player costs in check?
We have no problem paying upfront game costs for indie stuff on Steam. We’ll have no problem paying $20 a month to play stuff on Gamepass or the Playstation. We have no problem paying $70 every year to play the same FIFA/NBA/Pokemon games. And Pokemon sells you the same game twice! Every time! Paying up front is not the problem, clearing out the free to play with ads crap is the hurdle here.
Some of you die hards out there are still handing Blizzard $16 a month to play World of Warcraft.
Will there still be free to play games? I don’t see them going anywhere but I really hope the major AAA titles who know they can sell us a game upfront . (Looking at that Diablo phone game.)
I just hope the Switch’s example is enough to keep the “mobile game” mentality away from the upcoming handheld gaming industry should it really pick up like I think it will.
A Windows Phone is the future of gaming. Bring it back.