Smartphone games now look as good as what you can play on PS3 and Xbox. Will they ever replace them?

Gaming as we know it is changing. And it’s not a tiny change: it’s a whopper. One, Johnny Minkley, is sad to say, that may in the short term spell bad news for console gaming; but it’s good news for the only device you carry with you at all times. No, not that novelty Mr. T keyring (“Quit yo’ jibber-jabber!”). The other one: your phone.

And this is why we love it. As we love everything mobile. Especially mobile gaming.

As Johnny says (strangely on the Red Bull website – Red Bull maker of many mobile and very clever augmented reality mobile games) “Virtually every day I read a hardcore gamer moaning about how mobile games are rubbish and the only true, manly, decent way to play a video game is with a proper controller in your hands.

Well, I heard exactly the same line of argument for years from the type of hardcore gamer who would snottily claim console games were rubbish and the only true, manly, decent way to play a video game was with a mouse and keyboard.

If there is such a thing as a ‘hardcore gamer’, then I suppose I am one. I’ve been locking myself away in dark rooms for well over a quarter of a century now (for the good of society at large), waggling joysticks, bashing buttons and clattering control pads from the 8-bit days of home computers through to the console era of Sega, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

If the day comes when I can no longer play a gorgeously designed, thrillingly complex video game perfectly designed for a twin-stick control pad with a million buttons, I’ll sulk so hard my face may collapse until I look like Sylvester Stallone.

Most of my favourite games – from FIFA, Call of Duty and Trials, to Uncharted, Street Fighter and Mario – simply could not exist without the precision afforded by a controller with physical buttons and analogue sticks.

But here’s an inconvenient truth. It’s actually likely that these types of blockbuster experience will, over the next five years or so, stop being the biggest thing in gaming and become a bit more of a high-end, niche thing for the truly dedicated.

In other words, exactly what happened to arcade machines in the ’90s. And we’re seeing it already: the big publishers are making fewer, bigger console games. Which is fine, as long as the ones that do get released are top drawer, right?

Good. Which brings me back to mobile games. You see, while everybody’s been arguing over the future of consoles, the leap in quality from what you could play on a smartphone three years ago to what’s around today is so ridiculously large it might not have fully registered.

You can get bogged down in the boring details of polygon counts, types of shader and lighting used etc., but to your average non-hardcore gamer, an iOS title such as CSR Racing or Real Racing 3 looks as good as anything you can buy on PS3 and Xbox 360.

I’m clearly not arguing that either of these games, via a touch screen device, will offer an experience of the depth of a console game. But that’s not really the point. The debate has so far focused on the belief that phones can’t do blockbuster games. The evidence now – we’ve all seen Infinity Blade, yes? – suggests that is emphatically not the case.

The best games are those best tailored to the gaming hardware. Games on smartphones and tablets, whether iOS, Android or Windows Phone 7, now look as good as current-gen console titles. And who said they had to play exactly like them to be brilliant in their own right?

The immediacy and accessibility of a mobile game will never be a replacement for a trusty joypad. But rather than see it as a lame compromise, maybe it’s time to accept that phones offer a gaming experience home consoles can’t.

The best argument against smartphone gaming should be dedicated handheld games consoles such as 3DS and PlayStation Vita. Indeed, it was only last week that I wrote about the second coming of Sony’s technically wonderful portable.

Vita is a peerless handheld gaming device and I desperately hope it succeeds for that reason alone. But iPhone has already succeeded – and Android is catching up – because the nature of these machines is that you will carry them everywhere at all times. Previously, the problem for the core has been that the games on them are mostly lightweight, throwaway stuff – but, as CSR Racing, Infinity Blade et al show, that criticism no longer holds water.

Let’s be clear. I don’t want to play Halo on a touch screen. Nor the next Gran Turismo. But now the technology is good enough, I’d like to see the teams behind these great games really get stuck into the idea of mobile and see what they can come up with.

And I’m sure it’s going to happen more and more. CSR Racing? Made by some of the guys behind the stunning Split/Second. And which UK studio closed yesterday because the console biz is in such a tough spot? Sony’s Studio Liverpool, which made WipEout.

So, what have we learned? That big budget, blockbuster console games might become less relevant in the coming years to the ‘mainstream’, but playing games with a bespoke controller won’t disappear any time soon.

And that, as much as some may sneer, mobile games are no longer the poor cousins of Xbox and PlayStation software. Indeed, as millions are experiencing right now, they could well, in the days, weeks and months to come, even be the daddy.”

Amen to that – amen to that.


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