Eric Johnson

Recent Posts by Eric Johnson

Are Mobile Games Ever Going to Get Serious — And Do They Need To?

joker angry birds why so serious

Even for this newbie, one thing was no surprise at E3 last week: The focus was on the bigger — and purportedly, better — games that will be coming out for Xboxes, PlayStations and Wiis in the coming months.

For the most part, these games have a few things in common, including budgets, long production times and premium prices, and they’re made for the TV screen. To gamers, these characteristics help distinguish the “serious” games from the “casual” ones.

But a handful of recent and more sophisticated mobile games is blurring the once easily drawn lines between what could and could not work on mobile. It’s still too early to say, however, whether these are exceptions that permanently undermine the old axioms, or just exceptions that prove the rule:

  • The highest profile mobile game at E3 was Halo: Spartan Assault, a top-down shooting game for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. The sequel (or technically, midquel, since it takes place between the Xbox 360 titles Halo 3 and Halo 4) is the first Halo game that won’t be on an Xbox console, and it’s potentially a big draw for users who’ve been reluctant to try Microsoft’s new touch-based operating systems.
  • In a similar vein, Firaxis is getting ready to release XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iOS devices on Thursday. Unlike Spartan Assault, though, Enemy Unknown is not a new title. The well-reviewed strategy game was first released for Windows, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in October 2012, but Firaxis is promising that — apart from some simpler textures and a few removed maps — the mobile version will be identical to its progenitor.
  • Meanwhile, Kixeye is testing the waters of mobile after building a profitable enterprise on free-to-play strategy games that live in one’s Web browser. Backyard Monsters Unleashed, a special mobile-optimized version of Kixeye’s popular Backyard Monsters, already soft-launched in New Zealand and is coming soon to iOS users in Australia, Canada and the U.S.
  • Less well known than strategy games, but no less important to the hardcore audience, are multiplayer online battle arena games. The most popular MOBAs, like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends, have lived exclusively on PCs. But Jason Citron’s Fates Forever, a tablet-first and tablet-only entry in the genre, is planned for release sometime this year. In a recent demo, Citron emphasized how the brawling characters’ attacks are designed with the touchscreen in mind.

So, why can’t we say yet whether these games are actually harbingers of a trend?

For one, it should be pretty clear from that list that the genres that are both hardcore- and mobile-friendly are a bit siloed right now. There are first-person shooters for mobile platforms — including Dead Trigger, Gameloft’s Nova and Brother In Arms series and Ben Cousins’ The Drowning. But when gamers talk about shooters, the conversation is still all about the next big console titles, like Battlefield 4 or Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Part of the problem here is that it’s not clear that the mobile games industry needs to change, at least not right now. Mobile is undeniably a disruptive force for game developers and publishers, but not because it’s stealing hardcore gamers away. The audience segment that prefers mobile (and, for the most part, casual) games includes people who never would’ve called themselves “gamers” five years ago.

And if you’ve never played the serious stuff, then what’s fun is just fun, regardless of how it fits in with the history of ever more powerful hardware and more complicated games.

As the saying goes, everything old is new again.

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