Waiting for the mobile core gaming revolution

by Phil Owen

N.O.V.A. 3Mobile gaming is a great thing. I am a big believer in the phone as a major gaming platform. And it is a major gaming platform. The NPD Group revealed this month that for the first time ever, there are more mobile gamers than core gamers right now, which means there are more people playing games on their phones than there are playing games on their Xbox 360s, PlayStation 3s and PCs combined.

There is no denying the appeal of mobile gaming at this point in history, and so I won't even try. People like that they can pick up and play these games anywhere, and for a short amount of time if they so desire. Mobile gaming doesn't have the same time requirements that core gaming does, and these games are easier to figure out how to play than on an Xbox controller. Even a game like N.O.V.A. 3, which apes core games, only has three buttons with which to deal.

Some obstacles remain

There is a debate within the gaming world about whether or not mobile gaming can ever truly replace core gaming. I think that, yes, it is possible, but not if mobile game development continues the way it is now.

Modern Combat 3Phones these days have some truly amazing graphical power, as demonstrated by a lot of Gameloft's catalog. They've got the Modern Combat, Gangstar and the aforementioned N.O.V.A. franchises, along with the recent Dark Knight Rises game, looking great and really pushing the hardware. These games, which cost a tenth the price of their console counterparts, feel like real games that core gamers can latch on to.

But very few other games, outside of those produced by Electronic Arts, carry production values that rival what Gameloft puts out, and that's because the price points for mobile gaming are so low. At the high end, you have Square Enix selling old Final Fantasy games for $15.99, but most everything else is under $7. Plus, games like Modern Combat sell only a small amount compared with the most popular mobile games. Most of the folks who make mobile games simply don't see the point in making an investment in high-definition games.

And so we find ourselves in a world in which our shiny new phones (I bought a Galaxy Nexus this year) are nearly as powerful as an Xbox 360, but we don't have enough games that really take advantage of the hardware. Most of the games I play on my phone, in fact, could run on phones that are several years old. That seems like it would make commercial sense – the wider your potential audience, the better, right? But think about this: in the three-and-a-half months since the release of the Galaxy SIII, it has sold more than 20 million units. Samsung, with its line of powerful Galaxy phones, has a higher smartphone market share than even Apple. The install base for some really high-end games really is there.

Are hardcore gamers being left behind?

The reason there is a debate about mobile gaming taking over from core gaming is because the core gamers don't feel as if mobile developers are making games for them. Sure, there are the previously mentioned Gameloft and EA games, but when people think of mobile gaming they think of simpler titles Iike Angry Birds and Bejeweled. Arcade-style games are not the overwhelming focus of the mobile world, and the people who enjoy Mass Effect, for example, don't see what they're looking for in a game in the mobile sphere.

The Dark Knight RisesEA, which is primarily a core gaming company, is investing in mobile games because they're hedging their bets. If mobile gaming does take over, they want to make sure they have a piece of it. The reason we don't have more games that push the phone tech to the edge is because other core games companies aren't going there, and that's likely because they don't want to sell content so cheaply. But that's leaving mobile gaming in a hole.

Until a much larger portion of the mobile gaming market consists of console-quality, AAA-level games, we won't see a rush of core gamers to this platform as consumers or as small time developers. If only more developers would see the low price points of mobile games as an advantage: on average, a core gamer buys one big game a year, but they could buy many games at a lower price.

What it comes down to, though, is that most of the companies that would be able to put real money into mobile development simply don't want to do it. They'll probably come around. How long it takes for that to happen is anyone's guess, though.