Is there no proper way to make gaming-focused smartphone hardware?

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I love games. I’ve been playing video games and board games my entire life.

I don’t have nearly as much time as I used to have for gaming, and I have yet to pull the trigger on a current-generation console. But I’ve spent a lot of time and money on mobile gaming. And every chance I get, I like to break out a smartphone or tablet and get in a race or two, play a round of Phase 10, or if I have more time, get into a lengthy round of Catan on the iPad.

As much as I love smartphone gaming, however, the hardware never seems to provide the experience I’ve come to expect.

Games like Asphalt 8, Grand Theft Auto titles, and even the Modern Combat series are telling of the power and capabilities of smartphones, at least in terms of graphics and CPU performance. But there are some hurdles mobile gaming has yet to overcome: ergonomics, how awkward and inexact on-screen controls are, depth of storyline and character, and how engaging the entire experience is.

On more occasions than I care to admit, I’ve spent upwards of 10 hours in front of a television, completely encapsulated by the game I’m currently playing, how intriguing and suspenseful the storyline is, how challenging the gameplay is, and completely losing the sense of time and reality.

best-ipad-gamesgames-nexus-7I’ve spent hours playing mobile games, but usually out of boredom. Never have I found myself lost in the story or having trouble putting the game down. The very instant something more entertaining presents itself, my phone is shoved into my pocket and my attention is drawn elsewhere, whereas with console gaming, someone or my conscious has to peel me away from the controller.

A lot of that has to do with how much time – or a lack thereof – developers have comparatively put into the making of a game. Mobile developers generally sell their games for as little as $1 and $7, though a select few sell for as much as $20. Console games are almost always sold at $60, and generate a staggering amount of revenue. While the mobile gaming business is laughable in comparison, it’s a quickly growing force. And some developers are putting a lot more effort into the budding gaming platforms.

We can’t blame cutting a few corners to get a great time waster like DEAD TRIGGER on the market. People typically look for a game which is easy to pick up and put back down for mobile gaming. That’s sort of the reason mobile gaming even exists – to waste time on the go.

That said, some people want and expect more out of mobile games. The Nintendo 3DS, PSP, and PS Vita are prime examples. These very devices were created to try to capture the experience and gaming nature of their larger compatriots in ultra portable hardware.

To some degree, they did.

I owned the first two PSPs. Despite their shortcomings – such as a shortage of great titles and all the missing soul of the titles that did exist – I thoroughly enjoyed having and owning the devices and playing great games from practically anywhere.

That’s essentially how I feel about smartphone gaming. It’s great to know that I can, and that the hardware is capable of running impressive games. But for now and the foreseeable future, there is one, giant factor missing: great, gaming-centric smartphone hardware.

XperiaPLAY-ICSbetaThe much-rumored PlayStation phone caused a giant commotion throughout 2010. A smartphone with built-in gaming controls? Brilliant!

Turns out, that wasn’t the case. The Sony Xperia Play was – just weeks after its release, no less – one of the least memorable smartphones in history. Sony went about the process and hardware the entirely wrong way. The software and performance of the Xperia Play were atrocious. And the hardware itself was noticeably cheap.

Since then, there have only been a handful of attempts at creating great gaming hardware for smartphones, most of them in the form of add-on, Bluetooth peripherals. One of the most notable and impressive kits is the MOGA Pro, a Bluetooth controller which has an adjustable clip to hold the smartphone in place, just above the 360-like controller.

The setup for the MOGA Pro is simple, and for many games, it works out of the box. Some do require a manual mapping of keys. But, for all intents and purposes, the MOGA Pro is the best one-size-fits-all hardware controller for smartphone gaming.

Nonetheless, it still fails to capture the polish required for an immersive gaming experience. I’ve tried
all the best Android game titles – Modern Combat 4, Asphalt 8, Real Racing, Riptide GP2, etc. Even with turning all the lights off in a dark room with my ATH-M50s strapped to my head, the games fail to truly suck me in.

After about 10 minutes of gameplay, I’m ready to move on to something else. And, most of the time, it comes down to a lack of polish in hardware controls. The MOGA Pro is a very well-built piece of hardware, and it’s great at what it does.

gaming

But take Asphalt 8, for example. When you connect the MOGA Pro, Asphalt immediately recognizes the gamepad and switches to the custom control scheme, specifically made for MOGA controllers. When a race begins and the countdown timer hits zero, if you’re already holding the gas, the other cars will take off, while yours remains still. You have to keep revs up to launch, but let off the throttle for a split second and hit it again at zero to take off. Throughout the race, some controls will fail to work the first time you hit a button. An example: when you’re trying to brake into an e-drift, you hit the e-brake and press the joystick in the direction you intend to turn to get the car into a drift. Except, sometimes the joystick input fails register, so the car simply slows down and continues going straight. The split-second it takes to realize this, you’ve missed your racing line, maybe a few positions in the race, and probably hit a few cars or an invisible wall.

It seems silly to complain about something as petty as this. But it’s something I’ve felt for a long time.

The NVIDIA Shield was, by far, one of the coolest devices I’ve had a chance to get my hands on this year. We had to make an executive decision not to review it (which I’m still sad about), but the hardware and software seemed to work really well together. Playing Dead Trigger on a Tegra 4-powered device with OEM gamepad controls made for a pretty great experience. Its one, major caveat was the lack of compatible games. Oh, and its price was a tad steep for what it offered at the time of launch.

shield

But look at how ridiculously large and heavy the Shield is. Imagine trying to mimic that same, immersive, polished experience down even further into something pocket-sized. It doesn’t scale so well. Compromises will have to be made, and, unfortunately, those will inevitably be made in the form of one, very important thing: ergonomics.

Deeper, more meaningful and interesting games with developed story lines will come in due time. More polish will come, too.

The one giant hurdle to overcome is hardware. Touchscreen controls for just about anything outside platformers is a joke. Yet, devices like the MOGA Pro don’t always work as well in practice as they do in theory. Carrying around yet another device to play a few minutes of an occasionally fun game on the go isn’t exactly practical. The Shield is still possibly one of the most important devices for mobile OS gaming to date. But it does little to converge and marry full-fledged gaming with smartphone hardware.

Until someone figures out how to fill the controller gap on smartphone hardware, the games will continue to get better, while the experience inherently gets worse.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+