How Apple's iPhone changed the world of mobile gaming

Posted by Lydia Leavitt

Mobile gaming has certainly come a long way over the past decade from its early glory days of Snake on the Nokia 6110. 



Many in their mid-20’s still have fond memories of sitting in boring school history lessons playing the game under the desk, frantically clicking the two finger diagonal controls to get out of tight spaces and out-do each other's high scores.

It was all we could ever hope for, ever dream of, in terms of mobile entertainment, or so we thought at the time.

But then along came the next generation of Java powered games in - shock, awe - color.  Games like solitaire and Pacman, to while away our boring college lectures in geeky ennui.

A

nd, really, was there anything better to do while waiting for a bus or commuting by train?
 
Of course, mobile gaming was certainly not for everyone. In those days, even SMS was kind of new and not everyone saw any reason to want or need it, so playing games on a phone was pretty far out on the nerd scale. 



Phones were just that - phones. They made calls, they were something most people only bought to leave in their cars. It was as simple as that.

People already had smallish game consoles, like Nintendo’s GameBoy or Sega’s Game Gear but you could hardly call those “pocketable” and they were pretty limited in terms of function. 

Indeed, they couldn’t do anything except play games from oversized plastic cartridges.
 
It was actually Nokia which first came up with the idea of combing mobile phone and game console back in 2003 with its ill-fated N-Gage. The N-Gage was revolutionary in that it was a mobile phone with a PDA, MP3 player, radio and handheld gaming device all rolled into one clunky, ugly looking device.

Unfortunately for Nokia, aside from the unattractive aesthetics of the N-Gage, the device’s hardware and software were also both too bug ridden for satisfying usage and high pre-cell-activation price point was ridiculously high. 

Consumers just weren’t interested and the device was eventually killed off.

Then came the era of much improved handheld consoles from the likes of both Nintendo and Sony with its slick and impressive PSP portable circa 2004/2005.

This was all well and good but some of the nerdier among us wondered why manufacturers couldn’t simply come up with a way to combine these new sexy gaming handhelds with our mobiles and relieve our gadget load.

But one after another, the mobile manufacturers let us gaming aficionados down. 

The mobile phone just didn’t seem suited to the purpose.

Tiny screens, limited processing power and struggles with developers/publishers willing to work within such constraints meant that what usually emerged on handsets was either really badly converted from another platform - making games near impossible to play on such a small screen - or just plain rubbish and no fun to play at all.

To be sure, it was only when Apple’s iPhone appeared on the scene in 2007, ushering in a whole new era of smartphones, that mobile phone gaming came back into fashion.

Apple’s app store made it quick, easy and cheap to download a ton of nice looking, easy to play, addictive games without having to use fiddly USB cables or subscribe to an expensive subscription service.

Publishers jumped on the platform in their droves, releasing a plethora of games ranging from revamped arcade classics to brand new titles. Indie developers set up shop in their garage and made it their ambition to get rich off mobile entertainment. 



Mini games like Bejeweled were becoming not just popular, but a serious reason to consider buying an iPhone over other high-end devices. Gaming was finally starting to really take off.

Of course, hardcore gamers still struggled to find satisfaction on these mobile platforms.

The iPhone’s hardware could pretty much re-enact any game up to Wii level, graphics-wise but there was still insufficient processing power, pixelated graphics and clunky control systems to seduce the real gamers.

But while the gaming snobs turned their noses up at what they considered to be sub-par gaming options, the rest of the unwashed masses were getting hooked, with casual gaming seeing a true explosion over the past two years thanks not only to app developers but also social networking sites like Facebook and publishers like Zynga.

Meanwhile, PC gaming is dying a slow and painful death and consoles like the Wii are “dumbing down” the pure gaming experience, making it a family friendly and social activity, much more akin to portability and mobile.

Parents started getting hooked on mini-games while waiting for their commute into work. Stay-at-home moms are reportedly the single largest demographic for games like Farmville and Mobwars.

In fact, casual gaming has become an industry in itself, with some games boasting millions of players.
 
Of course, the recent launch of Apple's iPad and the new buzz over tablets certainly stirs things up a bit more as the small screen sizes of mobile devices are no longer a limiting factor in mobile gaming.
 
The beefier processor and dedicated GPU should also help to churn out better graphics, which in itself should inevitably lead to better games being developed as the hundreds of thousands of people who already game on the iPhone turn to tablets en masse.

Developers are already getting excited about the idea of hi-res, big-screen, touch-capable gaming on a mobile, always-connected, Internet enabled platform, but mobile gaming’s true success in the future will really be dependent on many factors, including whether the big game companies like EA and Activison will decide to really focus in on the emerging tablet space.

Angry BirdsBecause while Angry Birds is all well and good, there are still many who just want to be able to take their World of WarCraft experience with them on the go.

Whether tablets can truly bridge the gap between classic gaming platforms like the PC/console and the mobile remains to be seen, but whatever happens, this is certainly an exciting time to be a gamer, casual or otherwise.