Why is the Xperia Play the only gaming handset on the market?
I remember it distinctly. It was a few years back now, when the specialist gaming press and various tech websites first caught wind of something exciting brewing over at Sony Ericsson. With a codename of Zeus Z1, it appeared to be a gamer's wet dream - an Android-powered, top-end mobile phone with slide-out PlayStation gaming controls. It got a lot of people very, very excited indeed. Mobile gaming was already big business, and a PlayStation phone was the holy grail, the ultimate evolution of gaming on the go. It was a logical, natural and brilliant idea, one that had been whispered about for several years prior, and something that had the potential of redefining the mobile gaming landscape.
And, for various reasons - most of which we've already covered in some depth previously here on this site - things didn't turn out quite how Sony Ericson hoped. It's even possible we may never see another gamepad-equipped phone from Sony again, but that's by the by. What I want to highlight here is that, for whatever reason, the Xperia Play is in a market of one. Leaving aside some obscure Chinese knockoffs and the risible Nokia N-Gage, it seems quite incredible to think that, in all of Human history*, there has only ever been one truly cohesive stab at the gaming phone concept.
And it's not as if handset makers have been overly cautious or conservative designwise, either - Nokia in particular have pumped out some pretty whacky form factors over the years (the Nokia 6820 being a firm favourite of mine). And in a sea of seemingly identical big-screened, buttonless smartphones - where everyone is looking for their own unique USP - you would think that a need to differentiate yourself from the pack would be paramount. As it currently stands, though, it doesn't appear that any other handset manufacturer is busying development of its own gamepad-equipped phone any time soon. This seems almost completely at odds with the stunning, exponential growth that has taken place in the mobile gaming market over the last few years, made even more perplexing by the extrapolation of that market in the short to mid-term, which could even see it worrying music industry execs. The big question is, if mobile gaming is that big and looks to be getting much, much bigger, where are all the game phones?
It's a difficult question to answer, and one without any one overriding reason. Maybe it boils down to us hardcore gamers not being
numerous enough to make a dent in the iPhones and the Samsung Galaxy S's of the world. For right or wrong, good or bad, mobile gaming has become synonymous with simple, cheap, pick-up-and-play stuff. The market is merely supplying the overwhelming demand for the casual cotton candy that is popular at the moment, and this isn't a criticism - if that's what gamers want, then market forces take effect and hardcore gamers - who are very much in the minority - be damned.
The thing is that the Angry Birds and Doodle Jumps of this world are eminently playable on a smartphone bereft of any physical controls; these kind of games may rely on some rudimentary on-screen buttons or tilt-screen controls, but that's often all that's required. In these cases having an old-school physical gamepad adding bulk to your handset seems like an unnecessary anachronism, and indeed it is. But that been said, it is implausible to imagine the next Zelda or Final Fantasy epic being unravelled before our eyes using such a form factor; we all have past gaming nirvanas that have entailed hours of sweat and toil and discovery that have culminated in moments of pure unadulterated gaming joy. We can all think of moments that have left us wide-eyed and dumbfounded, and such revelations have always come at the expense of one's social life.
That been said though, it is equally true that I haven't had an equivalent Eureka moment away from my PC or console. That's not to say I've not had fun with mobile gaming - I'm currently insanely addicted to DrawSomething, along with everyone else. But a tiny 4-inch screen with small, tinny speakers (that most of the time realistically have to be turned down almost to mute to avoid stern looks from the family) simply don't lend themselves to the kind of gaming highs I've described, and the reason is the same as for the consumption of any media quite frankly. The Godfather I and II are considered amongst the very best movies ever to have been made, for instance, but would I consider my first viewings of these masterpieces to be on a handheld device? I don't think so. I'd be breaking out my 80-inch projector screen and setting up my DTS 5.1 surround sound system as that comes the closest to what it was designed to be played on. Equally, if I want a transcendent gaming experience that will blow me away, it would be more appropriate to use more traditional form factors - a mouse or a controller perhaps, coupled to a hugely powerful console or PC, displayed on a large, widescreen monitor or television. Oh, and a SubWoofer.
Touch & casual games are ruling the smart phone world. Drawsomething is the latest obsession and all you have to do is... draw!
If we are being bluntly honest with ourselves, proper hardcore gamers are not going to get their kicks from mobile games, and I don't just mean iPhones and Xperia Plays, but 3DS's and PS Vita's too: all the ingredients may be there, but shrink it down, cut it into the five-minute bite-sized chunks that you get during trips to the loo and during commercial breaks, and it just loses its drama, continuity and sense of scale. A proper, hardcore gaming experience will often involve a serious investment in terms of time while you ride that learning curve and perfect the game dynamics, and this isn't something amenable on a device with an ephemeral, short-lived battery that you break out during those brief pregnant pauses of daily life.
And yet while I write that (and internally acknowledge it, albeit somewhat begrudgingly), I stubbornly come back to the justifications I used upon myself to rationalize the purchase of my game phone in the first place. The fact is, though I do have pre-existing outlets for proper, full-fat gaming epics on my PC and PS3 respectively, I also have a need for a casual quick blast when the mood strikes me and time allows too. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor does one dilute the other. That being said, I don't want all my mobile gaming experiences to be of the Fruit Ninja variety too, as good as it is. There's the MAME emulator, amongst other things, as well as OnLive and some more leftfield old-school conversions, and a ton of other stuff with plenty of depth if you're willing to invest the time. That being said, when you consider that there are more mobile phones than people in the UK, you quickly come to realise that the average Joe hasn't a clue about video games and thinks the gaming market begins and ends with Where's My Water. Close, but no Cigar. But whatever we as hardcore gamers think of that, it would be churlish to deny the impact this has had on the mobile gaming market.
Even the revolutionary Minecraft failed to create a buzz with mobile gamers. Despite huge interest from PC Gamers.
Now I'm not saying for a minute that the reason the Xperia Play isn't in every other household is because the UK is a nation of gaming Philistines, far from it. The UK is the cornerstone of the global gaming development scene and punches way above its weight in this respect, much as it does in the music industry. That being said, everything has its place. Much the same as I wouldn't have a true grasp on Da Vinci merely by seeing some thumbnails of his paintings on Google image search, I have to be realistic and accept I'm not going to get lost in an hours-long, titanic battle against an AI driving a 90's McLaren around Suzuka on my Xperia Play either. A sense of perspective is required. The gaming market has matured, broadened, evolved. It encompasses people of any age, many of whom never considered themselves gamers, and this was always going to have an impact. Like it or hate it, this is the age of the casual gamer. This might be a temporary aberration, it might not. But for 99.9% of us, a phone with just a touchscreen and a gyroscope is all that's needed. And it's for this reason we aren't seeing a litany of gamepad-festooned mobiles about the place. The market for such things - despite the evidence - is surprisingly thin. This could - almost certainly will - change in the future, but for now we are forced to play the waiting game. Eventually a lot of these casual gamers are going to want more, and someone is going to step in and give them some real buttons to mash, but that time is not yet. Well, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon - sooner rather than later in fact, given the current pace of mobile technology. But today, mobile gaming is ruled by the casual gamer. A more perfect example of this cannot be found other than in Rovio, makers of Angry Birds. A flyaway little title, they have made so much money from it that they have Disneyesque expansionist plans: theme parks, movies, the works. There really is a mountain of gold to be found here, and sooner rather than later some handset manufacturer is going to get the balance right and clean up. Just when that is, and who does it, is anyone's guess.
* Well, not ALL of Human history obviously - I'm not suggesting the Ancient Greeks had mobiles or anything. Well, having said that, there was that Antikythera mechanism thing they found on that shipwreck, so given they had access to computers back then I wouldn't be all that surprised to discover that Aristotle was a fan of Call of Duty: Ancient Warfare...