For many, combining the words mobile and gaming elicits an image of a some kid catching Pokémon creatures on his Nintendo DS or maybe a guy playing a game of solitaire or Tetris on a flip phone. And those kinds of pursuits may well be just the ticket while you're languishing in your doctor's waiting room. But there's far more afoot … or, rather, at hand in the world of mobile gaming these days.
What's on Your Phone?
First of all, it's important to note that all things mobile have been growing at an amazing pace. Marketing firm mobiThinking reports that the worldwide phone subscriber base has bloomed to over 5.3 billion people. That's a whopping 77% of the whole world. And the gaming industry is salivating at the possibilities of what those cellphone users might be doing on their little devices.
I remember attending the E3 gaming conference just a handful of years back and privately snorting over a seminar leader's vision of social networking phone games. He also foretold multiple cellphone gamers linked together through Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and even this newfangled 3G network some were touting.
Silly me. Silly snorting me.
Now that stuff's all the rage. And the sheer volume of people playing on their phones is actually threatening to eclipse the console-anchored crowd.
The latest smartphones and tablets—iPhones, iPads, the Androids and Blackberrys—have nearly as much processing and gaming power as one of those stationary boxes you hook to your TV. And along with all that high-tech muscle, they also have download access to just about any kind of game genre you can imagine—including sports, racing, action/adventure and even shooters of a sort.
Of course, simply calling these downloadable titles games shows you how last year I am. In the mobile parlance, everything's an app. And there are literally tens of thousands of gaming apps available. So for the balance of this article, I will dutifully review each and every one of them.
Strike that! Don't abandon ship quite yet! How 'bout I just take a brief look at a handful of super-popular apps to see what they offer? Does that sound more manageable?
Top Girl > Putting a paper doll spin on tech is a dress-up and date game called Top Girl. It's all about fashion, modeling, shopping, boys and clubbing. Therefore, it's a vacuous little trifle that presents players with a Barbie doll-like avatar who's all but delirious over the outfits you buy her. And why shouldn't she be? Upgraded clothes make her look "hotter" for better and better paying model gigs.
When you aren't strutting her stuff, filling her virtual closets or picking out new hairdos, it's off to the club where you can get a drink and start interviewing guys to be your personal arm candy. (A single kiss starts the relationship.) The goal is to keep upgrading to better, handsomer, richer sugar daddies who can eventually gift bigger and more expensive bonuses.
Not exactly the best way to teach little Sis about dating, I'd say.
Angry Birds > This is a puzzle-solving "shooter" game with an inexpensive price tag that sets up a simple storyline: Some upset flightless birds want to get back at a group of egg-swiping pigs. And since those oinkers hide out in a variety of wood, metal and ice houses, players need to slingshot the birds at the structures, trying to knock everything down.
It's a time-filler in the vein of Tetris, only instead of building things up you're trying your best to find the weak spot and bring them tumbling down. Gamemaker Rovio reports that on various handheld devices this puzzler is being sought out at the rate of 1 million downloads a day. Pull. Aim. Release. Repeat. You'll hate it if you can't stand the idea of somebody flinging birds at buildings. You'll love it if you can't stay away from those carnival booths where you shoot the ducks.
Another popular twist on the theme, Hungry Cats puts the shoe on the other paw and pits flying cats against some house-sitting birdies.
FarmVille > According to gamasutra.com, the big dog on the current top-grossing mobile games list is FarmVille. If you're a Facebook guy or gal you probably already know about this one. Created by Zynga as a free Facebook game, this time-based app lets you build up a little farm and raise penguins (along with other more common draft animals) while planting everything from apple trees to cupcake bushes.
The app connects a user to her Facebook account where she can access an already established farm or start out from scratch plowing fields, harvesting crops and buying tractors. All it takes is a little virtual seed and some spare time. Now, if you're scratching your head and wondering why someone might keep playing a seemingly unchallenging plant-and-wait game, the answer is "rewards" and "social networking." In fact it's a pretty addictive formula. The game rewards you with virtual coin and special items if you regularly check in to keep watch, and it gives you even more bonuses if you can get your friends to join in.
If you're the anxious type who doesn't want to wait for things to grow or just can't stand the idea of your farm not measuring up to cousin Harry's spread, you can always trade real cash for the virtual lucre. And here's where Zynga can zing ya. It's how, with a bunch of "free" games, the gamemaker has reported earning $90 million in profit so far this year.
Of course, FarmVille isn't the only app out there exploiting that casually lucrative formula. I tried another popular one called Tap Zoo which was very similar but with a build-a-zoo twist. Instead of selling your crops to earn coins, you gather the cash from the virtual public as they check out your blossoming critter collection.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit > If you're a racing fan, Electronic Arts wants you to feel right at home behind the wheel of your phone with a series of apps based on the popular Need for Speed franchise. The particular version I picked up makes the gamer a policeman who must chase down bad guys and render the roadway safe for citizens.
With a few swipes across the touch screen and some strategic tips and turns of your motion-sensing smartphone or tablet, you can be revving your very favorite speedsters to victory, knocking crooks off the road and unlocking upgraded cars.
Optimized specifically for smartphone displays, it really is pretty incredible how clean the graphics are on these games and how detailed the cars and tracks can be. But it should also be noted that with this type of phone racer there's quite a bit of crash-and-crunch activity.
Storm in a Teacup > What would a collection of games be without mentioning at least one good platformer? Storm in a Teacup is one of the most prevalent platform apps out there. This game features a little guy in a teacup who must maneuver his craft, flying saucer-style, over frowning storm clouds and other cutely stylized obstacles.
Designed like a child's cutout sticker book, the game has a simple two-button movement mechanic that's easy for any age. And all the charming saucer-skimming, key-finding fun is accompanied by a whimsical underscore rife with harps, flutes and vocalizing children.
Tomorrow in Your Hands
Almost all of these games have either a multiplayer or at least a social network connection available. So if you've got a hankering to connect with a long-distance friend and pit your best skills and scores against his, it's as easy as giving your favorite app a tap.
If you're in the mood for some of the big boy MMORPGs on your phone though, you'll have to wait. Games such as World of Warcraft haven't yet been translated to cell territory. Of course, if you're reading this even a year after I wrote it, you'll surely be chuckling about how out of date that statement feels. Never mind that I can't for the life of me imagine how a lunch break or shopping trip with the wife could accommodate that kind of network-connected time-gobbler. An all-day grind at the DMV, on the other hand, or three years of waiting for rescue on a deserted island might suit it just fine.
Clearly the experts believe that the little powerhouse connected to your belt or stashed in your purse will continue to be the wave of the future. "The majority of the population are going to be casual gamers and casual gamers are not really that willing to play their games on the PC," says Jeffery Jiang, the director at multiplatform gamemaker Touch Dimensions. "Everyone has mobile devices so it's the logical shift."
Which means that the current formulaic money-makers and 99-cent puzzlers are only the beginning.