I have a confession to make: I almost never use any of my Android devices for gaming. If I want to play video games, I either find a truck to jump-start my ancient desktop computer or turn on my even more ancient Dreamcast. The fact that I’m terrible at touchscreen controls (and I am) is only part of the problem: there just isn’t enough innovation on the mobile platform for me to choose it over more traditional forms of gaming.
Want to play Shadowgun? Why, when I can play Gears of War? How about NOVA or Modern Combat? There’s Halo and Modern Warfare on platforms that are both more powerful and more mature. Asphalt 6? There are so many racing games of all styles and genres on the PC that I could literally never play them all.
The problem I’m hinting at here is that currently, most Android game developers are simply trying to recreate experiences that are already done better elsewhere. The only people who are really interested are those who don’t already have a gaming computer or console. And the gamers being targeted by high-end mobile games almost certainly do.
I’m not knocking these games. They’re good fun and technically brilliant. But they don’t give me anything I haven’t seen before. Say what you will about the likes of Angry Birds and Words With Friends, the current opiate of the mobile masses. But they’re simple, fun, and they use the mobile form factor in ways that couldn’t easily be translated to more traditional systems. That’s part of the reason I was so excited to see Super Monkey Ball finally make its way to Android – its decade-old gameplay lends itself perfectly to the mobile form factor.
Good grief, we’ve got devices in our hands with a hundred times more processing power than the computers that ran Doom, plus an always-on connection, high-resolution screens, integrated cameras, more sensors than a tricorder, and it goes anywhere. So why is it that the best that the larger developers try for is emulating gaming experiences that we’ve already seen a dozen times over? The obvious answer is to make money with some reflected excitement over console mega-games, but Android gamers deserve more than that.
And it isn’t as if there’s no innovation left in other platforms. Five years ago, Portal managed to steal the thunder of games with ten times its budget, despite having only so-so graphics and a single-player-only style that lasted only a couple of hours. Why? Because it gave PC and console gamers something they’d never experienced before. Minecraft has sold millions of copies because it translates the joy of Lego-style building into a digital landscape – much better, notably, than any Lego game ever has. This is what Android game developers should be aiming for, not seeking to emulate the latest in a long line of mediocre shooters.
For inspiration and gentle instruction, look to the Wii and the Xbox 360 Kinect. Yes, lots of the games out for these platforms are quick-and-dirty titles that are more gimmicky than innovative, but Nintendo and other developers have managed to use this new technology for gaming experiences that simply couldn’t be done elsewhere. And how much more so could this apply to the previously mentioned super mobile devices?
I don’t know what shape the mobile equivalent of Portal will take. Part of the luxury of criticism is being able to point out problems without necessarily having the solutions. But I know that there’s more out there than Angry Birds and shrunken versions of existing titles. So Android game developers, I charge you: give me something that’s fresh, and that couldn’t be done with a controller or a keyboard. Do that, and I’ll shout your names from the hilltops.