Mobile gaming has come a long way in the last 20 years. Increased processing power and secure internet connections have opened up our phones and tablets to a wealth of games that now rival those played on consoles and PCs in terms of graphics, playability and sophistication. Indeed, mobiles are now considered the main growth market for games developers, who can now reach a far wider audience than dedicated console users. Plus, the mobile format has seen games evolve in a particular way to suit the platform’s distinctive needs, as we shall see.
We can trace mobile gaming back to the very first handheld console games, from Mattel’s electronic football and racing games in the 1970s to the Atari Lynx, Nintendo Gameboy and Sega Game Gear that all appeared around 1989/90. Games on our phones really began with Snake, which was first released on the Hagenuk MT-2000 in 1994.
Two years later, Snake was pre-installed on most Nokia phones which certainly helped its popularity spread, and also helped Nokia to become the best-selling mobile phone brand of the nineties. While this game was incredibly primitive by today’s standards, and also by comparison to the console games of its day, it was undeniably addictive and proved a massive hit.
Phones get smarter
What you have to remember is that the mobile phones of 1996 were nothing like the smartphones of today. They were just phones: clunky, chunky and with a minimal data allowance, which was fine as back then hardly anyone was even on the internet. In those simpler times, Snake- an ever-growing, wriggling line that you had to try to control without crashing into the many obstacles- was considered the pinnacle of hi-tech diversions.
The next major mobile game was one that is still played today. Tetris hit mobile phones around the turn of the millennium, having already traveled from arcade game to hand-held consoles and then onto the iPod. This all-time classic then diversified into hundreds of different app-based variations.
When we talk about mobile gaming as we know it today the story only really begins with the first smartphones that arrived around 2007 and 2008. Apple’s iPhone 2G had a more powerful graphics engine than the first PlayStation, and when the Apple App store opened in 2008 a wide range of simple, addictive games were made available for the format.
The app revolution
The app store also provided an important platform for independent games developers to create innovative games based around a simple, original idea and get them to an eager audience. Crucially, these mobile apps sold not just to the hardcore gamers who owned consoles or optimized PCs, but to a huge and growing demographic of ordinary people. With this massive previously untapped audience suddenly available competition became fierce, which in turn meant the quality of the games greatly improved. It also meant that free to download became the norm.
The Android operating system arrived in 2008 with its own app store (Google Play) that sold downloads compatible with a wide range of different smartphones. Angry Birds and Words With Friends were representative of the first wave of dedicated mobile gaming, simple puzzle-based games ideal for whiling away a few snatched moments, or for playing repeatedly on a long commute.
As internet connections improved, mobile users found that they could play online bingo from their phones, and traditional games made an internet-based comeback. These pastimes had a proven appeal and were already familiar to an older generation of mobile users who hadn’t grown up with arcade or video games. The chance to win real money also had an undoubted appeal.
Improved technology and memory capacity also meant that more console-type games were being developed for mobile platforms. Plants vs. Zombies (2010 and Temple Run (2011) were early examples of this trend, while the strategy game Clash Of Clans was the big hit of 2012. The same year saw the emergence of a new puzzle game, Candy Crush, that would go on to corner this market segment, appealing to players of all ages and backgrounds.
Another major milestone arrived in 2016 with Pokémon Go! Pokémon as a phenomenon was already decades old, but its iconic status as a part of many nineties childhoods actually helped the Pokémon Go craze spread like wildfire. Using the GPS tracking technology in mobile devices, Pokémon Go sent players running round streets and parks, battling and collecting the creatures that would appear on their screens as though they were physically present.
We are now at a point where mobile gaming is really going to explode. The technology is available and so is the audience. For many developers, mobile gaming is the future, and with 5G and VR just around the corner, the possibilities are infinite.