Some people in the media are convinced that mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablets are poised to dethrone home consoles as the kings of the gaming industry. On the surface (and with an out-of-context evaluation of numbers alone) this seems to make sense; smartphones and tablets sell much better than traditional consoles, their games are dramatically less expensive, and the ubiquity of wi-fi means that games can be purchased, downloaded, and played virtually anywhere. Taken at face value, the prediction that mobile devices will spell doom, or at least a significant malaise, for home consoles sounds like a no-brainer. And it is a no-brainer, provided that when considering the issue, you leave your brain at home.
What analysts and so-called industry professionals fail to take into account when forecasting the mobile Red October is that the essential experience of playing a game on a tablet or smartphone is nothing whatsoever like playing a game on a home console. My primary gripe about mobile games is that instead of using the platform’s strengths, too many of them merely attempt to emulate the console experience by shoehorning console mechanics into a tablet’s two-dimensional, screen-based control palette, which inevitably results in frustration for those of us who’ve played a console game or two in the past. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t great games available for tablets and smartphones, but those that come to mind — Infinity Blade, Puzzle Quest 2, Triple Town, Dungeon Raid, even Space Miner — are designed around the touch screen, not bolted onto it like a clumsy, thick-crayoned afterthought.
Take Deus Ex: The Fall as a prime example of a game that could have worked very well on a touch screen, but which falls significantly short of the standards set by its current-generation progenitor, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The Fall is a solid game in its own right, and comes closer than anything I’ve played on a mobile system to finding that elusive console-wannabe sweet spot, but its shortcomings can be attributed to the simple and inarguable fact that mobile devices, regardless of how much raw polygonal pulchritude they may be capable of generating, are not consoles.
I’d like to repeat that because it sounds…vaguely important. Tablets. Are. Not. Consoles.
While playing Deus Ex: The Fall, I discovered an important fact about myself that I’m not sure I ever would have known otherwise; my thumbs are not the longest digits on my hands. Therefore, when it’s necessary to shift my grip on my iPad 2 in order to reach the weapons bar or tool belt, I’m reminded that I am not, in fact, an orangutan, and I’m not playing a console game. (Orangutan aficionados need not respond with corrective commentary, thanks.) When I have to look down at the screen in order to discern which context-sensitive area to touch for a non-lethal takedown, I am reminded once again that I am not playing a console game. When I have to stand perfectly still in order to be able to simultaneously shoot and aim, I am reminded…well, you get the idea. In short, the words “console-quality” should not be used to describe any game for which the primary defining attribute is that it does not appear on a console.
While playing the console version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I never had to look at the controller in order to determine which button to press; I’ve been using variations of the PlayStation and Xbox controllers for 16 and 12 years, respectively, and I’ve basically got the layouts down cold by now. All games released for Android or iOS that claim to be of “console-quality” sport a completely unique set of controls that must be learned anew every time you purchase one of them — some games have fully customizable layouts, some use a stationary virtual thumbstick, some offer two fire buttons, and still others don’t let you customize anything. Of course every game has different controls, even on consoles and PCs, but each game that’s released on mobile platforms has an entirely different selection of buttons and input methods; by the mobile platform’s nature, there is no standardized A, B, X, Y or LMB, RMB, Space configuration that players have mapped to their brains for the last 20 years. On a tablet or a smartphone, where games are primarily played on mass transit, in the dentist’s office, waiting in line at the DMV, or on a lonely stretch of two-lane highway when you’re pretty sure that no traffic is approaching, that’s a pretty big deal.
Between the HUD, the virtual buttons, and thumbstick touchscreen areas in a game like Deus Ex: The Fall, nearly 30 percent of the screen is obscured by the player’s hands. That is not console quality, as I can see 100 percent of my TV screen while playing in my living room. And about those virtual thumbsticks — really, enough. Seriously. Dragging your thumb around the screen in order to look around was unique and fun in Epic Citadel three years ago, but nothing was trying to perforate your ass with six kinds of speedy projectile in Epic Citadel. This is not the case with games like Deus Ex: The Fall or Mass Effect Infiltrator.
Something that would have made Deus Ex: The Fall a truly unforgettable experience is if the exploration and resource gathering was done in real-time, but combat was done Fallout 3-style; a VATS-like, action points-based targeting and combat system would have ameliorated the frustration of having to look, move, and shoot (all of which are kind of important while playing an action-shooter game) using nothing but the touch screen, which leaves me one thumb short of a full good time. While it would require a slower, more methodical, strategic approach to combat, those of us who liked and used VATS in Fallout 3 would find it a welcome optional addition to games whose platforms necessarily limit their control options. Frankly, I’m surprised that more games haven’t implemented such a system in the five years since Fallout 3’s release.
Another essential aspect of console gaming that’s been ignored by self-proclaimed console industry mensches is multiplayer. No tablet or smartphone game, regardless of how pretty or sophisticated it might pretend to be, is going to convince 133 million Call of Duty players on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to drop their controllers and pick up an iPad or Nexus 10. (133 million represents the total number of all Call of Duty games sold across both platforms, according to VGChartz.) Fast-paced, reflex-based multiplayer gaming cannot be duplicated on a mobile device using only a touch screen for input without sacrificing some elements of the gameplay. You know, like aiming, moving, and shooting all at the same time.
By their very nature, tablets cannot — and will not — replace or seriously threaten the sale of home consoles; those who support the console and PC industry, the previously mentioned-in-this-space “core” gamers, cannot be won with tricks, gimmicks, shallow mechanics, and sub-par control methods. (See: Wii. Wii U.) To claim that since more mobile platform games were sold this year than last year, and fewer console games were sold in the same period, it means that mobile platforms are cannibalizing consoles sales, disregards cause and reeks of sophistry.
Who has asked why there were fewer console games sold this year than last year? No one in any of the articles that I’ve read. Who has asked whether it’s customary for a console generation’s sales to drop off during its final year of exclusive activity? No one. Who knows what will happen when the pressure in the tablet bubble equalizes, when people grow tired of slinging birds at pigs and seek something more sophisticated to regulate their gaming fever? You guessed it.
Incidentally, this was not intended as a rant against Deus Ex: The Fall; it’s a good game that could have been great if its controls were better integrated with the platform for which it was designed, but that’s the case with many games these days. If you’re a fan of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and you’ve got an iPad 2 or later iOS device somewhere within your reach, you could do much worse than to give Deus Ex: The Fall a try.