Looking at video games with carriage guards on could lead you to believe that, in spite of the surge of interest surrounding our newest consoles and the relentless growth of the indie scene, the mobile sector is in fact the high point of the industry. Atlus announced that they’ll be bringing the original Shin Megami Tensei to phones and tablets, the recently announced Tony Hawk title has been confirmed to be a mobile exclusive, mobile superstars like Clash of Clans and Flappy Bird are bringing in more money than can possibly be spent on developing such a simplistic title (or on time travel for that matter), and our own Stephanie Carmichael isn’t even close to running out of subjects for her Week in Mobile column.
But the merit of the mobile platform isn’t quite so cut and dry. For every Clash of Clans on smartphones, there’s a The Last of Us on consoles or a Minecraft on PC. Runaway success is not confined to the ostensibly casual platform, no matter how loudly the frankly embarrassing sales figures of Angry Birds may shout; rather, it can appear to be more likely and relatively more easily attainable with mobile.
Developing for, say, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One offers a few possibilities: 1) Falling prey to the homogeny that’s grown to plague console development and being critically panned as a result (that’s your Thief); 2) Option 1 but with the inevitable sales of a longstanding franchise backing it (that’s your Call of Duty); 3) Genuine innovation that furthers the medium and, often, give a genre a shot in the arm (Dark Souls, BioShock, etc.); 4) Releasing a title so desperately unplayable and poorly designed that it is immediately relegated to satire and parody without a second thought (that’s your NeverDead). It’s a foreboding (and egregiously simplified) proposition, but it’s one that every developer faces head-on and the reason we have such a colorful medium to turn to.
However, due to its infancy, pervasiveness, and the markedly minimized development costs therein, mobile development presents a far less daunting multiple-choice question. While it’s clear that there’s an interest in taking mobile in a more artistic direction, at present the platform is populated almost exclusively by 2D play flavored with destruction, beat-em-up action or platforming, and variously addictive puzzlers. Both are predicated upon the assumption that they won’t be played for great lengths of time and therefore not held to the same standards as Destiny, Watch Dogs and the like.
As a result—and this is particularly true for new developers looking to build their name and portfolio—mobile development can give the appearance of having two ultimately appealing results: 1) The unstoppable cash flow backed by the free time of the countless masses; and 2) Very little risk, amounting to, in the worst case, not being noticed. This can give the appearance of greater potential than can actually be realized.
It's 'Build Your Own 3DS'!
At the risk of demeaning the accomplishments and efforts of mobile developers, I’d suggest that the platform is not only simpler but safer than traditional console and PC development. It has its own bag of unique tricks, not the least of which is a predominantly touch-based interface, but from both a technological and creative standpoint, only so much can be packed into that small a screen and processor. Mobile games face restrictions that even handhelds would cower at, and will therefore likely never come close to matching the output or volume of bigger releases. No matter how much money they bring in or how many users they may have, mobile releases will almost certainly never hold a candle to the likes of The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect and so on.
That’s not to say the platform is to be ignored, of course. It’s a splendid means of putting games in the hands of otherwise disinterested users, and can provide the entry point that up-and-coming studios need. Equally importantly, as previously hinted at, phones and tablets are a remarkably comfortable home for the classics and rereleases of old and can bring much-loved titles a welcomed revisit. But when it comes to heartbreaking narrative, intricate gameplay and jaw-dropping visual fidelity, mobile isn’t the place to look.
I’d also argue that mobile development could do wonders for visual novels, but what do I know?