March 26, 2011 Since the launch of the iPhone, touchscreen iOS devices have become a much more powerful force in the market than many people anticipated, and with a new iteration of the world's favorite handheld launching tomorrow in the US, we thought it'd be a good time to examine Apple, the current "new guy" on the portable gaming scene. Four members of the RPGFan team have written up their thoughts on the state of portable gaming today, what we like (and dislike) the most about iOS gaming, and what we'd like to see happen to the platform in the future. What do you think? Let us know on our Facebook or Twitter pages, or right here in our very own forums.
I have to admit that I've never been a portable gaming guy. The idea of playing games on a small screen didn't appeal to me when I had a big TV and better graphics and sound coming from my console games.
That said, I did buy a GBA SP back when it was the current Game Boy. I thought it looked pretty, and I sometimes had to travel by plane for my job, so it gave me something to do while traveling, although I didn't travel that much, so I didn't use it to play many RPGs. However, this all changed in 2005 when I got a new job downtown and had to do a lot of commuting. 1 hour train ride in the morning, 1 hour train ride back after work. That's 2 hours a day that I had to fill, and this is where portable gaming became an important part of my gaming life.
In recent years, I've been splitting my portable gaming time between the DS, PSP, and iPhone, so I've had a chance to play a bit of everything on all the systems. The DS has a bigger catalog of RPGs, but I tend to prefer playing RPGs on the PSP because of its graphical advantages as well as the better music on most games. The DS feels a little dated to me, and I hate that they keep trying to make all kinds of 3D games on it. It's just not that suited for 3D, in my opinion. As for the iPhone, it's a very convenient option. I always have it with me in my pocket, so I use it as a "backup" gaming device for when I don't have my DS or PSP with me.
As far as upcoming devices are concerned, I have to say that the Sony NGP has more of my attention at the moment. The 3DS just feels too gimmicky for me, and I prefer the higher specs that the NGP will offer. I get the impression that the 3DS will once again feel dated when compared to its competition.
In my day job, I'm a business traveler, and as a gamer with just a work laptop and hotel TVs four days a week, portable systems are my best friends. I've got them all, and as long as I'm on the road, I'll keep buying new systems. I love my DS, my PSP, and my iPod Touch, and I've already preordered a 3DS... even though I'm not dying for any games in the launch lineup. Silly, I know.
All three current-gen systems have their own strengths and weaknesses. The PSP is far more powerful than the DS, although the iOS devices probably have them both beat on that front. Understandable, given the age gap between the three. I'd say that the DS has the strongest lineup of games, and its two screen approach has provided some design opportunities not available on any other system.
As for the iOS devices, their greatest strength (at least in the US) is their ubiquity. They are everywhere, and no matter which one you've got, an internet connection is the most you need to "go to the store" and pick up a game whenever you like. I also like the fact that my iPod Touch is so portable – even more than the DS and PSP. I can truly slip it in my pocket and carry it there all day without problems. Aside from price, that's the main thing that holds me back from getting an iPad for gaming – I just wouldn't be able to cart it around with me 24/7.
Looking to the future, my impression is that the 3DS will essentially play as a prettier DS. Sony's NGP, on the other hand, looks to combine the best points of the PSP hardware with the iPhone's nice, big touch screen. My only fear is that developers will feel the need to cram in uses for all of its gadgets, the way that early DS developers did. The rear touch-pad, in particular, seems like a feature that will be uncomfortable to use.
I love my DS Lite. I still get plenty of mileage out of it and there are some games only available on the DS platform that I am happy to shell out money for – games like 999 which take advantage of the dual screen in a way it couldn't on any other device.
That said, the iPhone has completely trumped my DS Lite as my portable console of choice at this point. It's a simple matter of convenience – if I can carry one device that allows me to make calls to home and work, listen to my music library, and play games, why wouldn't I choose to utilize valuable pocket real estate for that device instead of one devoted to gaming only?
Obviously, it's not a binary choice. I could get bigger pockets, cram the DS in, or simply carry a bag. But in the end, I find it's simply more convenient to grab my phone and my keys on the way out the door and leave the DS at home.
When Thoreau said "Simplify, simplify," he probably wasn't talking about gaming, and he almost certainly wasn't talking about portable electronics. But the iPhone allows me to do it – at least by simplifying my pocket clutter.
Throughout my entire video game-playing life, one thing has remained constant: I choose my gaming hardware based on the games available. When Final Fantasy VII came out, that's when I needed a PlayStation. Since the PSP had an armada of great RPG titles (Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics, Star Ocean 2, etc.), I had to get a PSP. And so on. But I never bought an iPhone for the games. To me, it wasn't a gaming device when I got it – it was a phone. At least for a while.
Given the opportunity to try out a few RPG titles for the iPhone, I quickly found that it was a perfectly good device for gaming... so long as the software is good. My first few iPhone RPGs were Puzzle Quest, Crimson Gem Saga, and Ash, and when the games are good, the iPhone as a device is good. However, when the games are bad, the negatives about the iOS devices (ergonomics, app switching, etc.) become glaring.
Even with all of the games being developed for iOS these days, I still feel that the quality of iOS RPGs (as a whole) is inferior to the quality of many PSP and DS RPGs. Will this continue to change as more and more developers port games to the platform and develop original games for it? I hope so.
I love the fact that I don't have to carry a PSP with me if I want to play a video game while I wait in a line or am stuck and bored somewhere. Like many people, I always carry my iPhone with me. I don't always have a PSP or DS in my back pocket. Being able to play real, good games without hauling another piece of hardware around with me is the main reason why I play iOS games.
What do I like best about iOS games? This is an easy question, but the answer has to come in two parts. First, I love the price point. I'm much more open to spending $5 to try a game I may not have given a shot to if it were a $30 retail title. If I don't know what to make of Disgaea Infinite, I might take a pass on it rather than risk $30 on it. But if I've never tried a new IP or style of game and it only costs me $5 to download it to my iPad, I'm far more likely to give it a shot. That means it's more likely these days that I'll buy a game and find that I don't care for it, rather than encountering a new favorite, but at least it doesn't cost me an arm and a leg.
The other thing that I like best about my favorite iOS games is they make good use of the platform. Point-and-click adventures are a revelation on iOS devices. You can really point-and-click, making navigation a snap. Games that are modeled to have pick-up-and-play gameplay, the ability to play iPod music tracks, or take advantage of the touchscreen in an intuitive way... those are the games I want to be playing on my iPhone or iPad. Give me new IPs and games that require less precise control over shovelware and hasty ports any day of the week.
To me, the biggest advantage the iOS platform has over other portable gaming devices is the price point of its games. There are games I've played on the iPhone for 99 cents that I would have been pleased to pay $20 for on the DS. Nintendo's CEO Satoru Iwata may not like the direction games have gone due to these price points, but from a consumer standpoint, I seem to remember these same arguments from Sony and Microsoft about the Wii, and in the end, I simply ended up with more games for less money. I call it a win for gamers.
I'm very torn when it comes to iOS gaming. I have an intense love/hate relationship with the device. On the plus side, I love that it's very portable and that it's always on me. I don't need to worry about bringing it with me when going somewhere, because it's also my cell phone, so it is always with me. I also love the fact that it's a pretty powerful device, so the graphics are very nice and clean, with a higher resolution display than the DS. Also, and perhaps the most important factor, it's dirt cheap to play games on iOS and it's very easy to access and buy those games.
On the negative side, the iPhone isn't very ergonomic for gaming. I never really feel as "comfortable" when playing a game on the device as I do with the PSP or DS. The headphone jack always gets in the way of holding the device correctly, and it's so small that you don't really have that good a grip on it while playing. My other major gripe with the platform is the battery life. The device drains way too quickly. If I spend my 2 hours of commute per day playing games on it, I drain the battery almost entirely before the end of the day. With the DS or PSP, I can almost go a week before having to recharge (8 to 10 hours of playtime).
I also can't stand playing games with a virtual gamepad. The lack of "feel" while controlling your character just hurts my enjoyment of the game. It's just so difficult to control, and you always have your fingers blocking half the screen, since you're controlling the games on the screen instead of a separate input device. Obviously, not all games have this problem, but it's one of the big reasons why I can't get into any RPGs that involve virtual gamepads, such as the various action RPGs available on the platform. In my opinion, the biggest strength of iOS gaming resides in games such as graphic adventures or turn-based RPGs (and strategy RPGs) that don't require fast action and precise control. So far, I've used the iOS mostly for graphic adventure games such as Broken Sword, Secret of Monkey Island, and Scarlett and the Spark of Life. I feel like this genre is perfectly suited for iOS gaming, and this is why I'm currently using my iPhone as a gaming device.
I really enjoy gaming on my iPod. It's the main reason I bought the device, and it has more than lived up to my expectations. I love the creativity it seems to have brought out in developers, which I attribute in part to the reduced costs of making games and in part to the accessibility of making an iOS game. Sure, there's plenty of crap out there along with the good stuff, but the community is pretty vocal, so it's usually easy to avoid terrible games. And if you end up having a bad experience with one, you're usually out just a few dollars, so it's easier to take a risk on an iOS game than on games from other platforms.
The iOS has also been a great thing for fans of point & click adventure games. I've gotten to play some of my old favorites, some classics that I missed out on, and a few great new games. And there are plenty more that I haven't played yet, but I look forward to doing so. Hopefully, I won't let this second chance slip through my fingers. I had an excuse before – as a kid, I didn't have the budget to get every game out there. These days, with the price of iOS games being what they are, there's nothing stopping me but the time to play what I buy.
The platform also offers a big chance for developers to innovate, particularly in terms of control, and there are a few games that really take advantage of it. Chaos Rings' "wherever you put your thumb down" virtual joystick and Infinity Blade's swipe-based combat are two examples that jump immediately to mind. Rimelands is another innovative game I enjoyed, because it steps outside of classic gameplay with its on-screen dice rolling mechanics. There are plenty of great games that aren't particularly groundbreaking, but my favorites tend to be those that are.
I'm excited for the release of the upcoming port of Final Fantasy Tactics, because I'd really like to see SRPGs in that style on the platform, but I haven't found any yet. There are some games similar to Advance Wars (including one using the Transformers G1 characters), but that's not quite what I'm looking for. Song Summoners is closest to what I want, but I played the original click-wheel version, and I preferred it over the touchscreen version. Somehow, it still feels like an iPod Nano game.
On a completely different subject: LucasArts, do you have any idea how much money I'd pay for Grim Fandango or Full Throttle on my iPod? Hint: it's a lot. Finding them legally for the PC at this point is a challenge, and I love them too much to pirate them. The iOS platform has such a strong library of adventure games that it's clear they sell well. There's no question that the platform can technically handle Full Throttle, and I'm sure Grim Fandango would be fine too. Please make this happen, please, please, please!
I think the iPhone and iOS devices could fuel an adventure gaming comeback. The touch screen is perfect for that type of game, and quite a few of my favorite games on the iPhone are either ports of old adventure games or new ones designed for iOS itself.
The most useful type of iOS games for me, though, is the type you can play in 5-10 minute stretches. I'd love to more games like Battleheart, which allow you to finish an encounter in a short period of time but still have enough RPG crunch to give you a fix. Games like Desktop Dungeons would be absolutely perfect on my iPhone.
In the case of iOS, less is more. Due to low development costs and the ubiquity of the platform, a flood of games is available for iOS systems. What I want are more games that feel polished, that take one idea and do it well, and that don't try to shoehorn uncomfortable control schemes onto the touchscreen. What I'd like to see are developers slowing down the release of import mobile phone titles and focusing on providing quality over quantity. I know it's probably a pipe dream, but hey, it's what I want.
As I've said in a few prior reviews, I think that the strategy RPG is an ideal type of game for the iOS. I'd love to see developers build a strategy RPG with shorter battles, with menus that are designed to work well with the touch screen, but that retains depth and breadth. Without a doubt, one of the most pleasant surprises I've had on the platform was The War of Eustrath, a strategy RPG that did all these things. I only wish that there were more titles like that available for my iPhone and iPad.
Also, I could really benefit from a better way to find RPGs on my iPhone. I'm pretty well-read on the net, and I benefit from the knowledge of my colleagues here at RPGFan, but I still have trouble getting a good feel for which new iOS RPGs are good, and which are a waste of an iTunes card. Unfortunately, the App Store is an imperfect way to browse games, as game descriptions often sound the same and the user reviews aren't terribly illuminating. And let's not even start on the number of games that are inappropriately labeled as RPGs, from Sonic clones to block puzzle games. I wish I could offer a good way to fix this process, but for now I'll have to stick with doing my own research on the net, then searching by name for the games I'm interested in.
Continuing my train of thought from the previous topic, I feel like graphic adventure games are perfect for iOS gaming, so that's what I'd like to get more of on the device. Also, we need to get more turn-based traditional RPGs and Strategy RPGs on there. It seems like 90% of RPGs on the device are action RPGs, and I just don't want that on this platform. If I want an action RPG, I'll grab Ys on my PSP, since at least it'll control like a charm! Apart from that, all I know is that I would kill for a remake of Snatcher or Policenauts on iOS. Please Kojima! Make this happen!!