Soapbox: Mobile And Tablet Gaming Is Creating A Generation Of Talentless Players

Touchscreens are all very well, but Damien McFerran wants his pad back

As much as dedicated console players hate to admit it, smartphone and tablet gaming has really taken off of late. Companies like GungHo interactive are reaching the kind of audience and generating the kind of revenue that their more established rivals can only dream of, and titles like Angry Birds have now achieved the kind of mainstream appeal that was previously the sole preserve of Mario and Sonic. Mobile gaming may have had a painful birth — anyone who remembers the terrible pre-iPhone days will attest to that — but now it's a massive industry which threatens to eclipse home and portable console market.

Of course, it should be noted that gaming is gaming, irrespective of the hardware it takes place on. Back in the '80s, we all played our games on home computers like the ZX Spectrum and C64, platforms which were designed primarily as work machines, not entertainment devices — yet the games we enjoyed on those systems are just as valid as any console release from the period. It could be argued that the same thing is happening now; iPhones and iPads are merely a new delivery method for a brave new era.

Gaming is wonderful because it's a largely inclusive pastime, despite what preconceptions outsiders have regarding teenage boys locking themselves in their rooms for hours on end. With this in mind, hardware itself should never be a barrier to enjoyment — if someone likes to play Farmville through their web browser and they have fun doing so, then who are we to spoil their entertainment? Gamers should celebrate the fact that their hobby is now bigger than ever, thanks in no small part to the rise of tablets and smartphones.

However, as someone who dabbles in both the "dedicated" gaming sector and the mobile one, I've noticed a worrying trend which makes me question if mainstream appeal is really beneficial for the industry as a whole. I love to watch my kids mess about on gaming hardware. My son is hopelessly addicted to Pikmin 3, but also likes to hop onto the family iPod Touch for a quick game of Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds Star Wars. Whilst observing the way in which he plays these games, I've seen a big difference in his level of immersion and the resultant satisfaction he gains. Games like Pikmin 3 require more complex inputs from the player — you're moving cursors around with analogue sticks, precisely hurling Pikmin at enemies and generally putting your digits to good use. My son is five, and although he found the Wii U game somewhat testing initially, he has since mastered the controls and parades around each environment with a sense of purpose. He feels that he has genuinely accomplished something when he finishes a mission or defeats a particular tough enemy, and that's because his own skill has allowed him to get to that stage. The same thing applies when he plays New Super Mario Bros. U, or Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.

When he hops onto the iPod, his style of play is somewhat different. Because it's such a simple and intuitive interface, he grasps the gameplay much quicker. Swiping and tapping come naturally, and he's never flummoxed about what to do next. However, with simplicity often comes a lack of depth, and that leads swiftly to boredom — he becomes disillusioned with the best games the App Store can offer and moves from one game to the next after just a handful of minutes. This is a situation which could be related to the fact that he's forbidden from spending additional cash on in-app purchases — one of the most unwelcome trends introduced since the rise of mobile gaming. Some titles on iOS are little more than exercises in tapping the display and spending money — GREE's Modern War is a particularly illuminating example, where the player is asked to do little more than tap enemies to kill them and is built in such a manner than you have to feed it cash to keep playing.

Of course, not all mobile games are shallow, coin-guzzling bore-fests. Games like Super Hexagon, New Star Soccer and Ridiculous Fishing are fantastic, and make excellent use of the host hardware to create an experience which is perfectly suited to a touchscreen and ideal for short-burst mobile play. However, it makes me slightly sad to think that an entire generation is growing up learning little more than to prod their chubby, chocolate-covered fingers at a screen. When I was a kid, I spent weeks perfecting the joypad motion for the Dragon Punch in the SNES version of Street Fighter II purely so I could unleash it with uncanny consistency next time my friends came over for a classic Ryu vs Ken showdown. This cycle would repeat whenever a new Capcom fighting game was released, but with a different character as the focus — culminating in the demonic Akuma's Raging Demon Super Combo, which would leave many a player cursing at their lack of dexterity.

Will my young son ever experience the allure of memorising move lists and feeling that satisfying pay-off as the complex button combination you've been practising for hours finally clicks on the joypad, resulting in fisticuff fireworks on-screen? Certainly not on the iOS port of Street Fighter IV, which is a good approximation of Capcom's seminal brawler but is undone by imprecise and inaccurate touchscreen controls which make a seasoned veteran feel like they're fighting with one arm tied behind their back. Touchscreens are fantastic, don't get me wrong — they offer an interface method which simply cannot be replicated with a traditional controller and insure a level of accessibility which is vitally important for casual players. But that works both ways — joypads are downright essential for some of gaming's most rewarding genres, and those genres are under threat because so many of the world's young gamers will most likely never get to appreciate them, purely because they're being raised on a hardware platform which has no physical buttons and no D-pad.

I'm keen to prevent such a future in my household; as well as enjoying all the Wii U has to offer, I've been exposing my son to the likes of the SNES, Mega Drive and Game Boy, and once past that initial confusion about which button does what, he finds these relics from a bygone age to be more fascinating and engaging than anything the iPod can supply. I'll still ensure he can experience the best that smartphone and tablet gaming has to offer, of course — as I've said already, there are plenty of games which simply would not be as enjoyable if they weren't on a touchscreen-based device. However, not every gamer in the world is getting this balanced perspective right now, and there's a good chance that many will grow up having never picked up a joypad. That's good for accessibility and growth — barriers to entry are also barriers to profitability, and games companies like making money, lest we forget — but it arguably brings down the level of sophistication, too. Some will say that hardcore gamers are only a very small sector of what is now a massive market, but let's remember that it was hardcore players which made Street Fighter II into a cultural phenomenon worth millions of dollars, and it will be hardcore players which stick with video games long after casual iPad users have moved onto the other forms of entertainment.

Can you truly have hardcore games on a touchscreen device, games which demand precision, ultimate control and super-fast reflexes, all based on the instant feedback afforded by a physical controller? As much as I love gaming on my phone, I'm not sure that's ever going to happen — which is probably why so many dedicated players are so negative about Apple and Google in general. That negativity can also be seen as fear — fear that the pastime which once celebrated skill and technique is being dumbed down to cater for people who consider Candy Crush Saga to be the pinnacle of interactive entertainment.

What are your thoughts on smartphone and tablet gaming? (424 votes)

You don't need as much skill to play tablet and smartphone games

84%

A different kind of skill is needed for touchscreen games, and they're the future of gaming

4%

I don't have an opinion either way, games are games to me, regardless of platform

12%

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