The Future of Mobile Games (Is Better Than You Think)

Mobile games are often thought to be small-scale, inexpensive, short-term experiences. Mobile games could never replace AAA quality blockbusters on consoles or the intense multiplayer or infinitely customizable gaming experiences available on a PC — could they?

The future of mobile games is decidedly this: mobile technology will not replace ‘traditional’ PC or console gaming — mobile will extend gaming. There are three big trends that point to this.

1. You can play AAA games on your phone, right now

Paying a full price tag of $60 or more for a game on a phone seems implausible to many. Mobile games have paved their way thanks to cheap apps — free or less than the cost of a cup of coffee — plus a multitude of micro-transactions often designed to feed on vulnerable gambling tendencies.

What if, though, that game purchase, whether it’s $1 or $60, could be used on your computer, your phone, your console, and your TV? Progress could transfer instantly. Perhaps the same controller could be used across all devices. Wherever you have a screen — you have access to your game.

This is already a reality, and the trend is going to quickly continue. Sony has supported “PS4 Remote Play” for a few years now, starting with their own Sony phones, then moving on to other Android and Apple devices. It works well enough, allowing you to use a PS4 controller or an awkward but functional touch screen overlay. Microsoft Xbox has been testing a similar “Game Streaming” app. Valve’s Steam has supported “Remote Play” from your computer to just about any other screen for awhile now. These services are great options, but have some disadvantages. They require your computer or console to be on, and your network(s) to be perfect. The streaming machine needs to send a bunch of data through your network, through the magic Sony/Microsoft/Steam portal, and then through your network again (which could be a different network if you are away from home), and then finally to your screen. It’s difficult to go through all of that without ending up with some lag or delayed inputs. Still — getting through a chapter of Last of Us 2 on your lunch break in the office is fantastic, even if it is on a smaller screen.

God of War played via PS4 Remote Play on an iPhone with a Razer Kishi attachment

Increasing access to faster internet will make all of this more seamless — but there is a better solution. Cloud gaming services — like Google’s Stadia, the recently launched xCloud (Xbox Game Pass), Nvidia GeForce NOW, and presumably Amazon’s early access Luna service — let the player launch games from seemingly magical supercomputers that live someplace else, but the player gets to see the game on their screen of any size and play instantly without any installation or disk space required. Facebook is also planning to get in on the action.

Without trying any of these services, you might be worried about input lag — or any kind of lag. But all previously mentioned services are very good about removing as much lag as possible. If a weaker connection is detected, the visual quality of the game is reduced so that the player can maintain playability. A faster internet connection definitely helps here, so it may be impossible for some, but for many users the requirements are surprisingly low: 10 mb/s for Stadia, Luna, or xCloud; 15 mb/s for GeForce NOW. Input lag will likely never match what’s possible when playing locally, but it is very close.

Even though the technology is there, it is still very new. Google’s Stadia does not even have a search bar yet — yes, Google, most famous for their search engine, does not have a search bar to allow users to search for titles in their app. Even though it’s amazing to have an existing library of games ready for streaming, GeForce NOW only works with about 10 to 20% of my Steam library — and one such title (Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice) was supported, but then pulled by Activision. Microsoft’s xCloud works nicely on just about any Android device — even a refrigerator — but is not supported on your PC yet.

Doom Eternal running on a smart fridge

Reliable controller support varies between the apps as well. Stadia and GeForce NOW does well with just about everything, including an okay touch screen option, while xCloud only seems to work nicely with a Bluetooth connected Xbox One controller. Touch controls in xCloud are limited to a handful of games that support it — although Gears of War 5 has done an impressive job of adding dynamically changing touch controls.

For some users, the most frustrating thing about these emerging technologies has been Apple’s refusal to support them on iPhones or iPads. In addition to Apple sparring with Epic Games over Fortnite support, Apple devices are starting to lag far behind what’s possible on Android devices for gaming. If the cloud gaming trend continues, perhaps Apple could be coerced into reconsidering their position that all sales must go through them.

Fortnite played on a dual screen phone with a customizable gamepad. Maybe one day it’ll be easy to download Fortnite on a mobile phone again.

Since these services are free (Stadia, GFN) or inexpensive to try out and use, it’s worthwhile to give them a shot in case you find yourself with a full hard drive or far away from your console.

Cloud gaming is here to stay. Google has a penchant for haplessly tossing away products they create, but Stadia has something going for it that other products don’t: it’s pretty simple money. It’s not really clear how Google+ was supposed to make money, but a digital storefront like Stadia makes a percentage from each digital sale. If Google can keep updating Stadia’s feature set (supporting 4K resolution, making developing for the system easier, etc.) and marketing it appropriately (which they have failed to do so previously, but they are getting better), Stadia can continue to be worthwhile for Google and for Stadia users. Developing for Stadia has its own hurdles — its Linux based, which is hard when most games are created with Windows in mind, but game tools like Unity and Unreal are making it a bit easier to port to Stadia.

Amazon and Facebook scrambling to set up their cloud gaming services as they drool over the potential earnings should also be an indication that cloud gaming just makes sense — because of its convenience. The same reason iTunes became more successful than pirating software back in 2003 — making things easier for people — is the reason cloud gaming is not going away. It will likely never be the preferred system for competitive gaming or receiving the best possible visual quality — but it’s close, and getting rid of the burden of system requirements, space requirements, and install/update times is going to continue to be more and more alluring to consumers.

The Nintendo Switch is also heading towards supporting cloud gaming. The award-winning game Control and Hitman 3 would normally require more graphical prowess than the Switch can handle, but they will soon be playable via the cloud.

2. Cross-play and cross-save is becoming more common

Bungie’s Destiny 2 is one the best products showcasing this new reality where your progress can be transferred wherever you want to play. The game can be played on PlayStation, Xbox, PC (Steam), or Stadia. Your save file on one platform transfers instantly on another. Cross-play between other players is not supported yet, but it’s planned for next year. Rocket League and Dauntless allows you to play with anyone on PlayStation, Xbox, PC, or Nintendo Switch (both titles are also available on GeForce NOW). Minecraft allows you to play on all of these systems as well as mobile. Riot’s TeamFight Tactics allows you to switch from playing on mobile to playing on PC — helpful if your phone runs out of battery.

Google showcasing Destiny 2 being playable across multiple devices via Stadia

Cross-save is decidedly positive for the consumer, allowing players to play when and how they want. Cross-play is beneficial for everyone as well, increasing the player base and keeping online games alive for much longer. System exclusive games won’t be going away anytime soon, but the cross-play and cross-save trends will continue to serve players. For mobile users, this will make it much easier to be able to extend their gaming sessions. Playing an online match on your phone on the bus home and then jumping into the same session on your computer is becoming more common — extending gaming for players.

3. Loot boxes are dying

Loot boxes and gambling via micro-transactions are becoming less popular and sometimes even illegal! If developers cannot be focused on creating opportunities to spend money trying to win that perfect gun, rare card, or exemplary hat, what’s left? CONTENT! Developers can go “back to basics,” offering more actual gameplay in downloadable packs. Any randomized elements or micro-transactions have been trending towards purely cosmetic changes to the game — as seen in game passes or individual purchases for Fortnite, League of Legends, and other big online games. More and more developers are promising that future titles will not contain any micro-transactions. The mobile gaming ecosystem is slowly trending towards supporting the players instead of supporting developer and publisher pockets.

Final thoughts

The featured image (seen below) for this article showcases Cyberpunk 2077 being played on a mobile device. Cyberpunk 2077 is a single-player game that is being released for PC (Steam/Epic/GOG), PS4, Xbox One, and Stadia. The Steam version will support GeForce NOW. The PS4 and Xbox One versions can be played via their respective streaming apps. The Stadia version is being released alongside other version (which has not always been the case). Cyberpunk 2077 will eventually become a multi-player title in the future — hopefully they’ll integrate cross-play and cross-save as well. Almost any way you choose to play, you’ll have an option to play from your phone screen. It’s not just for texting, selfies, and cheap game experiences anymore. It can extend your gaming sessions, even for of the biggest interactive blockbusters of 2020. Take care of your little mobile device — it could just be your window into a breathtaking new world.

Notes for Developers

Support the growing trend of players demanding more from their mobile devices. Integrate cross-play and cross-save into your multi-platform games; avoid micro-transactions or focus on purely cosmetic options; integrate or consider developing for cloud-based gaming services (links below).

Add GeForce NOW support for your game: https://developer.nvidia.com/join-geforce-now-dev-program

Apply to become a Stadia developer: https://stadia.dev/apply/

Learn more about Amazon Luna: https://developer.amazon.com/luna

Mobile app developer, game programmer/designer, sometimes a writer, always a husband & father, usually a late-night gamer

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