Why You Should Care About Mobile Gaming

Verizon announced that it will carry the iPhone, and there was much rejoicing — for about 10 seconds, until everyone realized that the CDMA chip inside the new phone means you can’t use voice and data at the same time.

Even still, Verizon getting the iPhone is kind of a big deal. There are 93 million people on the Verizon network, and while they won’t all be getting iPhones, a whole lot people who formerly didn’t want to because of AT&T probably will be. And many of them are going to have access to the iTunes App Store’s massive complement of mobile games.

I know, I know: iPhone games, man. Lots of us in the gaming community don’t believe in them — another casual gaming gimmick in an industry desperately trying to appeal to grandparents and young girls. Guess what, though: Apple and iPhone game makers are literally pulling down billions in revenue from mobile games, and that doesn’t even take into account phones running on Google’s Android OS. Today you can do on a phone what you had to have a high-end PC to do just 15 years ago — you can play games. Against other people.

Lots of mobile games already have leaderboard and achievement support, in the form of Apple’s Game Center and services such as Open Feint. They let you make friends, connect to other players, and see how you measure up. But then there are truly multiplayer online games — N.O.V.A. 2 includes first-person shooter deathmatches to go along with its full-fledged FPS single-player campaign. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection and you’re actually gaming against other people, but on a phone.

At CES 2011 last week, we saw another huge leap forward: Electronic Arts is bringing a Rock Band game to Verizon’s 4G LTE network that further increases the power of mobile multiplayer, and ditches the need for Wi-Fi. You’re not going to have to find a Starbucks or a McDonald’s in order to tap away at rhythm games or race opponents (like in Real Racer 2′s 16-player iPhone tracks) — you can do it anywhere, like on a car trip or in line at the bank or from any number of places where playing video games with other people was previously impossible.

The big innovations aren’t coming from consoles or even PCs. They’re coming from phones.

And here’s really why naysayers should sit up and take notice. LG has a phone that can play games against consoles and PCs.

Let me say that again: the LG Optimus 2X can play games. Those games can be played against consoles and PCs.

Meaning that 12-year-old French kid who frags you next year in Call of Duty 9 might be playing from a phone on a boat in the middle of a lake. And he’ll still kick your ass.

Time to sit up and take notice, I’d say. We’re talking about gaming quickly becoming possible on just about any device, with the kind of strength that used to be reserved for dedicated machines. We’re talking about gaming in your back pocket wherever you go.

And not just shrunk-down console and PC games, either. The small size and dedicated technology found in phones — touchscreens, for example — are actually making for gaming experiences you can’t get anywhere else, and they’re pushing the envelope. App developer Somethin’ Else recently released Papa Sangre, a video game almost completely devoid of graphics. It’s played entirely with sound, in headphones, with the touchscreen controls meant to help you orient yourself in relationship to what you hear and either approach or move away from it. It’s creepy and trippy, to say the least. It’s also a great f—ing idea.

For my money and in my experience, the real innovation in gaming right now isn’t coming from having a new motion control rig on every console that fine-tunes the art of virtual bowling. It’s coming from games that are melding touch, tilt, augmented reality and online service, and making it available on small-scale, indie-produced games.

If you’re still not sold on mobile games, you obviously haven’t played them. Sure, there are those that are slight and shallow, but that’s certainly not the whole story. The sooner gamers figure that out and start embracing what’s coming, the sooner the industry will start supporting even more great, platform-crossing user experiences in the realm of things we previously thought impossible.

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