The console vs the handset
In the US alone, smartphone gaming has around 126 million players, making it one of the most popular segments. By 2016 that’s expected to rise to 144 million, according to a report by MediaBrix, which would equate to more than 8 in 10 smartphone users.
The popularity of smartphone games in the UK isn’t quite so high, but according to a report by comScore, 52.4% of UK smartphone users were playing games on them at least once a month in the three months ending February 2012 and if those US figures are anything to go by the numbers are likely to be even higher now.
So why such a sudden surge in popularity? Are games getting better or are we just spending more time at bus stops and doctor’s waiting rooms?
One of the main reasons is cost: games are cheaper to buy on smartphones than their PC or console counterparts. They’re also a lot cheaper to make in general, meaning that the various app stores, particularly Google Play and the Apple App Store, have become flooded with an enormous selection of titles.
Then there’s the fact that, according to eMarketer, 48.4% of the UK population will have a smartphone by the end of the year, essentially meaning that almost 1 in 2 people will already have a device capable of playing portable games, rather than needing to invest in extra hardware.
But graphics, content and control schemes still often hold phone games back. The question is, can the console experience ever be replicated by a smartphone and even if so: can gaming on a smartphone ever be as good as gaming on a console?
For many people the term ‘console quality’ means high end graphics, which is understandable, since graphics are the most immediately obvious sign of a game’s quality.
They don’t make or break a game by any means but they are a major factor in how high quality a game is perceived to be.
Ultimately, smartphone games just aren’t up to the same graphical standards as console games. That said, there is some crossover between low end console games and high end smartphone games, which demonstrates that the gap between the two may not be that enormous.
Take Asphalt 8: Airborne for example. It obviously doesn’t look as good as something like the console version of Need for Speed: Most Wanted on the PS3 or Xbox 360 as there’s far less graphical detail.
But when played on the small screen of a smartphone it does arguably look comparable to Test Drive Unlimited 2 on the PS3 or Xbox 360, which is an impressive feat given that Asphalt 8 is free to play, while Test Drive Unlimited 2 cost around £40 at launch and even now costs over £15.
The difference in screen sizes also means that smartphones don’t necessarily need to be as powerful as consoles to deliver high end graphics, as while smartphone games may not look great blown up on a big screen, the small display size of a phone hides many of the rough edges and lets them shine.
The power is coming
Even though smartphone games may not be able to compete graphically with most recent console games, top end smartphones are certainly at least as powerful as older consoles such as the Xbox and the PS2; in fact they’re actually quite a bit more powerful on some metrics.
The PS2, for example, had just a 300 MHz processor, a 147 MHz Graphics Synthesizer GPU and 32 MB of RAM. Compare that to the Samsung Galaxy S4, which has a 1.9 GHz quad-core processor, a 400 MHz Adreno 320 GPU and 2 GB of RAM and, on paper, smartphones should be way ahead.
Of course the PS2 was specifically built around gaming, while the Galaxy S4 and other phones aren’t, so the difference might not be as pronounced as you’d think.
So how close are they really? We had a chat with Gameloft to find out the real challenges and benefits you get when making a high-end smartphone game.
"Mobile chipsets are very competitive compared with current-gen consoles," a spokesperson told us. "With the exception of the polygon throughput, the latest chipsets already reach most of the shader rendering quality of current-gen consoles." They even went so far as to say that "the latest chipsets are capable of running current generation console games," albeit not referencing the recent PS4 / XBox One line-up, more their predecessors.
And if proof were needed that smartphones can match or exceed the PS2 for gaming performance just look at how easily they cope with ports of last generation games, such as GTA: Vice City.
This runs well on high end handsets and isn’t even as good looking as many smartphone games, such as Horn and Dead Trigger 2, so presumably it’s not pushing phones to their limits.
Smartphones seem an unlikely new home for old favourites, but if more get ported they could soon be the go-to place for a dose of nostalgia, resurrecting games that were lost when we sold our old consoles or when they finally gave up after years of faithful service.
With new and more powerful smartphones being released all the time the gap between phones and new consoles may close too. Sure, the next generation of consoles has just arrived and initially they’re likely to blow away anything a smartphone can do.
But five years down the line people will still be using the Xbox One and PS4, while Samsung will likely be up to the Galaxy S9 and there’s no telling how powerful that will be, especially now that 64-bit chips are making their way into handsets.
These will be important, according to our Gameloft spokesperson, who said they will "help to push vector processing speed with less machine cycles, which is the main performance bottle neck in processing polygons."
But what about the games?
So that’s the hardware – it’s a much closer-run thing than some might expect. But gaming is nothing without the titles, so what kind of choice is on offer from the Play and App Stores of this world? Does it even come close to what you can buy at your local video games emporium?
There’s logic behind the design decision to make smartphone games more snackable, since most people take their handsets with them everywhere, so having something to fill a few empty moments when you have nothing else to do is ideal, but it does mean that the games are often fairly disposable experiences, which can detract from console parallels.
It’s not all doom and gloom for phones though, as while most smartphone titles pale in comparison to most console games, there are still some shining gems.
Take Ravensword: Shadowlands for example. While it’s no Oblivion it still contains an impressively enormous game world jam-packed full of things to do, including dozens of quests, skills and locations and hundreds of different items.
It’s easily as big and as deep as your average console game, so when it comes to content there are at least a handful of smartphone games that reach console quality.
Then there are some console games which have actually made their way to smartphones or tablets as well, such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown and The Walking Dead. These are full featured versions of the console games of the same name and while the graphics don’t look as good on a big screen, they are comparable when shrunk down on a portable display.
These aren’t the most high profile, nor pack the highest production values, of console games, but if you can get current generation console games running on smartphones it still goes to show how small the gap between smartphone and console gaming could potentially be. Phones just need more games of that level of quality.
Pros and cons
There are some undeniable advantages to playing a game on a console over a smartphone. Playing on a 60 inch television with surround sound or even a 20 inch monitor with desktop speakers is far more immersive than playing on a 4-5 inch phone screen.
Though that’s an area that’s improving on phones, as while there was a time when 3.5 inch screens were considered big, a 5 inch screen is now more common and with phablets and tablets rising in popularity screen sizes are getting bigger still – and graphical processing power is having to follow suit to match that rise in pixels, which is a boon for gaming.
Another console advantage is that they have controllers that are positively rippling with buttons, making it easy to control mechanically complex games.
Smartphones on the other hand don’t make use of buttons in game and any input you make by tapping the screen risks obscuring your already limited view of whatever’s going on. Not to mention the fact that touchscreen controls are often clunky and imprecise.
But while most games benefit from a controller, some actually work really well on touchscreens.
Things like Broken Sword, which are slow paced and simply require you to tap to interact with things work just as well as on PC and arguably better than on a console. The same is true of many turn based strategy and puzzle games, where quick inputs and fast reactions aren’t necessary.
Games like The Room and Infinity Blade 3 are designed from the ground up as smartphone games and are built around a smartphone’s strengths, ensuring they can be controlled superbly.
The Room, for example, makes full use of touch screen gestures to zoom in and out on objects and manipulate mechanisms with a speed and precision which would be hard to achieve using a controller.
Similarly all of Infinity Blade 3’s actions can be carried out with a tap or a swipe, making for frantic, high speed duels. While everyone’s favourite / most bored of title, Angry Birds, is so simple that it can literally be controlled with one finger, as you aim and fire your aggravated fowl.
Another challenge faced is that while console games tend to be big budget blockbuster affairs, smartphone games aren’t so much indies as the gaming equivalent of a home movie. That’s not always the case and the likes of Real Racing 3 and Infinity Blade 3 are testament to that.
Real Racing also adds another dimension: that of the freemium model. Free to play but slow to get through if you don’t splash the cash, it allows gamers to choose their level of involvement – it helps that it’s a stunning title, but it’s a sign of things to come.
Can we replicate a console with a phone?
There are certainly benefits to gaming on a phone, but if you truly want to replicate the big screen and controller experience of playing on a console you can potentially do that too.
There are a variety of controllers available that are compatible with, or in some cases even designed specifically for smartphones.
Some of them, such as the Moga Pro controller, include a cradle for the phone so that you can essentially turn your handset into a true handheld console, complete with the necessary buttons and sticks.
Others, such as the Nyko Playpad Pro, are just standard controllers, which don’t clip to your phone, so they’re no good for gaming on the move, but will be ideal if you stream or output your games to a television or monitor through a dedicated MHL cable or mirroring device.
Some phones, such as the Sony Xperia Z1 and many other Xperia handsets, can even be made to work with Sony’s DualShock 3 pad via Bluetooth, giving you the comfort of a familiar controller, though you will need to buy a USB On The Go cable to make the initial connection.
None of these are ideal solutions as a controller is likely to cost at least £15 and in many cases you also need an MHL cable to link your phone to a television which will also cost at least £10 for a half-decent option, while a console comes with everything you need out of the box.
Even once you’ve got a controller and screen to hand a phone is never likely to fully replicate the console experience. We put big screen gaming to the test with a £20 Moga Mobile Gaming System controller and an MHL cable paired with an HTC One and found that while the experience was reasonable it was no substitute for a home console.
On a 32 inch screen Asphalt 8 looked a little blurry and lacking in detail, though Dead Trigger 2 fared rather better, almost passing off as a low budget console game.
It’s understandable that blowing the games up led to lower quality visuals though, as our chatty Gameloft spokesperson told us "a high-end mobile game may be able to push 30% – 50% of the polygons of current-gen consoles," so it stands to reason that visual quality on a large screen is likely to be 50% – 70% worse.
The controls weren’t perfect either. Using a controller was definitely better than a touch screen, but there was slight lag with some inputs due to using a Bluetooth connection.
Worse than that, the games just didn’t feel like they’d been designed for a controller as there was none of the precision or smoothness you’d experience on a home console, with jerkiness and stiffness creeping in.
Speaking of consoles though, there’s always the likes of the Ouya or GameStick, which are attempts at making an Android powered home console. Laggy performance and a lack of games hold it back, but it points towards a future when smartphone games could be as comfortable on a television screen as on the move.
Can smartphone gaming be as good as console gaming?
The short answer is not yet, but there’s a lot of hope for the future. Right now the overall experience of smartphone gaming is not as good as console gaming. Most smartphone games are substantially worse and their touchscreen control schemes are often clunky.
As an alternate way to experience your favourite smartphone games a proper controller and TV output are great options and won’t break the bank, but they can’t match a dedicated console.
However, certain smartphone games are just about of ‘console quality’ and there are even a few examples of higher-power games ported to smartphones.
For smartphones to truly match up to consoles they’ll need to have more titles brought over at the very least, or better yet have more high profile, high quality exclusives. The Infinity Blade series has made good strides in that area, but few other smartphone exclusives compare.
As phones become more powerful, the games will inevitably be more popular and developers will work out more innovative ways of designing touchscreen controls, so we feasibly could see the phone matching a console mid-way through the life cycle of the PS4.
But currently playing a smartphone game on a big screen requires extra purchases and the experience isn’t as slick as it is on a console.
In other words consoles will always have a place in the living room, while smartphones look set to become the gaming system of choice just about everywhere else.
There are still some hurdles for phones to overcome before they reach the same gaming standards as consoles, but phone hardware is improving at a breakneck pace.
Developers definitely believe things will only get better for the smartphone gamer and quickly, with our Gameloft spokesperson stating: "with each advancement that is made on the hardware and software end, the potential for more creative freedom for our developers and a more immersive experience for our fans increases."
Now… back to finally being able to complete Sonic the Hedgehog…
Still not sold on smartphone games? The Playstation 4 is here and we’ve reviewed it.