Random Thought 0001 – Mobile Gaming

Foreword: I’m trying out Anchor to see how it works in relation to my WordPress blog. I’ve made an automated audio recording of this post and it’s available here: https://anchor.fm/gregory-martin7/episodes/Random-Thought-0001–Mobile-Gaming-e15kvqa

Being a recent Apple convert, I’m still coming to terms with the idea that gaming on a Mac isn’t quite what it used to be in the Windows world. I’ve spent so many hours in the past on Steam – and with a considerable number of independent games – that are truly Windows exclusives, and this makes it painful when I open Steam on my Mac only to see that maybe 10% of my library is available. As discouraging as this is, I’ve considered it a temperament of sorts. With my family growing in size, any time I can dedicate to gaming is fast dwindling. So I’ve been spending more time gaming on my iPad, which has proven a rather stalwart companion in this regard. One that I’m quickly growing rather fond of.

None of that is to say that Apple doesn’t have good games at it disposal. But if you’re a classic gamer such as myself who desires a specific set of games, you need to be prepared to walk away disappointed most of the time. Apple Arcade is a pretty good service for those who’re willing to pay for it and are invested in the Apple ecosystem. There are some gems on there, and the fact that you can seamlessly transition from iPhone to iPad to Mac and – even in some cases – Apple TV, makes this a worthwhile service itself. However, the severe drought of Triple-A titles and the overwhelming sense that most of these games were created by frustrated art students leaves an uncomfortable itch on your mind. I can say with honesty that there have only been maybe four games in the total lot that I’ve been interested in, and even in that set only two that I’ve been able to spend any serious time with: Fantasian and Shante and the Seven Sirens. I’ve long been bored with the traditional mobile gaming experience, and most of these games trend toward that scheme: controls that a toddler can master with ease, and shallow gameplay that either can’t escape said control scheme confines or require a micro-transaction to expand upon.

All these years later, and to my amazement, some of the publishers that I’ve come to know and love on consoles and PC have started to put some of their greatest titles on the mobile platforms. I had fair reservations when hearing that SquareEnix would be releasing Chrono Trigger on Android, but there it was right in the Play Store. Konami has Castlevania: SOTN up there. And these titles are also available in the App Store too. Several years ago, when I was still playing largely in the Android space, I ponied up for Secret of Mana, one of my all-time favorite games. Thinking I’d stumbled upon a way to relive my childhood with this amazing title, I was soon completely and utterly disheartened. This was my first experience with on-screen digital controls and man did they not map onto the clean experience that the analog version once had. A game like Secret of Mana requires a certain amount of precision in controls to truly enjoy, and these touchscreen controls failed in every way to live up to that basic expectation. Map navigation felt slippery, and handling platforming sections was dubious at best, especially when trying to avoid floor hazards. Combat required an entirely new approach. Instead of advancing confidently either with gusto or tactically, each action now started with reservation. Not because the opponent demanded a change in default tactics, but because there was a more than uncertain chance that you’d miss your target because the controls were grossly inaccurate. Of course, this says nothing about the action buttons. Because you get no feedback from the “buttons” on a touchscreen, I’ve often times found my right thumb drifting away from where it should be to press on a button. In the middle of combat, I’ll be frantically tapping on the screen thinking I should be executing an action only to see my avatar doing nothing but standing idle getting clobbered. It’s only when I’m certain that the game is ignoring me do I realize that I’ve been tapping in the void this whole time. It’s one thing to feel like an idiot because you made the wrong move or poorly planned for the next section. It’s an entirely different thing to know that you’re hindered from standing a chance because you tapped in the wrong place.

Shortly after jumping into the “Walled Garden,” I learned that the iPad could support pairing with either an Xbox or PlayStation 4 controller. Not only that, but that some games actually supported in part or outright required a paired controller to play. Finally!, I thought. This is how games are meant to be played! A controller in hand. Not some goofy DPI-scaled tap range that had no way to tell you “You missed that button!” This is when I started diving deep into Shantae and the Seven Sirens. It’s also when I learned to love the ability to transition between my several Apple devices for a truly seamless gaming experience. At home, I could pair my Xbox controller with my Apple TV and play Shantae on the big screen. With the data always synchronizing to the cloud, I could take my iPad with me to work, pair up my Xbox controller to it, and play during my lunch break. Not only that, but also play by picking up from the same exact place I left off with at home on the Apple TV. But then, if that weren’t enough, if I wanted to cut loose and play a little on my Mac while taking a break, I could easily pair my Xbox controller to it and play Shante there with the same data availability as before. Wayforward seriously nailed it on the head with this title in Apple Arcade. They took advantage of all the technologies Apple has to offer and made one hell of an experience. It made me realize that this is what Triple-A gaming should be like, if not everywhere in principal, then at least on the Apple platform. My games should be playable on all the devices I own, especially the Apple TV, should support a controller as either an option or strict requirement, and if a multiplayer mode is available, certainly have an online option but also support a local option too, reminiscent of days of yore where two or more people were huddled around the TV, each with a controller.

To my dismay, it seems like many game developers and publishers are missing this aspect horrendously, and it bothers me. First of all, there’s incredibly limited support for Apple TV versions of games, and I’m not quite sure why. I’ve recently started developing on Apple platforms, but have been doing so with SpriteKit and Metal – and maybe this is the reason why – and my demos seem to work quite well on any device that I deploy them to. Further, SquareEnix didn’t seem to have any issues making Chrono Trigger work on the Apple TV as well as the iPad and iPhone (no Mac oddly enough). So why does the Apple TV get neglected so much? I just recently purchased Trials of Mana for iOS and not only does it not support a controller, but it also doesn’t support Apple TV. Why? It’s unplayable on my iPhone and barely passable on my iPad. The whole experience would be so much better if a controller were supported and the Apple TV were a viable host to play on.

Second, and I’ve already hinted at this, is the lack of controller support from the gate. As I’d mentioned previously, the newly released Trials of Mana for iOS doesn’t currently have controller support, meaning you’re relying entirely on touchscreen controls. For a game of this sort, you absolutely need a controller. I’ve plenty of recorded video where moving the camera with my right thumb is needlessly complicated and cumbersome because there’s no way to wrap the action. Genshin Impact, which I absolutely love, didn’t launch with controller support either. It only came to iOS several updates later after its launch. That game features fast-paced high adrenaline action, and you’re supposed to handle that with touchscreen controls? One game that had it right, I feel, was Call of Duty Mobile. They had touchscreen controls to be sure, and they’re pretty solid if still a little clumsy, but they also supported controllers right from the gate, changing the whole experience for the better. The thing that baffles me is that you have publishers and developers whose lifespan is well older than these mobile platforms, meaning that within their veins flows the blood of a controller-based interaction scheme, and when porting their legacy titles to newer platforms, it’s almost as if they’ve forgotten completely about having a controller in the mix.

Third, and finally, why does it seem like most of these game publishers and developers can’t handle cloud synchronized data? This is one of the aspects about Apple Arcade that I love a lot, especially because transitioning between devices is a necessity. The landscape seems to be a bit of a mess still. A few games I own flat out don’t support synchronization of any kind, requiring you to manually back the files up to your computer and move them to another device or back onto the same one should you need to DR the thing. Others will still only synchronize with a third party like Facebook, which was usually the result of not supporting synchronization in the first place and then tacking it on several updates down the line (and who the hell wants to use Facebook these days?). Bizarrely, some games do support synchronization, but it’s a manual action relegated to the title screen which is inaccessible in-game; you need to close the app and reopen it to have the option to trigger the action.

Even as my relationship with gaming metamorphoses from a serious to a casual one, I still feel a need to demand a bit of quality out of the games I play. This is doubly true both from publishers I have a tremendous amount of history with and from titles that I have respect for. These recent ports to mobile platforms don’t seem to do them justice, even if the justification is preservation into a new era of gamers or quick cash grabs. If the latter, at least make it seem like you’re making an honest effort, especially when you’re selling a game whose source material is at or over twenty years old. I start to buy into the memes that publishers and developers can grow tone-deaf to their audience, and images of the infamous Blizzard Diablo Immortal fail-conference creep in. I truly don’t mind paying a premium for software, especially since I know what it’s like to try and live off $1 per download for an app you spent months of man-hours creating. But is it too much to ask for a little more care and attention to your products?

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