At PAX Prime 2015, the hardware was big — some of it actual big iron, like Corsair’s DIY PC made from a truck bed. The other class of big hardware came in the form of water-cooled PCs glowing ethereally under the convention center’s dim lighting. But amid these hardware offerings, tucked in at the edges of bigger-than-life booths with giant video screens, a few Apple iPads and Android tablets put on their game faces.
Mobile Amid the Light and Noise
And when I say a few, I do mean a few. One of the top game companies, Square Enix, had a single row of iPads showing off their impressive Lara Croft Go game for tablets and PCs. This game’s beautifully drawn graphics and equally attractive soundtrack demonstrate that iOS and Android can deliver quality gaming experiences. Missing was the recently released Final Fantasy VII and its full-up retro 1997 experience. Perhaps Square Enix didn’t want visual reminders of the past, even as they service players nostalgic for games of their childhood.
Bethesda showed off Fallout Shelter, their quirky, post-apocalyptic entry into the land of iOS and Android. This strategy game fits into the same world as the Fallout franchise, but focuses gamers on a single task: managing the building of a vault to meet the needs of the overseer and various dwellers who show up. The game is nicely drawn with a clean comic-book vibe. This game perpetuates iOS and Android as an auxiliary to the full game experience, not integral to it.
If you like killing things with your tongue in your cheek while scratching your head, Tiny Build has just the game for you: Divide by Sheep. This wicked puzzler slices, dices, drowns and consumes sheep (and wolves) so that they fit neatly onto pontoons destined for an equally horrifying end: that of cherished companion to the Grim Reaper. Blood and gore can be disabled for younger players who might be more compelled to solve the mathematical conundrums if computational failures don’t result in wolves gorging on sheep. I’ve never been a master of simple math, so I found the game challenging. Kids will enjoy the graphics, gory or not, and adults who don’t often solve computational puzzles will find it a good way to dust off their internal calculators.
On the outskirts of an open foyer, near various card game retailers and insurance company Geico, stood NetEase games, neatly displaying tablets along a wall. On these tablets ran the company’s recently launched Speedy Ninja, along with upcoming titles Tome of the Sun and Eternal Battle. Unlike many of the games that are either works of passion or crowd-funded, NetEase is an established NASDAQ company (NTES) that offers its NetEase Success Fund to would-be game developers.
I found Tumblestone being demoed at the Intel booth, on a Surface and other less “Intel-ly” tablets. This variation on the Match-3 games turns the genre upside down, forcing matching up and out, rather than having objects disappear inside the game. It takes a fair amount of retuning to master the game, something that didn’t happen for me during the show. While the backgrounds are very earthbound, and the game’s fun, hand-drawn graphics cartoony, the play itself is very sophisticated. The gameplay deserves a sci-fi instantiation to do justice to its selection of graphics. Local multiplayer mode is very fun. Watch these gamers share a Tumblestone couch experience in this YouTube video to get a sense of how quickly the game can become competitive.
Perhaps the most interesting of the games was another early access project called Eon Altar. Unlike other mobile game approaches, this multi-player adventure combines the power of a Steam-based environment running on a PC with tablets and phones that act as super controllers. This is an interesting approach to game development, as the tablets, while not hefty enough digital lifters for main gameplay, are rather malleable devices that can produce very sophisticated, very beautiful controllers. It will be interesting to see if other game makers pick up on this approach and start creating more second-screen experiences.
The Seattle Connection
There were several Seattle-area developers showing off concepts and innovations worth noting in a mobile round-up.
Issaquah’s Lunchtime Studios entertained with a couch, an old TV and a wooden radio in anticipation of their upcoming Kickstarter Lords of New York, a “family” friendly gangster poker-oriented RPG. Interestingly, the Lunchtime Studios team choose to create their own animation engine, including proprietary software to manage the creation of rendered frames between drawn frames. In a show where much of the non-big-studio software is developed on the Unity platform, it is refreshing to hear from a company willing to not only tackle content, but to invest in the basic code that helps them deliver the experience they envision.
Mixby-powered Battlekasters by Artifact had people running around in search of beacons to collect cards and cast spells. The virtual card came is inspired by the plot of the Alane Adams’ Norse mythology-based Legends of Orkney. The integration of basic Internet of Things concepts makes this game an early entrant in what promises to change the relationship between people playing games and the world around them.
Hanging out in the booth Gung Ho, (publisher of the popular Puzzle & Dragons game on mobile) was Seattle-based 17-bit, makers of the upcoming Galak-Z space shooter. The company calls Galak-Z a “love letter to 1980s arcade shooters and Japanese anime Sci-Fi.” It plays with a full retro vibe, but unlike Square Enix’s recent port of Final Fantasy VII to iOS, this game takes 2D space-shooting into the modern era. The beta was very responsive, with great-looking graphics and beautifully drawn worlds. 17-bit promises devious enemies, and strange, expansive worlds to navigate.
Another kickstarter, Nova Blitz, from the team at Dragon Foundry, is a fast-paced card game where players simultaneously engage to enliven play. Mac and PC Alpha versions are available, with iOS and Android to follow. The UI and the game design combine to facilitate games for those with short attention spans. No multi-day juggernauts, just pops of five-minute, slap-’em-down, play-or-get-outta-the-way action. The art is both fantastic and stunning. Unlike some card games that move physical assumptions into the digital world, Nova Blitz was conceived as an entirely new digital experience, leveraging compute for better shuffles, turn management and player interactions.
The Future of Gaming
Shows like PAX and E3 illustrate with noise and light, bombast and sheer assertion of size, how consoles and PCs continue to dominate the gaming world, but this is changing. On one hand, consoles and PCs are being repurposed as the hosts to tethered virtual-reality experiences like the worlds that immersed me in my Oculus Touch and HTC Vive demos. On the other hand, the world of gaming is moving toward handheld devices that are starting to reach the level of processing necessary to move beyond 2D, pre-rendered games and complementary experiences, to more sophisticated and cinematic games. It will be some time before mobile devices can meet the performance specifications of a multi-gigabyte PC leveraging an array of fast SSDs and pumping its graphics through a dual-fan-cooled GPU, but sometimes constraints are good.
Creating games on smaller screens with lower processing requirements may sound like going backward, but despite an affinity for retro panache, most gamers don’t want to just run the games of yesteryear on their tablets and phones. They want to encounter unique experiences just like they do in the best PC games. The hardware will continue to evolve, but the breakthrough on mobile gaming will come in software. PAX offers some hints on what is possible, and the direction some developers are taking the market.
Five Mobile Game Take-Aways from PAX
- Tablets and phones may make for excellent second screen experiences to complement other games during actual play.
- Local multi-player games with consolidated gameplay, that can be projected on the likes of an Apple TV or Google Chromecast, offer intriguing possibilities for shared game experiences.
- There is still room for the development of basic game development software that can uniquely leverage the capacities of touch and the intimacy of a personal device.
- Early Access provided great feedback on quality, game UI and game logic.
- Internet of Things technology, like beacons, will change the relationship between people and the world around them.