We’ve come a long way in 2022, so much so it’s easy to take for granted how much gaming on mobile has developed over the years. The earliest days of gaming on mobile were, by today’s standards, extremely primitive. But that did not mean there weren’t compelling gameplay experiences to be had. It’s generally believed that the very first game to appear on a mobile phone was a version of Tetris on the Hagenuk MT-2000 back in 1994–a game that doesn’t require flashy graphics to be entertaining.
Most people’s keenest memories of 90s mobile gaming, however, are to do with the legendary Snake, a quick thinking action-puzzle that shipped with virtually every Nokia device. Suffice to say, with an average screen aspect ratio of 84 x 48 pixels, and colour displays few and far between until well into the early years of the millennium, gaming was never a serious focus for developers or manufacturers working in the mobile sector.
With the arrival of the millennium came some note-worthy developments in phone technology, and the arrival of the first “true” smartphones, in the sense that these devices could perform many tasks hitherto reserved for computers and PDAs. Increasingly phones were also shipping with web connectivity and browsers. Though many of the games from this early smartphone era were simply more colorful and high-fidelity updates of 90s classics.
The first major attempt to do something novel in the mobile gaming space came in 2003 when Nokia launched the N-Gage. This was designed to be a gaming platform and mobile phone in one, as Nokia sought to leverage their market share of the latter sector in order to enter the competition with Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance and the soon-to-be-released Sony PSP. Over its short lifespan, the N-Gage system had 63 games released for it, and served as definitive proof of the concept that mobile platforms could run full video games. Yet design flaws, such as a failure to use appropriately tactile buttons for gameplay inputs, and the awkward handheld position the device required for phone calls, led to critical panning and poor sales.
Early iPhone Hits
The arrival of the first iPhone in 2007 marked the beginning of the modern smartphone era. Almost overnight, physical keyboards and resistive touchscreens were swept away by the sleek glass and metal “slate” form-factor of the first Apple smartphone and it wouldn’t be long before all major manufacturers were emulating this new design language. But the true innovation the iPhone represented was not to do with its sleek appearance, but its expandable software “app” library, which launched alongside the 2nd Gen iPhone 3G in 2008.
Suddenly it was easier than ever for developers to build, distribute and monetize software for a mobile audience, and this paved the way for a boom in casual iPhone games. Titles such as Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and Doodle Jump enthralled a generation of consumers still getting to grips with the integrated accelerometers and buttery-smooth feedback of the iPhone’s capacitive touchscreen. This period introduced a whole new demographic of people to the joys of gaming and laid the ground-work for the freemium take-over we see around us today.
The Present Day
On both the Android and iOS ecosystems there are hundreds of thousands of games now available to play in their app stores, making them the largest gaming libraries across any platform. Furthermore, with access to browser-based experiences, cloud gaming, and the ability to side-load region-locked titles, no other gaming platform represents as much value or customizability as mobile in 2022. Mobile gaming has spread out from its hyper-casual roots to incorporate a huge host of genres and formats.
This affords iGaming fans the ability to dive into any number of casino classics, such as roulette, by way of reputable online platforms with the same ease of access as esports athletes can drop into a competitive match of Fortnite. As mobile gaming matures, manufacturers are increasingly pivoting to develop bespoke gaming smartphones, such as the ASUS ROG Phones, and the Lenovo Legion Duel, reviving the forgotten dream of Nokia’s N-Gage. With cutting edge displays and a range of attachable peripherals, these devices are once again in a position to challenge dedicated gaming hardware manufacturers for market-share in the handheld sector.
With gaming on mobile entering a mature phase, what can we expect to see from future generations of devices and software? Increasingly mobile hardware is proving itself to be up to the task of running 7th generation console games, such as Alien: Isolation, natively. As mobile games such as Genshin Impact continue to push the envelope of mobile graphics, it’s likely we will see an increase in cross-platform releases shipping with a mobile-optimized port on day one. With mobile esports currently the fastest growing competitive gaming market in the world today, it’s not inconceivable to consider the possibility that in the near future smartphones will subsume the home games console category, in much the same way they have incorporated many other hardware formats, from digital cameras to PDAs.