Is Mobile Really A Gaming Machine?

The Michael Pachter issue I had before, writing an article about how wrong he was about a potentially imploding handheld market, brought up a pretty good question: Is the iPod Touch/iPhone – or any mobile phone or device, for that matter – a "gaming console"? Let's look first at history to see if we can dig up any ideas of what a portable gaming console is.

The first electronic games were single-game devices, like the first game Auto Race by Mattel followed by Coleco's Football (which was really just a handful of LEDs and some classic 1970s off-white plastic. Those crude units were the only kind of easily-portable electronic game for years leading up to the creation of a cart-based platform called the Microvision, a liquid-crystal display unit that could play multiple games unitizing the main unit. Less than 20 games were released for the temperamental – but for the time, pretty advanced – portable machine.

After a slew of self-contained LCD games from Tiger and Mattel, and the creation of the "Game & Watch" line from Nintendo, Atari released the Lynx (complete with a beautifully back-lit color screen) while Nintendo engineer Gumpei Yokoi spearheaded the actual next generation of handheld gaming: the Game Boy.

For most gamers, it was the end-all, be-all of mobile play for the following decade, with its popularity peak coming in 1998 with the launch of Pokémon, which has since become one of the ultimate media – not just gaming – franchises in history (also known to the 5th-grade-world as "legal crack on school grounds" until they yanked my cart and Leaves-of-Destruction-themed Pokémon TCG deck). There were a slew of non-game related items for the Game Boy, including a camera/printer set-up, a dictionary, and even a sewing machine (just plug in the cart, attach the cable, and the sewing machine does the rest).

Around the same time that Pikachu ruled the charts, in 1998-99, tiny generic games like Snake started to show up on the burgeoning cell phone market. It was easy to pick and play on simple, dot-matrix screens, so why not have a little game on there to pass a minute or two? After all, you have a small device with a screen in your pocket. Why not have some fun?

From there, the evolution has been an accelerated version of what happened with the computer: nerds found a way to have some fun and fiddled around with their given hardware, and it snowballed into a full-on industry with business models and new genres popping up frequently.

Does this mean that cell phones are gaming consoles? Not all of them; most are designed with a specific purpose in mind, like simply making calls and texting, or processing documents (or whatever it is business people use their Blackberries for). Most smart phones can play some interesting games, with their respective marketplace expanding all the time, but they're business machines and not meant for particularly deep gaming experiences. There have been a few devices meant for gaming like most of us think about, like playing Tomb Raider on the N-Gage (cringe accordingly, people), but in the mobile space specialized gaming devices are few and far between.

That's not to say there won't be another gaming revolution; them little phones have a lot of potential. The Android and iTunes stores are starting to fill up with some interesting properties, and with the Playstation Phone (or whatever it's final title will be) on the horizon, that market could be ripe to explode. It's a big jump to go from what is essentially a lot of "pick-up-and-play" titles – your Sword & Pokers and Canabalts – to fully established genres, and the mobile market has a lot to catching up to do against games for the DSiWare and Playstation Network download services. But in just the past few years, the game-scape on those platforms changed from visually-stripped versions of Pac-Man to games with depth, some even with stories instead of simple time wasters.

Which means… maybe there is a new mobile revolution coming. The DS and the PSP haven't had much competition in recent years, and even though mobile games aren't quite up to the same level, platforms like the iPod Touch and Droid phones are starting to come into their own. Given a bit more time, they could actually become legitimate threats to the upcoming 3DS and, maybe, even move gaming forward in the shape of the Playstation Phone. Mobile devices still have some maturing to do, but keep an eye on them. That buzz in your pocket could eventually become a game invite for your next addiction.

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