I saw a lot of shocked reactions when Nintendo announced it would be partnering with another company to make smartphone games. The company was quick to stress that it wouldn't be moving entirely to app stores controlled by third parties: these games will not be re-releases of existing titles, and Nintendo is still working on new dedicated console hardware for the next generation. You shouldn't expect New Super Mario on your phone anytime soon. Basically, their smartphone games will serve as ads for the "real" games.
Unlike a lot of people, I've never really rooted for Nintendo to become a software-only company. Other companies that make that jump often do so to their detriment — look at Sega, which lost a real creative spark when they got out of the hardware business — and it's even more true for Nintendo, which has always explored the physical aspects of gaming as much as the virtual. The playful design of the GameCube controller buttons, or the weirdness of a double-screened handheld, or the runaway popularity of Wii Sports, are the result of designers who are encouraged to hold strong opinions. A touchscreen, on the other hand, is a weak opinion — even no opinion, as it imitates (but never really emulates) physical controls like buttons or joysticks.
But here's the other thing: what Nintendo represents on dedicated handheld hardware, as much as wacky design chops, is a sustainable market. I play a lot of Android games, I own a Shield, I'm generally positive on the idea of microconsoles. Even given those facts, a lot of the games I play on the go are either emulators or console ports, because the app store model simply does not support development beyond a single mechanic or a few hours of gameplay. The race to the bottom, and the resulting crash of mobile game prices, means that you will almost never see a phone game with the kind of lifespan and complexity you'd get out of even the lamest Nintendo title (Yoshi Touch & Go aside).
I don't think everything Nintendo produces is golden, but they're reliable. People buy Nintendo games because you're pretty much guaranteed a polished, enjoyable experience, to the point where they can start with an expanded riff on a gimmick level and still end up with a solid gameplay hit. They're the Pixar of games. And as a result of that consistency, people will pay $40 for first-party Nintendo titles, largely sight-unseen. This creates a virtuous cycle: the revenue from a relatively-expensive gaming market lets them make the kind of games that justify that cost. It's almost impossible to imagine Nintendo being able to sustain the same halo in a $1-5 game market.
There's room for both experiences in the gaming ecosystem. Microsoft, Sony, and Steam will all provide big-budget, adult-oriented games. The app stores are overflowing with shorter, quirkier, free-to-play fare. Nintendo's niche is that they crossed those lines: oddball software for all ages that was polished to a mirror sheen. Luckily, even though observers seem convinced that Nintendo is doomed, the company itself seems well aware of where their value lies — and it's not on someone else's platform.
I've owned an Nvidia Shield for a little under a year now. The situation hasn't entirely changed: I use it most often as a portable emulator, and it's wonderful for that. I beat Mother 3, Drill Dozer, and Super Metroid a while back, and I'm working my way through Final Fantasy 6 now.
But there are more Android games that natively support physical controls now, especially as the Ouya and add-on joysticks have raised the profile for Android gaming. It's not a huge library, but between Humble Bundles and what's in the Google Play store, I certainly don't feel cheated. If you're thinking about picking one up, here's what's good (and what's merely playable) so far.
Aquaria may be the best value for the dollar on Shield, which makes it weird that apparently you can't buy it for Android anymore. A huge, sprawling Metroid-alike set underwater, with a beautifully-painted art style, it's the first game that I played where the Shield's controls not only worked, they worked really well (which figures, since it was developed for XBox controls alongside mouse and touch). If you managed to nab this in an old Humble Bundle, it's well worth the installation.
Actually the third in a series of "tower offense" games, where you send a small group of tanks through a path filled with obstacles, Anomaly 2 is one of the weird cases where the physical controls work, and are very well-tuned, but you still kind of wish the game was on a touchscreen. Playing the earlier Anomaly titles on a phone, you'd get into a groove of tapping icons to balance your resources, targeting, and path. It had a nice Google Maps fluidity to it, and that kind of speed suffers a little bit when panning around via thumbstick. It's still worth a look, but probably better played on a touch device.
In contrast, Badlands seems like a poor match for the Shield--it's a single-press game similar to any number of other smartphone titles (Flappy Bird, Tiny Wings, etc). But there's one distinguishing factor, which is that the triggers on the Shield (which are mapped to the "flap" action) are fully analog, so the harder you pull the faster the onscreen character flies. It's a small change, but it completely alters the feel of the game for the better. The layered, 2D art style is also gorgeous, and the sound design is beautiful, but on the other hand I actually have no idea what's going on, or why some little black blobby creature is trying to travel from left to right.
Most of these games come from the Humble Bundles, which are almost always worth throwing $5 at, but I actually bought Clarc from the Google Play store. It plays a bit like Sokoban, mixed with Portal 2's laser puzzles and Catherine's block/enemy entrapment. Previously released on Ouya, the controls are still solid on the Shield, and the puzzles follow a nice pattern of seeming impossible, then seeming obvious once they're worked out. A super-fast checkpoint system also helps. It's cute, funny, and good for about 6 hours of serious play.
I'm in favor of anything that puts Crazy Taxi on every platform in existence, but only if it's coded well. The problem is that while this port supports the gamepad, it's hamstrung by the adaptations made for phones — namely, the Crazy Drift can't be triggered manually, and the Crazy Dash feels sluggish. In a game where you need to be drifting or dashing almost all the time, this pretty much ruins your ability to run the map. I'd say to skip this unless it's on sale.
Gunman Clive was originally released on the PS Vita, and it shows: a cel-shaded platformer with a strong Contra influence, this is another bite-sized chunk of gameplay. It does seem to be missing some of the bonus features from the original release, but there's still plenty of variety (and some huge, fun bosses) to fight. Considering that it's only a couple of bucks, it's well worth the price if you're in the mood for some neo-retro shooting.
Speaking of retro, one of my favorite discoveries is the games that Orange Pixel has been tossing out for all kinds of platforms, particularly Gunslugs and Heroes of Loot. Both are procedurally-generated takes on classic games (Metal Slug and Gauntlet respectively) with a pixel-art design and a goofy sense of humor. The rogue-like randomization of the levels makes both of them compulsively playable, too. They're great time-wasters.
One of Gameloft's derivative mobile clones, NOVA 3 is trying very hard to either be Crysis or Halo. It doesn't really matter which since the result is just boring man-in-suit shooting, with sloppy, ill-configured thumbstick controls. All that, and it's still one of the more expensive titles in this list. Definitely skip this one.
Rochard was released on Steam a while back, and then re-released just for Shield this spring. It's a clever little puzzle-platformer that's based around a Half-Life gravity gun, but also some light combat. It would probably be better without the latter: the AI is generally terrible, and the weapons aren't inspiring. At its best, Rochard has you toggling low-gravity jumps, stacking crates, and juggling power cells to disable force fields, and those are the parts that make it worth playing.
Finally, fans of shooters have plenty of options (including remakes of R-Types I and II), but there's something to be said for time-travel epic Sine Mora. Although it makes no sense whatsoever, it's a great bullet-hell shmup with a strong emphasis on replayability through different ships and abilities, score attack modes, and boss fights. I love a good shooter, even if I'm terrible at them, and this is no exception.
What's missing from the games on Shield so far? I'd like to see more tactical options, a la Advance Wars or XCOM (which has a port, but doesn't understand gamepads). I'd appreciate a good RPG. And I'd love to see a real, serious shooter that's not a tossed-off Wolfenstein demake. But it's worth also understanding why these games don't exist: the economics of the mobile market don't support them. When your software sells for $5 a pop, maximum, you can't afford to do a lot of content development or design.
The result, except for ports from more sustainable platforms, is a bunch of quick hits instead of real investments. Almost all the games above, the ones that are worth playing at least, were either released on PC/console first, or simultaneously. The good news is that tools like Unity and Unreal Engine 4 promote simultaneous mobile/PC development. The bad news is that getting better games for mobile may mean cheapening development on the big platforms. If you thought that consoles were ruining PC game design before, wait until phones start to make an impact.
Belle and I were planning on getting a Roku to replace our five-year-old XBox this Christmas, since the games are drying up and it doesn't make any sense to pay for a Live subscription just to watch Netflix and HBO. I still kind of bear a grudge against Sony for the CD rootkit they passed around years ago, but then my employers at ArenaNet bought everyone a PS4 as a holiday bonus. I am, it turns out, not above being a hypocrite when it comes to free stuff.
You can explain a lot about the last three generations of consoles by remembering that, at heart, Microsoft is a software company and Sony is a hardware company. Why did the XBox 360 suffer regular heat failures? Why does the PS Vita interface look like an After Dark screensaver? Our 360 was clearly on the edge of another DVD failure, so I bear them no particular good will. But you have to admit: up to the point that a given XBox malfunctions in one way or another, Microsoft knows how to build a usable operating system. Sony... well, it's not so much a core skill of theirs.
For example, after you turn on the PS4, and after the hundreds of megabytes of updates are done downloading and installing themselves a few times, you're greeted with a row of boxes:
Apparently I'm a little grumpy about the menus.
Anyway for us, this is a media player, which means we'd like to have a remote control, but those don't exist for PS4 yet and it can't use regular IR remotes. The controller layout may make sense to someone who owned a PS3, but it's just baffling to me: why is the button normally used to go backwards assigned here to play/pause duties? To be fair, the XBox never really had a great controller story for DVDs either (both of them put fast-forward on the triggers, where you're guaranteed to accidentally hit it while setting the controller down), but at least it tried to be consistent with the rest of the OS.
You can pair a smartphone with the PS4, which one would think could be a chance to show custom controls for media, what with the touchscreen and all. You'd be wrong: the PS4 app dedicates 90% of its surface to a swipeable touchpad, apparently on the assumption that the three directional inputs on the actual controller are insufficient.
The whole time you're watching a movie, of course, the controller will glow like some sort of demented blue firefly, which helps the camera (which I don't have) to see where I am (hint: the couch). Since you can't just turn off the LED, I've got the whole controller set to shut itself off after ten minutes. This solves the glow, and keeps the batteries from draining themselves at an alarming rate, but now when I want to actually use the controller for something — say, to pause the movie because our dog has started making that special "I'm going to throw up" face — it interrupts with a bright blue screen, every single time, to ask me who I am. Meanwhile, my movie keeps playing in the background.
This is worth some emphasis: on the XBox, a console where we actually had multiple accounts, each new controller that was activated would either log in as the current user or just kind of wait in "guest" mode until the player actually signed in. On the PS4, a console where we have one account, to which I was already signed in with our only controller 20 minutes ago, Sony needs to know my identity before I can perform the critical, account-bound task of pausing a movie. Meanwhile, the dog is now standing sheepishly in front of a vomit-stained rug.
I'm a little grumpy about the media functions, too.
I'm well aware it's a little ridiculous to gripe this much about a free game system. It's not that the PS4 is a bad machine — it's on par with your average DVD player in terms of usability — but I tend to feel like maybe they should aim a little higher. I'm really hoping that these kinds of fixes will be easy to update, since most of the UI is apparently built using web technology instead of painstakingly coded native widgets.
What's really interesting about comparing consoles from both companies is that the kinds of things I really miss from the XBox (pinned items, Kinect voice commands, good media apps) weren't there from the start. Microsoft has gone through at least three major revisions since they released the 360 in 2005. Even though there have been regressions (and the ads have certainly gotten bigger over time), the overall trend has been for the better — in part because they've been effectively allowed to throw the whole thing away and start over. As far as I can tell, the PS3 was also improved, even if it wasn't reinvented in the same way. It takes a lot of nerve to make sweeping changes like that, and as well as a conviction that the physical box is not what you're selling — a philosophy that's well-suited to Microsoft's software background, but that even hardware companies can no longer ignore.
I've been so embedded in a constantly-shifting web environment for so long that I sometimes forget that not everything updates on a monthly basis. Sony will be more conservative than Microsoft, but even they will be rolling out patches to the PS4, many of which will probably address my complaints. We live in a world where you can turn around and find that your DVD player, or your phone, or your browser suddenly looks and acts completely differently. That's great for people like me who thrive on novelty, but it now occurs to me just how disorienting this might be for ordinary people. It may be worth considering whether a little stability might be good for us — even if it means preserving the bad with the good — and whether the technical community might benefit from a little sympathy to users overwhelmed by our love of change.
Let's say that you're making a new game console, and you're not one of the big three (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo). You can't afford to take time for developers to get up to speed, because you're already at a mindshare deficit. So you pick a commodity middleware that runs on a lot of hardware, preferably one that already has lots of software and a decent SDK. These days that means using Android, which is why most of the new microconsoles (Ouya, Gamestick, Mojo) are just running re-skinned versions of Android 4.x.
Nvidia's Shield is no different in terms of the underlying OS, but it does change the form factor compared to the other Android microconsoles. Instead of a set-top box or HDMI stick, it effectively crams the company's ridiculously powerful Tegra 4 chipset into an XBox controller, and then bolts on an LCD screen. I like Android, I like buttons, and I spend a lot of time bored on a bus during my commute, so I bought one late last week.
It's a bulky chunk of plastic, for sure. I don't particularly want to try throwing both it and the Chromebook into the same small Timbuktu bag. But in the hand it feels almost exactly like an XBox 360 controller — meaning it's very comfortable, and not at all cumbersome. It's definitely the best package I've ever used for emulators: playing GBA games feels pretty much like the real thing, except with a much larger, prettier screen. I'd have bought it just for emulation, which is well-supported on Android these days.
Actual Android games are kind of a mixed bag. I own a fair number of them, between the occassional Play Store purchase and all the Humble Bundles, and most of them aren't designed for gamepad controls. The Shield does have a touchscreen (as well as the ability to use the right thumbstick as a mouse cursor), but the way it's set up doesn't promote touch-only gaming: there's no good way to hold the screen while the body of the controller sits in the way, and portrait mode is even more awkward.
But if the developer has added gamepad support, the experience is really, really good. I've been playing Asphalt 8, Aquaria, and No Gravity lately, and feeling pretty satisfied. For a lot of games, particularly traditional genres like racing or shooters that require multiple simultaneous inputs, you just can't beat having joysticks and physical buttons. It also helps showcase the kinds of graphics that phones/tablets can pump out if your thumbs aren't always blocking the screen.
So the overall software situation looks a little lopsided: lots of great emulators, but only a few native titles that really take advantage of the hardware. I'm okay with this, and I actually expect it to get better. Since almost all the new microconsoles are Android-based, and almost all of them use gamepads (for which there's a standard API), it's only going to be natural for developers to add controller support to their games. I think the real question is going to be whether Android (or any mobile OS) can support the kinds of lengthy, high-quality titles that have been the standard on traditional, $40/game consoles.
If Android manages to become a home for decent "core" games, it'll probably be due to what Chris Pruett, a game developer and former Android team member, calls out in this interview: the implicit creation of a "standardized" console platform. Instead of developers needing to learn completely new systems with every console generation, they can write for a PC-like operating system across many devices (cue "fragmentation" panics). Systems like the Shield, which push the envelope for portable graphics, are going to play a serious role in that transition, whether or not the device is successful in and of itself.
The other interesting question if microconsoles take off will be whether there's a driver for innovation there. In the full-sized console space, it's been relatively easy for the big three companies to throw out crazy ideas from time to time, ranging from Kinect and Eyetoy to pretty much everything Nintendo's done for the last decade. PCs have been much slower to change, a fact that has frustrated some designers. Are microconsoles more like desktop computers, in that they have a standard OS and commodity hardware? Or are they more like regular consoles, since they're cheap enough to make crazy gambles affordable?
The Shield, perhaps unsurprisingly from Nvidia, points to the former. It's an unabashedly traditional console experience, from the emphasis on graphics to the eight-button controller. It's good at playing the kind of games that you'd find on a set-top box (or indeed, emulating those boxes themselves), but it's probably not the next Wii: you're buying iteration, not innovation--technologically, at least. It just so happens that after a couple of years of trying to play games with only a touchscreen, sometimes that's exactly what I want.
The Internet has many virtues (and no small number of vices), but its most surprising effect has been the way it has made research both easy and addictive. While you have to be critical of what you read, of course, at no other time in our history has it been easier to scarf down information like a big bowl of knowledge-flavored ramen.
But this is mainly useful for certain types of knowledge--mainly intellectual, abstract data. For example, when I was in high school I decided to learn how to play the harmonica, which is not a skillset that you can really pick up from written description (although I certainly spent enough time on the HARP-L list, just in case). Likewise, I may have mentioned my recent interest in breakdancing--you can watch a lot of videos and read a lot of forum posts, but I think that's a relatively ineffective way to learn. I don't mean to say that online communities for these activities are useless, because they have value in other ways. But for concrete tasks, you can't beat physical instruction.
So anyway, I'm kind of intrigued by Kinect (and, to a lesser extent, the Playstation Move/Eye or the Wii remote/balance board combinations). We have been working for a while now toward a world where we can query the Internet's store of information based on a macro-level location in space and time, via smartphones. Inventions like Google's local search, and to a lesser degree Foursquare or Yelp, add geographic location to human input. Kinect and its brethren, on the other hand, are attempts to turn the perspective around: interaction based on the topology of the user's body itself.
These early attempts are primitive. They'll be used in crude ways, for gaming and parlor tricks, and they'll have limitations like Kinect's inability to handle prone positions and relatively low resolution. But think of the potential here one that's only hinted at in Harmonix's Dance Central. Among other things, real motion interfaces are a first step toward extending the tremendous communication and educational value of the Internet out into the realm of physical movement. Imagine an educational program for athletic skills that could see your movements, compare them to a model, and tell you how to correct them--or a video chat session with a teacher who could walk "around" to critique your technique in 3D space. Even if it were non-interactive, this could have real advantages--I'd love to have a clean motion-capture of Vic Wooten's slap bass technique to study in slow motion. And surely there are commercial applications, like virtual dressing rooms or telepresence tourism.
Thanks to some literal handwaving, the vision of motion control since Minority Report has been to provide a fancy, grand gestural control mechanism for data manipulation--because there's a problem we've all had, right? In much the same way, the current focus on camera-view augmented reality ignores its real, current applications in relatively dull location-sensitive mapping, probably because most critics are more interested in the human-machine interface than the way these new technologies shape our culture. But surely we should have learned by now: in the age of networked communcation, it's the mundane social uses--chatting, teaching, and sharing--where innovation will get really interesting.