Monday, July 25, 2016

On the merging of phone and gaming device

I'm a gadget addict. I like having multiple pieces of technology on me, at nearly all times. For the past eight years, I've carried around three staple devices on most days: a phone, a music player, and a gaming handheld. (Naturally, I wear a lot of cargo pants/shorts.)

That may sound ridiculous, but one of the things I love about relying on multiple gadgets is the "division of labor" - by not trying to force one device to do everything, I can conserve battery life on all of them and juggle multiple activities (to the extent that my brain can keep up).

Most of you have guessed where I'm going with this: the modern "smartphone" - pocket computers that happen to be telecommunications devices - has taken over nearly every "gadget" functionality for a huge chunk of the population. MP3 players and standalone PDAs have basically died out, while compact digital cameras are almost never seen outside of a retail store shelf. Even portable gaming devices are on the decline; many have asserted that the 3DS and the Vita (especially the Vita) have all but lost to the age of the smartphone, as the latter packs more convenience and computational power than the former, and most games for phones are much cheaper or outright "free".

I'm not here to go into an argument about the quality or merit of the games on one platform or the other. I love my gaming handhelds, but I've found plenty of games for Android devices that I'll sing praises about. What I do want to talk about is a problem I keep running into that indirectly affects every portable game out there - the consolidation effect (yes, I just made that name up. Don't snicker).

The thing about folding "handheld gaming" into a smartphone is that it's an enormous drain on a device that's already being asked to do so much. Think about it: with our phones, we: make phone calls; communicate with text messages and similar OTI services; browse the web and research things; take photos and videos; edit photos; listen to music; navigate and find places to navigate to; pay for things; check our email; check on documents; check our schedule; check the news; take and utilize notes; watch videos; control TV accessories; and so. Much. More. It's almost no wonder that, despite nearly two decades and counting of smartphone development and growth, we're all still struggling to make most phones get through a full day of use without needing a recharge.

And we seriously want to add video games, one of the most resource-intensive tasks a personal computer can do in this day and age, to that list of daily tasks with nothing to siphon it off to?

I'm excited for Nintendo's plans for mobile games (I'm really hoping their Fire Emblem title will be worthwhile). I've joined the Pokémon GO craze. I've found games that I really enjoy playing on my phone, from Super Hexagon (a port) to Space Grunts (an original title; and a pretty fun rougelike) to Monument Valley (an original puzzle game). But no matter how good, or how deep, or how fun those games are, I always find myself keeping play sessions short - much shorter than I do when I'm playing a game on my DS, my Wii, or my desktop PC.

Primarily, that's because my phone gets hot (which forces the phone to reduce performance and which hurts the battery's lifespan), and the battery drains fast. I have a Droid Turbo, mind - a phone that was touted by Motorola and Verizon as being capable of getting through 48 hours without needing a charger. Not once has it quite lived up to that claim in practice - and since I started playing Pokémon GO, it's become hard to even get through sixteen hours without reaching for extra juice (granted, that game is an extreme example). Unlike my DS, I have to make sure my phone still has power to actually be used as a phone - I certainly don't want someone to call me at 3 PM only for me to realize I have 10% left on the battery gauge. (Which is exactly what can happen to someone playing a lot of Pokémon GO in the middle of the day, with no outlet nearby.)

Secondarily, there's the issue of activity focus, yet another thing we as a society have been doubtlessly struggling with thanks to "smart" devices. While you're playing a game on a phone, a notification may appear; a phone call may come in; a text message may arrive; or something else may come up that forces you to switch apps. Besides breaking your focus, responding to these interruptions put extra work on the phone and may even push the game out of working memory - forcing the software to reload when you switch back to it. This, of course, contributes to the primary issue of battery life and phone heat. If this happens while you're gaming on a DS? Pause and/or close the lid, optionally pocketing/setting down the console. It's little things like that that make the experience much less annoying, in my opinion.

My point is, Sony's probably not making another handheld, and after whatever rumored portable segment of Nintendo's "NX" comes to light, who knows if there will be a handheld successor? If the answer is "none", then the future of portable gaming will left entirely in the hands of our cell phones.

I just don't think our batteries are ready for that.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Breath of the Wild, Fresh Air

Open-world games and I kind of have a rocky relationship. I ignore them, and they ignore me. I have avoided, among other franchises, Fable and The Elder Scrolls (I tried Skyrim once, on an Xbox 360, and I simply failed to stay interested), largely because the open-world nature of those games leaves me in a sort of choice-paralysis.

Even with The Legend of Zelda, one of my favorite franchises, there are games I have not completed because of how little they hold your hand. I have a copy of the original game for the NES, as a real cartridge, and on my 3DS as a Virtual Console title. The former, I've never actually played, and the latter, I've owned for over a year and a half, and I still have three dungeons left to do. Every time I pick up that game, I get frustrated with something and leave it alone again before I can accomplish anything. Everything I have accomplished was done with the aid of a detailed map and a textual walkthrough; the latter was used to find some items to reduce frustration (White Ring, more Hearts, etc.), and the former was used to give me a sense of direction. Without both at hand, I don't feel free - I feel lost. The freedom to aimlessly wander without being told about a specific, immediate goal almost always leaves me feeling like I'm wandering around without purpose, wasting time, when I could be getting something done in the game. Even in Zelda games I otherwise love, there are occasionally parts where, if I don't have them memorized, I become frustrated so easily from a lack of direction that I turn to a walkthrough (big example: the Triforce Shard quest in Wind Waker; also, the mandatory trading subquest in Link's Awakening). It's weird, because if I know what my goal is, and how to do it, then I don't mind taking a little detour from time to time (example: hunting for Maiamais in A Link Between Worlds between dungeons), because I know what I have to do and I'm free to break off my distraction to go do it and move on.

And yet, somehow, I am incredibly excited for Breath of the Wild.

I don't know what it is.

I know that I got excited watching much of the footage during E3. It looked like great fun to wander upon a bunch of Bokoblins with naught but a stick, and come out victorious with a club and a bow. The whole way the weapon breakage worked, combined with the system for switching weapons, got me a bit giddy at the challenge it should offer. Just the prospect of exploring the world, and the footage showing off some of that, yet still having at least a few people point me in the direction the player should go for answers, special items, and the like - giving purpose to the wandering beyond resource gathering, one the player is free to follow at their leisure.

So many open-world games have done these things already, and yet I've not wanted to give them a chance. Why is this Zelda game different to me? Why is it different for anyone?

I don't know. Maybe it's just that Nintendo touch.