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.