Talk to anybody working in the mainstream video game industry today, and you are left with a strong impression that everything is perched on the precipice of enormous change. Just as venerable institutions of the new Internet economy like Facebook and Google are being forced to adopt to the atomized web created by mobile phones, so too are blockbuster game developers, which are realizing that capturing the living room demographic alone is no longer an option. The audience for the next “Angry Birds” is just as important, if not more so, than that of “Call of Duty.”
To those unfamiliar with smartphone games beyond “Words With Friends” and “Temple Run,” the sheer processing power of the latest Android and iPhone smartphones is overwhelming. While they’re still a generation or so behind the graphics and sound quality of the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, the fact that users can now play games like “Grand Theft Auto III” – a groundbreaking game for the Playstation 2 back in 2001 – right on their smartphones is still something of a shock.
But besides graphics, one area where smartphones lag much further behind consoles is in their control schemes. No matter how precise a touch screen is, it cannot offer the same accuracy or deftness of a mouse, gamepad, or even a joystick. It’s probably because of this very reason that the most acclaimed smartphone and tablet games cater their design mentality to swiping rather than the furious clicking that is usually associated with gamers. Even Epic Games’ “Infinity Blade,” one of the first iPad games designed by a high-profile PC and console game developer, built all of its gameplay around swiping back and forth on the screen to attack opponent and parry theirs in turn.
While these touch-based games are fun and often incredibly successful, this type of short-form game design runs the risk of hemorrhaging the same casual users that download the cheap and easily available apps like “Draw Something,” whichenjoyed its fifteen minutes of fame earlier this year. It was only a matter of time before hardware developers realized that in order to build real gamer audiences for smartphone games, they had to build better haptic technology.
I can’t think of a better company to take the first bold step into this market than PowerA, which next week will release the MOGA, a mobile gamepad designed for Android smartphones. PowerA historically has focused on producing high-end gaming peripherals designed for nerdy obsessions (like the Batman-style Batarang controller) or professional e-sports athletes. Regardless of its use, PowerA is very good at creating devices with stronger grips and more easily accessible buttons than the standard controllers provided by Sony or Microsoft with their respective consoles.
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PowerA understands better than general-purpose consumer electronics manufacturers what makes a game controller work, and their experience shows in the design of the MOGA itself. The device looks and feels like something in-between the bottom half of the Nintendo 3DS and the standard Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 gamepad. The joysticks, like the 3DS’s, are small and flat to hug closely to the controller surface and avoid snagging on stray objects in your bag. But the rest of the device transfers the core features of a TV console gamepad to a smaller handheld remarkably well. There are two joysticks on either side of the device, four central action buttons (X,Y,B,A run clockwise in a small circle as with the 360 controller. If this were Apple and Samsung, I’d say to watch out for an impending lawsuit), two shoulder buttons for your left and right index fingers, and even a start and select button. It’s also small, roughly similar in height and width to Samsung’s Galaxy S3 smartphone, though slightly thicker to the extent that I couldn’t easily fit it in a pocket. However, the MOGA still manages to be smaller and lighter than the major mobile gaming consoles on the market – like the Playstation Vita or the Nintendo 3DS – without feeling flimsy in comparison.
MOGA connects wirelessly via Bluetooth to Android smartphones or tablets, allowing it to be held at a distance while playing a game in case you want to prop either of the devices up on a table or desk. Otherwise, the MOGA features a retractable latch that flips up to hold the smartphone at an angle, much like the Nintendo 3DS.
One of the main selling points of Android devices is how deeply customizable and hack-friendly they are compared to rival mobile products like the iPhone or iPad, which is, after all, the same open-source ethic that made a peripheral like the MOGA possible in the first place. The trade-off to this, however, is that the MOGA sacrifices many of the advantages of a universal design ecosystem that game-specific mobile units can offer. I found it strangely frustrating, for instance, that I couldn’t simply snap the device shut with a smartphone placed in the latch. And when I tested it out with my personal phone, a Droid Razr Maxx, I noticed that the latch perched uncomfortably, directly on top of the volume controls.
The adjustable arm that holds the smartphone only locks in two positions -- either perpendicular do the surface or leaned back at around a 75 degree angle -- which makes the relatively rigid compared to the 3DS, which can be bent a full 180 degrees. And while the rubberized grip and the buttons themselves are expertly built, I noticed some lag in its performance when I paired the Samsung Galaxy S3 with another bluetooth device (in this case, headphones) at the same time. None of these problems are necessarily deal-breakers, but they do limit the MOGA’s on-the-fly transportability, which is a key factor to any mobile device you'd want to play during your daily commute.
The larger risk that the MOGA faces, however, is in third-party development. The device is being launched with an Android app called Pivot that centralizes all MOGA-compatible games for users; a lot of the most recognizable brand names here are ports of classic titles like "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Duke Nukem."
I tested out several of the games that will be included in the console’s starting package, a result of several partnerships established with noted game developers like SEGA, Namco, and Gameloft. The problem with these games is that they were simply developed to be compatible with the MOGA, not designed to optimize the device’s actual performance. As a result, many of the titles don’t take full advantage of all of the controller’s impressive features.
What MOGA is betting on, however, is that with products already on the market, a new class of game developers will begin to produce content that uses the MOGA for all its worth -- the sort of “If you build it, they will come” mentality that any hardware developer has to adopt today. And from what I’ve seen of the games that did use all of the MOGA’s features, this is certainly promising. Games like the first-person shooter “N.O.V.A. 3” and the racing game “Asphalt 7: Heat HD” transplanted the console experience seamlessly to my smartphone. After playing them on the MOGA for several hours, I can’t imagine stepping back to the frustrating experience of mashing on simulated game-pad controls for a touch screen alone.
It will still be a while before a game like “Call of Duty,” “Mass Effect,” or dare I say “Skyrim” appears exclusively for your Android phone. But the MOGA is the first step in an important direction for the game industry. And at a remarkably cheap price point ($49.99, though you also have to purchase AAA batteries and, of course, the games themselves) compared to the Vita ($249.99) and 3DS ($169.99), the MOGA is more than enough to put the big three console developers on their toes for the next, mobile-friendly generation of gamers.