If you read the papers, you could easily think that the Wii is the most popular games console ever. It isn’t. Nor is it the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3, or even the Playstation 2. The most popular games console in the world was the hand-held Game Boy, which over several incarnations, has sold 200 million units. Now, thanks to the Nintendo DS and the Playstation Portable, hand-held gaming represents about two-thirds of the gaming hardware market. And, with mobile phones gearing up for some serious gaming – the expansion of the iPhone’s App Store, and the arrival of Nokia’s N-gage badged gaming phones – the market is exploding.
This surge in hand-held units has had knock-on effects in game design. Games designed to be played on TV often rely on the work of programmers for their visual impact – through procedural animation, high polygon counts and complex lighting filters. However, the smaller screens of hand-held devices mean that their games depend far more on raw design talent. The result has been a resurgence of high quality, highly distinctive art-led games. They also tend to be developed by smaller teams, meaning it’s possible for artists and designers to have a much bigger impact on the game design, which is something that shines through in games like LocoRoco, Patapon, Electroplankton and Project Rub. The trend in home console games has long been towards photo-realism which, while it is hugely effective when applied to driving, sports and movie-inspired games, has rather shackled gaming’s visual creativity of late. Hand-held is changing all that.
At the forefront of the current trend is a new appetite for minimalism, perhaps best exemplified by Sony’s spatial puzzler Echochrome. This elegant, purely black-and-white game was conceived by artist Jun Fukiji, and actually started life as a drawing tool. It was designed to enable free-hand 2D drawing over 3D constructions, and its creator soon noticed the entertainment value of the application. A producer at Sony spotted the potential and a new game genre, as well as a fresh aesthetic, arrived on the hand-held scene.
Nostalgia is also a driving force behind hand-held game design. As well as creating lovingly exact recreations of games from the 1970s and 1980s, many studios are overhauling the colour clashes and heavy pixelation evident in old games and finding new inspiration. Space Invaders Extreme updates one of gaming’s icons with humour and an unexpected disco edge. Every Extend Extra shows its love for the traditions of shoot-’em-ups by drowning the screen in colour.
Another inspiration is comic art, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, initially centred on Japanese traditions. Cult music game Ouendan draws heavily on manga for both its art style and story-telling techniques, and games like Jump! Superstars successfully create the equivalent of interactive anime, with all the exaggerated character design and manic action that suggests. Increasingly, though, Western influences – particularly that of bande dessiné – are making themselves felt. Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village has a very painterly feel, and the soft colours of Jeanne d’Arc are far removed from the harsh contrasts and flashing lights of Space Invaders Extreme.
While the design aesthetic of DS and PSP games is sophisticated and vibrant, there seems to be a vacuum in the early days of iPhone game development. With a few notable exceptions, much of what is currently available is either visually undistinguished, or simply direct conversions of older, existing games with dated presentation. It’s an unfortunate situation for a device which prides itself so much on aesthetics, and whose owners are renowned for preferring sleek, elegant design over almost anything else.
Happily, it’s also a very fortunate situation for designers looking to make the move across into game design. Although the iPhone is a very powerful device – roughly comparable to the PSP, but with touch-screen and accelerometer input – the low cost of games (usually less than £5) means that very small teams can compete with little more than a great idea and some stunning design work.
Although the non-disclose agreement, a condition for iPhone developers, makes it hard for people working on the machine to swap notes, many are finding it a welcoming development environment. Something else that attracts developers are the low costs – Apple charges just $99 (£55) for accreditation. The existence of the iTunes store means designers also have a direct means of distribution to help recoup costs. For now, the install base still can’t rival that of DS or PSP, but as prices come down and specs go up, that will change. So, forget PS3 and Xbox 360 and Wii. It may well be the iPhone that gives designers the best chance to rule the gaming world.
Margaret Robertson is a former editor of videogame magazine Edge, and now works as a game design consultant to companies including Channel 4, Sony and EA