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March 12, 2015

The History of Mobile Gaming

It’s easy to take it for granted but not so long ago we’d have to put up with a long, potentially boring train journey, relying on a good book or our own thoughts for entertainment. Now, it’s almost second nature to whip out your phone and click on your favourite game (of the month) to kill some time. Few consider how this developed but the story of the mobile games industry is one of adversity and innovation, million-dollar investments and catastrophic bankruptcies, not to mention incredible leaps in technology.

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In many ways, the history of mobile gaming reflects the huge transformation that mobiles, and ultimately smartphones, have written on the world at large. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's go back 20 years to a company called Hagenuk…

1994-1998
Developed in 1994 at the Danish office of a German radio equipment manufacturer, the Hagenuk MT-2000 had a number of characteristics marking it out from the bricks available at the time.

It was the first mobile in the industry to feature a built-in antennae - (antennae at this time were often nearly a foot long) and it was among the first to use softkeys. But perhaps more importantly, it was the first mobile phone to come with a built-in game: a version of Tetris, already an established classic.

But if Hagenuk was the first, it was Nokia, three years later, who truly popularised mobile gaming. In 1997, Nokia bundled the 6110 with Snake – an arcade game from the 1970s which proved maddeningly addictive for an entire generation of mobile owners. In fact, it's become one of the most widely-played video games of all time, and a version now resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

1999-2002
WAP changed everything, not least for mobile gaming. Prior to 1999, most people were stuck with whatever came pre-installed on their handsets, but the first Internet-ready phones and their primitive browsers opened up a whole new world of choice to gamers – even if that choice was between Noughts and Crosses or Connect 4.

This era also saw the first flush of dedicated developers and publishers, as the idea that mobile gaming could become a bona fide industry began to take root. JAMDAT Mobile and Ludigames were among the most important pioneers of the time, with the former publishing a mobile version of Bejeweled - a hugely influential game which became the model for Candy Crush and many other tile-matching titles.

In 2002, the first Java-enabled phones were released, such as the Nokia 3410 and Siemens M50. This represented a big leap forward for developers, who could now use the easily-accessible programming language to create new titles.

With all this interest, it didn't take long for investors to start taking note. Within the next few years, the mobile games industry would flourish as venture capitalists, always with a keen eye for the Next Big Thing, poured millions into studios and publishers.

2003-2006

In 2003, colour screens arrived on the majority of mobiles, bringing them up to date with other handheld gaming platforms. An excited Nokia launched the N-Gage: a daring fusion of console and phone; a gleaming Cornish Pasty of innovation that represented the very future of mobile gaming… except it wasn't. Despite striving to be both, the N-Gage was neither a practical phone nor a very good console, and poor sales saw it discontinued after just two years.

But the N-Gage was a blip in what was otherwise a truly exciting time for mobile gamers. Improving technology saw socks knocked off by the first few 3D games in 2005, while publishers like Digital Chocolate were attracting seven-figure sums to bring original titles into being. In 2005, the mobile games industry was worth $2.6bn: a fraction of what it is today, but already an impressive slice of the total videogames market.

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However, a major hurdle the market had still to overcome was distribution. Digital storefronts were run by a bewildering array of publishers, aggregators, middle-men and even mobile networks themselves, resulting in a highly fragmented and uneven marketplace where developers often struggled to make money. But a little company in Cupertino, California was about to change all that…

2007-present
(From this point the sections have been arranged more by topic than chronology, since the fundamentals haven't changed much in the last 7 years)

The App Store
Apple's introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and the App Store a year later, changed everything about mobile gaming in two important ways. First, the iPhone popularised the touchscreen: phones with keys suddenly looked like a laughable relic from the past (sorry Blackberry), and mobile games had to adapt and evolve in response to a whole new design philosophy.

But if touchscreen changed the games, the App Store changed the game. Almost overnight, consumers had a single portal with which to find thousands of games, while developers could cut out the cash-siphoning middlemen and get a bigger cut for their efforts. The industry flourished under this new regime: by the end of 2007, it was 33% bigger than it had been at the beginning of the year.

The App Store, and similar OS-specific storefronts like Android Market (now Google Play) was here to stay, and it had never been easier for developers to get their games distributed – or for consumers to vote with their wallets. While mobile games often trailed the footsteps of the larger games industry, this time they were the pioneer: it would be a few more years before digital storefronts became the norm on PCs and consoles too.

The Rise of the Casual Gamer
Amid all this competition, a new type of game and gamer began to emerge. Characterised by bright colours, touch-based controls and addictive gameplay, casual games were designed for everybody to enjoy – and for the first time on any platform, just as many girls were playing as guys.

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Although casual games sometimes draw criticism from the established gaming press as being simplistic and reward-based, their popularity speaks for itself. Games like Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Candy Crush and Peggle drew in people of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom had never picked up a control pad in their lives.

By removing the need to master a dozen controls before playing, mobile gaming succeeded where generations of consoles had been failing for decades: finally gaming was accessible to and enjoyed by nearly everybody. And it didn't take long for publishers to figure out how to capitalise on this newly gigantic market.

First One's Freemium
The rise of the casual gamer coincided with a sea change in the way many mobile games were developed, marketed and paid for. Faced with a market that was largely averse to up-front costs, publishers adopted a tactic rooted in the shareware of the 1990s: give the basic product away for free, and once the customers are in, charge for additional or "premium" features via in-app purchases.

By itself, this seems a pretty innocuous business model, but the finer details vary from game to game. Some simply offer the first few levels free and charge for later ones. Others, more controversially, offer up the full game to get customers hooked, but impose limits on their playing time or in-game resources unless they regularly open their wallets.

Criticism for predatory tactics aside, freemium has proven both popular and hugely profitable. A segment of the gaming industry that once struggled to consistently make money is now eclipsing more established markets: in 2015, mobile game revenues are on track to eclipse console revenues for the first time.

Independent Spirit
At the other end of the scale, the rise of mobile has been a boon to independent developers, who are often just as interested in exploring the artisanal side of gaming as they are turning a profit. While larger companies tend to stick to tried-and-tested gameplay formulas, the real innovation in mobile typically comes from micro-developers who have less to lose and more to prove.

Visually-stunning games like Monument Valley and Sword and Sorcery EP; minimalistic but captivating titles like Thomas Was Alone and Year Walk; and still others like World of Goo - which pulls off the tricky balancing act of mass appeal and an independent heart - have all enjoyed huge success on mobile.

Part of the reason is the relatively low barriers to entry for mobile development and distribution. While it can be difficult for a dedicated team of two or three people to crack the PC and console market, mobile games typically have shorter development cycles, less demanding requirements, and a readily-accessible distribution platform when it's complete - ingredients that can help small teams with big ideas stand toe-to-toe with the big players.

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Is the Future Virtual?
It's not hard to imagine that gesture and motion control, combined with technologies like Google Glass and Oculus Rift, could take portable virtual/augmented reality games from the realms of science fiction to reality within just a few years.

Just as the first smartphones did a decade ago, new forms of input and display would open up a whole new world of opportunities for developers: a jogging app in which the player is pursued by zombies; multi-player laser tag with finger guns; games which use our bodies and environments in new and surprising ways. The next great leap in the mobile gaming story could be the one that sees play return from the screen to the physical world.