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How mobile gaming took over from handheld consoles

We take a look at how gaming changed.

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Credit: Pexels

Today, video games are more popular than ever, and we enjoy them on the widest range of platforms yet. From PCs to consoles and laptops to smartphones, the gaming market continues to grow. Video games are no longer just enjoyed by dedicated enthusiasts, but by the general public also, and the rise of mobile gaming is generally responsible for this.

Mobile gaming now accounts for over a quarter of gaming revenue worldwide, and the first thing that 64% of people purchasing a new smartphone do is download a game from the dedicated app store. While console sales are still very impressive, almost everyone now owns a smartphone, and all smartphone users know that a great selection of games can be played on them, many for free.

Some online games even give you the chance to win money, such as a fast withdrawal casino. It’s little wonder that the games industry is looking at mobile gaming as the growth market of tomorrow.

Early days

Before mobile gaming, and indeed even before the rise of home computer games, there were handheld games consoles. The first of these, in the 1970s, were chunky electronic devices that only had one choice of game and were as much a development of the handheld mechanical games that had been around since the 1950s as they were portable versions of the popular arcade games.

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The first handheld electronic game is generally thought to be Mattel’s ‘Auto Race’ from 1976. This was inspired by the craze for pocket calculators, but kick-started a hugely successful new product niche. In 1979, Milton Bradley’s Microvisionwas the first handheld game console with a selection of cartridges, and also introduced the thumb-powered directional pad.

The Game Boy takes over

The classic handheld games console is the Nintendo Game Boy, introduced in 1989 following the company’s success over the previous decade with the Game & Watch series. The original Game Boy had a monochrome green screen to save on battery power. Early rivals such as the Atari Lynx, NEC TurboExpress and Game Gear from Sega had colour screens and more processing power, but were cumbersome, expensive and had poor battery power. Plus, the Game Boy had the best game selection, including the smash hit ‘Tetris’. 

Snakes in the grass

The dominance of the Game Boy and rival handhelds was about to be challenged by an unlikely source: the new mobile phones. In 1997, Nokia bundled the simple game ‘Snake’ with its 6110 model, and the game proved to be one of the phone’s most popular features. Early mobile games were limited both by a lack of processing power and internet capability, but 10 years on from Snake, that all changed with the introduction of the first iPhone.

Apple’s iPhone had much more RAM than other smartphones and a larger screen. It could run more complex apps, and in 2008 the launch of the App Store meant that a huge library of games could be downloaded in an instant. At first, these were simply purchased outright, but in 2010 a version of the 99c game ‘Angry Birds’ was launched for Android that was free to play, with in-game adverts, or you could pay to remove the ads.

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When the same company launched ‘Cut the Rope’, it was free to play in a basic version, but in-game purchases were needed to unlock further levels. Meanwhile, social media sites such as Facebook (increasingly accessed via mobile devices) offered free, basic games that you could only play for so long until you had to wait for them to be refreshed. When ‘Bubble Witch Saga’ and ‘Candy Crush Saga’ became free apps, you could refresh them with small in-game purchases, or micro-transactions. At a stroke, around 2012, the hugely popular freemium model was born.

Pocket computers

The main reason for the dominance of mobile gaming over the last few years, however, is that smartphones are now essentially pocket computers, with processing power and larger screens capable of supporting increasingly sophisticated games. Unlimited data plans let users stream online games thanks to ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks, and the rollout of 5G will only add to the possibilities.

It’s not so much that smartphones have stolen gamers away from consoles, more that they’ve tapped into a whole new market of casual gamers. Add in an extremely profitable new form of monetisation, and it’s easy to see why games developers see mobile as the new market, especially worldwide. Today, who but the most dedicated games nerd would buy a handheld console when you can so easily play on the smartphone you probably already own?  

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