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Video Game Handheld War Part 12 March 9, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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I know I promised in the last part that I would talk about the great resurgence of Pokémania in 2013, but I felt that since this whole series is focused on video game handhelds, up until this point I had been ignoring a major elephant in the room, smartphones and tablets. Because of that, I wanted to devote this part to talk about personal computing devices and their place in the video game handheld war at the time of the PS Vita and 3DS generation.

In 2007, Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs (Ed Note – RIP) went on stage to announce new products that Apple would be releasing over the next year. Since he had returned to Apple in the early 2000s, the company had seen a tremendous wave of success thanks to the release of the iPod and OS X Mac computers. As he concluded his speech he announced a series of features Apple intended to sell to the public that year, all in a product Apple had never provided before. A personal music device that could allow its user to read emails, browse the Internet, and make phone calls! It had a twelve hour battery life, a camera, and could function from a cellular connection! It would be called, the iPhone.

The first generation iPhone was revolutionary but it suffered numerous setbacks. It had a $500US price tag, which was quite expensive for a phone at the time. While it was more capable, its interface was not as user intuitive as other phones on the market. It also had many of the same limitations of the iPod. It could only work with Apple’s proprietary iTunes program, it had no replaceable battery, but the biggest issue was there was no third-party software support, which meant the phone was reliant on Apple to provide its users all its features. Tech geeks and Apple enthusiasts purchased the iPhone on day one, but the mainstream was not impressed with it yet. That would change, and quickly.

Nearly a year after the iPhone’s release, Steve Jobs took the stage again to reveal new features that would be coming to the iPhone. Apple was improving the iPhone’s interface, allowing for easier access to things like its camera. They were also adding in support for third-party applications, both free and paid. This meant that GAMES could be written specifically for the iPhone, and many major developers looked forward to the challenge of designing a game entirely around a touch screen interface. At the very least, ports of old PC games looked inevitable. Apple assured users they would be testing EVERY application that would be sold on their phone, making the chance of programs leaking personal data much slimmer. While they intended to ship these new features in an all-new improved iPhone, Jobs revealed most of the software features he demoed would work on the original iPhone. Oh, and the price was being slashed by several hundred dollars thanks to subsidies by the cellular providers.

Now, the public took notice and major companies including Blackberry, Microsoft, Palm and Google prepared to release their own phones to compete against Apple. This started what has been dubbed as the smartphone revolution. Palm, having been one of the first companies in the personal data assistant space, was heavily favorited to release a phone that could compete against Apple. Eventually, Palm released the Pre. While it could do multitasking in a way iPhone could not, it was clearly rushed to market and was paired up with a poorly designed phone. If there was going to be competition against Apple, it would not be from Palm. Eventually, Apple would get some real competition once phone makers began to ship phones loaded with the Android operating system. Android was developed by Google using Linux code and while its interface was nowhere near as elegant as Apple’s, Google allowed their users to run their own third-party programs, including ones Apple would never sign off on. For non-Apple smartphones and tablets, Android was the go-to operating system. By the end of the smartphone wars, only Apple and Google survived.

Apple would eventually fall into a pattern of releasing yearly hardware updates for the iPhone line, bringing some of the new software features to older devices when they could. Despite the massive success of the iPhone line, Steve Jobs was not merely satisfied with total domination of the phone market, his company’s next major product was going to be something that had only been seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a fully interactive portable touch screen computer. Basically Apple was making a BIG iPhone, and it would be called the iPad. The iPad launched in 2010 and was slow to be adopted by the mainstream. However, the iPad was cheaper and lasted longer on battery than a laptop of the time, and could handle simpler tasks like web surfing and email on the go just as well as the iPhone could. It also supported a line of third-party games from major publishers like EA. Apple’s continual support of new features including the video chat program FaceTime, slowly made the iPad a must-own device. Once it was clear the iPad was also going to dominate the market, competitors like Samsung, Microsoft and LG released their own similar products which became known as the newly minted tablet line of computers. While Microsoft’s own products shipped with their own tablet versions of Windows, most third-party iPad clones used Google’s Android operating system.

So if these smartphones and tablets were as revolutionary as I’ve described them up until this point, and their hardware specs have made them perfectly suitable for gaming, why haven’t they been included in this list up until this point? The answer is complicated but we can try to simplify it here. The modern smartphone or tablet can be classified more as a PC than it could be a gaming device. While today’s smartphones can certainly be capable of running unique games, like with the PC, gaming is not their mainstream purpose. Also, like the PC, Apple and Google regularly release new features and security updates to their products. While this is a great thing, these updates have had a tendency to downright break programs, even purchased ones. Once a device update breaks compatibility with a program, only the game’s developer can fix it. Sometimes, especially if the game is old, they just won’t do that. However, if the game was somehow still making its developer money, the chances it would stay supported was much higher. But how would that get determined?

I mentioned earlier in the article that when Apple launched their support for third-party applications they would offer iPhone owners both free and paid applications. As you could imagine, free applications were far more popular than paid ones. By the time the third iPhone was released, both Apple and Google allowed developers to charge users to unlock in-app content. I’m sure the mainstream believed this feature could be used to allow users to purchase full versions of a program from its demo or unlock expansion packs with new levels or content (like PC gamers would buy back in their heyday), instead developers discovered this new feature could be used far more often than anyone could have expected.

Inspired by browser-based games like FarmVille (which can barely be considered a game by most dedicated gamers) game developers discovered they could charge users money to complete simple in-game tasks quicker than they otherwise could. These purchases were eventually dubbed Microtransactions, and the games that used them, since they were free to download, became known as free-to-play. Within no time, developers discovered that releasing their games for free and charging people for essentially using in-game shortcuts were earning them more money than if they had charged them up front for the game. This gave certain games designed to take advantage of it a consistent monetary income flow. Developers quickly realized they had an excuse to keep games that supported this kind of an income flow running, and would regularly release new updates to keep free-to-play games functional even as other traditional pay programs stopped working.

This inconsistency is why we haven’t been addressing the smartphone and tablet platforms in this history to this point. As of the time this has been written, nearly all games being released on Apple or Google platforms revolve around a free-to-play design. The ones that haven’t eventually stop working, even if you initially paid for them. This, as far as I’m concerned, disqualifies them from further consideration on this list. I know major publishers have attempted to bring these income-driven game mechanics to mainstream PC and console games over the years, but a vocal subset of the gaming community have vigorously opposed it.

Thanks for joining us for this aside in the Video Game Handheld Wars. When we return, we will be going deeper into the domination of the 3DS, the disappointment of the Vita, and what might be the final chapter of this series for all time. Stay tuned.

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