With Smartphone Games, Downtime Becomes a Pastime

With Smartphone Games, Downtime Becomes a Pastime

It’s O.K. if you’re, say, a middle-aged woman who harbors a secret obsession with mastering Angry Birds. I know there are a lot of you out there. It’s perfectly acceptable now if your co-workers or children find out. Or maybe you’re an office worker whose commute or lunch break simply isn’t complete without a few (dozen) rounds of BrickBreaker. Oh yes, your numbers are legion.

We’re pretty much all gamers now, and with all respect to Facebook and the Wii, the prime driver of gaming’s new ubiquity is the proliferation of smartphones. Almost everyone takes a phone everywhere now, and almost all of those phones can run some decent games.

Of course, any phone can talk and text, so when people are choosing a phone they are generally considering two things: the network and the available applications. The best network for you depends mainly on where you live and where you travel, and now that the iPhone is available for both ATT and Verizon, you can make those choices more independently.

But when most people think about applications, what they’re really thinking about are games. As of early June, the top 14-selling applications on Apple’s iPhone App Store are all games. (The Android and BlackBerry markets are different, as we will explain.)

But which phones are best for games? And what are some of the best games available? To find out, I asked Apple, Google (which makes Android) and Research in Motion (the company behind BlackBerry), to send me their latest and greatest phones. Sorry, Microsoft, Windows didn’t make the cut this time. The three companies also sent their latest tablets (see inside for a related article and a rundown on some of my favorite mobile games).

For phones, Apple sent the iPhone 4 on Verizon (list price up to $699 without a contract commitment, also available for ATT), Google provided the Samsung Nexus S on T-Mobile (about $530, also available for Sprint and in a low-speed mode on ATT) and RIM provided the BlackBerry Torch 9800 on ATT ($549.99, no other carriers).

All of the devices were new to me. As a full-time video game writer I actually have not been steeped in mobile gadgetry over the last few years. I work at home and spend so many hours playing video games in my house that I don’t usually want to bury my head in a screen when I go out. My main phone is an extremely dumb old flip-top that I like because it is durable and the battery lasts for days. (The big problem with any of the fanciest smartphones is that if you use them at all intensively the battery is usually dead within 24 hours.)

After a few weeks of use at home and on the road, I came away with a fresh appreciation for all three systems. They are much more different from one another than I expected, and their distinct appeal is clear. Games are a part of that, but not the whole story.

It comes as no surprise, however, that if access to the largest and most diverse range of high-quality games is your main priority, you simply must have an iPhone 4, at least at the moment.

The App Store has become the forum for an entire generation of game designers who do not have the resources, depth of talent and perhaps even the inclination to make big-budget retail games for consoles or PCs. And so Apple’s App Store is bursting with enjoyable casual games that are consumed as people use their phones: on the train, in a restaurant (I know, I know), waiting outside in the car for the children after school and so on.

Unlike the best big games, iPhone games aren’t driven by narrative and character. And that’s just fine. The iPhone is a superior mass consumer device that does not allow the user to tinker under the hood in any meaningful way.

What I discovered in the Android, however, surprised me — the core Web browsing and e-mail experiences on Android were clearly superior to those on the iPhone. The Android browser is faster and its inclusion of Adobe’s Flash technology means that some Web sites that are unusable on the iPhone work fine on the Android.

In terms of e-mail, it stands to reason that Android links more smoothly and powerfully with Gmail (also run by Google) than the Apple phone. Android is also far more open in terms of what you can actually do with the device. You can download files and run programs on Android in ways the iPhone simply prohibits.

The catch is that while the Android Nexus S phone I used certainly feels at least as technically powerful as the iPhone 4, there are nowhere near as many good games available on the Android Market as there are in the App Store. Right now, the best-selling applications on Android are tech apps like file managers. There are some good games on Android, but they tend to be versions of games originally available on the iPhone.

The most interesting wrinkle to Android gaming is that the open nature of the system means that people are writing programs to run emulations of classic arcade and console games of decades past. The memory codes for thousands of old-school games have been available online for years. But it must be pointed out that installing them requires some technical know-how and is of dubious legality (so I won’t be explaining that in detail).

As for the BlackBerry, I was more impressed with the basic gaming systems of the new PlayBook tablet (see accompanying article) than I was with the Torch 9800 phone. BlackBerry is beginning to embrace the concept of downloadable third-party applications, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of the range and quality of games available and the ease of actually finding, paying for, downloading and installing them (which are a cinch on both Android and iPhone).

But the BlackBerry is all about e-mail, especially corporate e-mail systems, so it seems that many people who are on BlackBerry have to be there. And if you have to be on BlackBerry, there are a handful of simple diversions and a handful of surprisingly deep strategy games to take your mind off work until the next e-mail salvo arrives.

I discuss some of the smartphone games I have found most enjoyable in the slide show that accompanies this article.

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