Handheld Consoles and Mobile Controllers

With the Nintendo Switch marking the effective end of the handheld market, mobile is really now the only smaller platform left where experimentation can happen. The problem is that the mobile market is the absolute worst place for that to happen because of a few things: 1) both Apple and Google now make you constantly update your game to stay listed, 2) low expectations from consumers, and 3) an utter lack of any means to avoid being drowned in the flood unless your name is already on everyone’s lips or you have a massive ad buy.

Oh, and controls. PowerA had a grand plan to solve a lot of that with MOGA. They had their own curated list of apps within their MOGA controller app, a controller meant to be eminently portable, and a marketing push to make it happen.

I own a couple MOGA controllers, both the original (later rebranded MOGA Pocket) and later a powered one (MOGA Hero Power) that was intended to keep your phone topped off during long gaming sessions, also mini. Of course, with phone battery usage the way it is now, that’s hilariously outdated, but back in the day, it was a useful feature. Setting up the MOGA app with a controller was maybe a little touchy, but nothing an online guide couldn’t fix. The storefront was nothing to write home about and frankly, neither were the games, at least the little bit I played of them. But then no mobile game was back then and what was there was cute, even if there was no section specifically for RPGs.

It was all promising. On paper it sounded like MOGA had the answer to the problems that made everything that wasn’t Angry Birds invisible.

So what happened?

MOGA happened, or rather PowerA happened. See, PowerA knew they had something. Unfortunately, they squandered it. MOGA was considered by basically everyone to be such a "thing" that there wasn’t really any competition, or rather there were other controllers out there for more general use, but they were rather rare and inconsistent and none of them promised to be the same unifying force that MOGA was intended to be. MOGA wasn’t just a controller; it was a platform. One that offered to swoop in and organize things much like Nintendo had after the Video Game Crash of 1987. Nobody else was trying to do that and nobody else really could without whipping up a similar fervor that there just wasn’t room for. And that stranglehold on the market ultimately was what choked it out. Being in the habit of making games myself, MOGA seemed like a very promising platform, so of course I decided to see if I could get some information on it. And get it I did, and the terms were AWFUL. PowerA was very much in the mindset of being their generation’s Nintendo and demanded a mix of fairly reasonable things along with some quite predatory things, but worst of all came at it with an ego like them throwing the burden of MOGA’s success on devs, with especially restrictive expectations on the ones offering the best experiences, was going to have the world falling over themselves to grovel at the throne. Spoiler alert: almost nobody did, for obvious reasons, not least that unlike Nintendo, nobody actually needed MOGA to push their games to market. PowerA had forgotten the step where you make your product feel necessary before you crown yourself king of it and start demanding tribute. They eventually realized that their terms made their platform attractive to no one and went full speed reverse, practically begging for games and making newer controllers that were useful for general controller support as a "B" mode to their proprietary library. But by then it was too late. Their "my way or the highway" smugness led to a lot of "highway" taking the legs out from under the nascent market and it all came to a crash before it really ever took off and despite their flailing to make their terms better and pad their library, MOGA never did amass many more games than its paltry initial offering. Because the field at the time was so crowded with the likes of OUYA and Nvidia Shield, mobile gaming or at least mobile chipsets were looking like the wave of the future and exactly none of it panned out because the market was flooded with more systems than games. MOGA just happened to be part of this wave. You can still get one, but the only MOGAs on sale anymore are specifically Xbox controllers, only for Android and PC where that’s supported by default now.

At time of writing, my original MOGA is a paperweight because it relied solely on MOGA’s app, which is now defunct and de-listed, as is the third-party MOGA Universal Driver app that opened it up for general use and frankly was easier to connect to. My MOGA Hero Power at the very least has a "B" HID mode that makes it usable for general controller support, because PowerA understood that their grand designs to standardize gaming under their banner had not gone according to their machinations and were willing to flail in the direction of games that already had HID controller support that happened to meet their plunging standards to try to pad their library. Some of the games they managed to court have outlasted the MOGA app and at least one still references it, like a time capsule nobody ever buried. PowerA, the company who thought they’d rule the world with an iron fist, is now a subsidiary of an office supply company.

Since then, other controllers have popped up, mostly a plethora from Razer, but ones that are dedicated to phones just never took off. They’d absolutely still be useful, now more than ever, really, but when faced with the abject failure of serious mobile gaming and the promise of reliable Nintendo and Sony handheld systems, people at the time knew where they could get serious portable experiences.

So what now?

We live in a very different world. Some considered Android adding native PlayStation and Xbox controller support to be the final nail in the coffin for mobile controllers since what you lose in portability you make up for in a plastic clip that costs pennies to make. Sony has officially put the Vita and any future handheld plans to bed and Nintendo’s aspirations in the handheld market have resulted in the Switch, which is certainly a place for serious experiences, but not exactly a place where any kind of experimentation can thrive because people expect to treat it like a console, not a handheld. Handhelds died similarly because of Nintendo’s stranglehold on the market and disinterest in keeping it afloat. Once the Switch has run its generational course, I’m not holding my breath on a revival of the DS or Game Boy lines. The market has largely consolidated into big-budget offerings and indie games; all the mid-range titles have evaporated. There’s a rant I’ve been working on for ages about that, honestly. Phones are more powerful than ever and technically capable of far more than even when they were seen as the next console platform. Unfortunately, mobile games are a very different market than handheld games and without a mobile controller market, they’re being held back in a vicious cycle of controller support not being included even in games that would benefit, like the Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster line. MOGA and its ilk still exist, but nobody’s talked about them in roughly a decade. There was a small fuss a couple years ago about the Razer Kishi that sounded like things were maybe ready to take another swing at it, but it fizzled out, likely due to the Kishi’s price, though at time of writing, the original Kishi is half off due to Kishi v2 hitting market at the same $99 price point, which is shared by the far less useful Junglecat, Raijin, and probably everything else Razer makes. I can’t honestly be bothered to check, but Best Buy has free shipping, meaning you’ll pay less than $50 for it, which sounds about what it should have been sold for in the first place, and its curated storefront app has a fairly good selection of games, even if it hasn’t been cleaned up in a while for dead links. Anyway, unpaid promotion aside, the same problem holds true that phones simply aren’t hosting a lot in the line of console-grade experiences because those things go to either PC or consoles where they’ll be taken seriously, except for the various retro ports SEGA and Square Enix have put on offer. And as far as handheld-grade experiences go, the ones currently in vogue are the ones that are being run on real retro handhelds, namely the Game Boy, just because good tools and nostalgia happen to have converged for it.

At the same time, everyone KNOWS phones are powerful enough for serious gaming and the desire for a handheld that could make calls has been ever-present since the PSP, because the Japanese model was capable. But then other people actually don’t want a "phone" that would "fall behind" "that quickly," either, and be "stuck" with one when everyone else enjoyed a steady stream of new units, which, I mean, you’d think people would WANT to hold onto a device that already costs hundreds of dollars with a steady stream of content for a good 7 years. It’s not like there are frequent revolutions in phone call technology, current decommissioning of every protocol below 4G aside (which is definitely worthy of its own Rant). Basically, handhelds are in an impossible position where they’d be competing with something that has the potential to render them redundant, but hasn’t ever really capitalized on it with a serious attempt to fill that niche. It’s certainly been enabled, with MOGA and Kishi being advertised for Xbox game streaming, but it’s never quite been realized given the high cost of every controller on the market and the fact that the US simply doesn’t have the infrastructure needed for game streaming to ever be widely reliable.

Really, the best thing anyone could do would be for Sony to do the MOGA/Kishi thing, but instead of offering a small compatible library, integrate it into PSN. Sony is in a unique position in the market to do this because of their infrastructure and branding. If you really think about it, it would fall right into general PlayStation controller support, could come with an HID mode for general support to lower the barrier for iOS, and offer an immediate and vast library of games that could take advantage of it while opening new mobile avenues under their catered umbrella. You can already stream Sony’s games; you can already Remote Play on your phone; Android is already giftwrapped for it if it reports as a PS4 controller; Sony has partnerships with developers with mobile aspirations; there’s really no reason it wouldn’t work, but Sony would need to actually, you know, sell it. The problem with what controllers are left on the market really is just a marketing push and having some guarantees they’re going to justify their asking price. Sony in making their own branded controller would be able to provide both, especially if they made a section of PSN dedicated to mobile games no different from Vita, PSVR, or anything else. It would certainly lower the barrier of entry into the PlayStation family, which would be incredibly attractive to indie devs.

Mobile controllers are and always have been a good idea. They just put all their eggs in one basket and the one carrying that slammed it in a safe and proceeded to stumble straight into a volcano forgetting you have to actually build your supervillain lair, turning it into a crappy scramble. That said, you can still salvage it. There’s still potential if you could get the right company behind it to not utterly squander it, and the best part? Sony would get to have their cake and eat it, too, because it’s not like they don’t make phones. By making a controller, they’d have something that could plug into any phone via USB-C or even make it a swappable plug to allow for other past and future connectors and they’d never have to make a new one because the bulk of the hardware would be whatever was on hand. If Sony never made another phone again, the system specs would still be somebody else’s problem and Sony would benefit from being able to latch onto the latest and greatest until the end of time with a very low tech burden of their own. Sony is in the perfect position to make a splash with this approach given demand for another Sony handheld, a clear field that Nintendo has finally vacated, and all the parts and pieces to make it work without any real additional investment other than the physical design and spinning up production lines. Look, something like this wouldn’t really need adaptive triggers or SixAxis or rumble of any sort or any other fanciness. You can play games without all that particular junk and phones already have all the hardware you need for at least rudimentary motion sensing and vibration, plus cameras and microphones and speakers for all your basic hardware needs and any AR ambitions that aren’t quite dead yet. But most importantly, none of that would be necessary because the only thing that anyone wants out of mobile gaming these days is buttons and Sony is well equipped to provide them in a format that’s already fairly widely supported. All they need to do is saw a controller in half and make it fit in a pocket for a more reasonable price than most options left on the market. I’m pretty sure someone’s already done a DIY monstrosity to that effect. Seriously, a whole PS4 controller costs ⅔ as much most anything out there and the amount of hardware required is cut in roughly half. Sony could easily sell them at a $50 price point and make bank.

I know this probably sounds like a Sony fanboy going off, but honestly Microsoft hasn’t managed to make it happen with MOGA, so I’m inclined to say that Sony is in the best position of anyone to do it, because Nintendo sure as heck isn’t mixing their heavily defended walled garden with Apple’s. Nintendo and Apple wouldn’t mix chocolate with peanut butter unless both of them came out of their respective underground mines where they throw people who question their INES headers and anyone who can’t afford to upgrade every 6 months, respectively. Sony already has the rest in place; they just need a controller. And maybe it would be charity, but it would finally bring mobile gaming into its own as a serious platform, even if it was under the Sony umbrella.

But why, though?

Because we really don’t have handhelds anymore. I could just ask "isn’t that enough," but in truth, it’s because handhelds were the final place left where the larger games industry really had freedom to experiment and limitations to keep it honest. Limitations foster creativity and creativity is something the industry is growing increasingly short on. Smaller studios are being snapped up by larger companies and there’s only one, unsustainable form of success anymore: spending lots of money on the biggest and shiniest and hoping you make it back. There’s no tiered model of risk anymore. Every game is too big to fail and all too many games are failing and taking studios down with them. And they’re not even bad games; just ones whose budgets made them impossible to recoup despite critical and even sales success because selling millions of copies – something that used to be a reliable hallmark of success – is no longer enough to make the money back. The entire industry is full of nothing but a jostling conga line of elephants all trying to do the same tricks at different times on a fraying tightrope that simply doesn’t have room for them all. They’re going to keep falling and eventually the tightrope will snap and send it all crashing down.

Having a place for smaller games with bigger ideas is the lifeblood of the industry. It’s a creative industry and creativity means risk that all these too-big-to-fail institutions can’t afford. Right now, all that creativity is coming from indies, but indies themselves often are people who burned out of the AAA industry and didn’t have alternate plans. Indies also are doing more and more large games in line with large studio efforts with big money behind them, but that’s coming with large studio expectations. Just look at the criticism of No Man’s Sky. Even missing major features, it was a fantastic undertaking for a miniscule team, but everyone held it to the standards of a major release in part because that’s exactly what it looked like despite the awkwardness of one poor soul who was not made for a stage in front of millions. There aren’t really games that fill the mid-range niche even in indie circles because you’re either doing something small and quirky or you’re hogtied to the same tracks major studios are by someone holding a large bag with a dollar sign on it.

Making mobile the next handheld platform would restore some semblance of that creative zone where it’s okay to try new things to fail. For everyone, really. Because the fact of the matter is indies need that room, too. Somewhere they can try bigger ideas without the massive weight of expectations releasing on a console brings. Somewhere large studios can try out ideas that aren’t safe enough for their next blockbuster or just make something light and fun with a small team that doesn’t necessarily need a ton of experience. And if something takes off? Excellent! That’s really what most of the indie ecosystem is. Small games with small investments and most often small returns, with the occasional smash hit that pays off beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Basically, in an industry with no real concept of "enough," handhelds were the last bastion of any diversity in risk portfolio. Mobile games aren’t that as a market. For the most part they’re either tiny pet projects, armies of copy/pasted gacha games or tower defense or whatever is popular this week, or crappy microtransaction games with reasonably high production values and way too much money stuffed in YouTuber pockets. Sometimes you’ll find a company that used to actually make console games making a string of disposable RPGs or whathaveyou. (Seriously, just go on Google Play, search "RPG," and see how many games with titles starting with "RPG" come up. They’re not subtle, but at the same time having played around a bit in that sandbox, they’re actually kinda worth dropping $15 on as long as you understand what you’re getting into? Like, don’t buy them all at once, but they’re not total garbage and if you finish one and want more of exactly that to occupy yourself on the bus, you can pick another one at random. It’s sort of like a gumball machine that way: a dozen flavors of the same thing to chew on for a while and it’s enjoyable enough to hold you over until you can sit down for a whole meal at home. As far as budget games go, they get the job done and even make room for some interesting ideas. So, uh, there’s my shining endorsement of that, I guess. Mini-review over; move along.)

Making room on mobile for games that used to be on handhelds brings yet another type of game in: the handheld game. Like, you know exactly what a handheld game is and why it’s not a mobile game. You know, that game that you take everywhere and can pick up and put down whenever and only needs to be paid for once and justifies its cost by the actual ending and most importantly isn’t constantly sending you cloying notifications begging you to come back at odd hours of the morning like a needy ex? Like, yeah, that’s Pokémon instead of the million pet monster games on phones. That’s Ghost Trick instead of whatever "pull the gate" puzzle they attach to whatever tower defense game has enough money to run an infuriating ad this week. Handheld games make themselves worth having with quality, not as time-wasters or addiction machines or by attacking your fear of missing out. And they certainly don’t rely on getting you addicted to gambling. They’re serious experiences. Maybe not Skyrim, but definitely more than Angry Birds.

And, really, shouldn’t we as consumers also continue to enjoy that? When Call of Duty has gone to space (always a sign of a last gasp) and we’ve collectively spent more time playing World War II than our (great-)grandparents did fighting it and we’ve already played enough tone-deaf Quantic Dream movies that David Cage should probably be able to afford a proper camera and film crew so we don’t have to handle all the direction for the next one and he can get buried in the Oscars he so desperately desires for his contributions to breaking the record of loops up your own bum, shouldn’t we be able to sit down with a bizarre little romp about manipulating time to solve your own murder or running around an island with a massive crystal sticking out of it that spawns wild gods or using arts and crafts to deliver mail or an obstacle course where your contestants can turn into everything from a bulldozer to a merman? Don’t we deserve a world where we can whip a phone out of our pocket and a controller out of the other and if we need to we can activate a transformation sequence humming the theme song of our choice to combine them into a single beautiful device that lets us play something engaging on the train that maybe cost a solid $40, but is going to last a good 20-30 hours without plopping down in a pout every five minutes until we pay it another buck or two to replenish our "you’re allowed to play the game" bar? Can you imagine a world where maybe by some miracle Raid: Shadow Legends doesn’t make you set your computer on fire because they somehow paid your favorite YouTuber the seemingly infinite amount of money you thought it would take to compromise their morals and you were the victim of a bait-and-switch promotional segment for something that looked really cool that gave way to a voice you trusted spouting a hollow spiel about whatever gold bonus and exclusive character you might get if you use their code and never going online again is the only thing that will let you eventually scrub the image of one of the good ones being used like a hand puppet by an orc from the back of your eyelids?

I want to live in that world. One where controller support is a given for an RPG and owning a mobile controller is just something people do. Where phones are seen as a platform for games that are more than a dozen flavors of bubblegum as long as you’re willing to make a corresponding investment. Where the industry is allowed to experiment again without it absolutely having to come out of someone’s basement. Where the unsustainable professional development studios actually maybe supplement their carbon copy blockbusters with smaller, quirkier titles that, let’s be honest, could always turn into runaway successes without actually needing to sell more copies than the current global census to keep the studio afloat.

A world where "on my phone" doesn’t immediately mean "piece of crap."