Mobile Gaming Phones, a Brief History and Lessons Learned

Ever since the classic game Snake graced the first Nokia device in 1998, there has been interest by the mobile phone market to push the boundaries of mobile gaming. We have witnessed games develop from simple 2D side-scrollers to immersive AR experiences, with Pokemon GO being one of the first big wins in that field. In contrast, dedicated mobile gaming phones have had far less success in the past.

The N-Gage and Beyond

In 2000, Nintendo’s Game Boy caught the attention of youths and teenagers around the globe. Nokia saw this a big opportunity to combine a handheld gaming device with the functionality of a mobile phone. The N-Gage mobile gaming phone was their solution and debuted in 2003.  However the N-Gage quickly turned out to be a huge flop for the company, selling only 2-3 million units by 2007. Design woes (the N-Gage was also called the “Taco Phone”) and lack of game support crippled sales for the OEM, which projected to sell 6 million devices.

Since then, there only have been a few attempts at creating a true mobile gaming phone, possibly due to fears of becoming another N-Gage fiasco. These phones all focused on having dedicated gaming keys such as the Samsung SPH-B5200 in 2006, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play in 2011, and the iReadyGo knockoffs of PS Vita clones in 2013. All have had limited success, but the consensus seemed to be that dedicated gaming keys were not the way to go. The general push towards achieving a 100 percent screen-to-body ratio has also affected the designs of gaming phones in the recent years.

In 2015, Acer was one of the first to announce a new gaming phone design which focused on providing the newest processor, large amounts of RAM, a sharp HD display, and four front facing speakers, dubbed the Acer Predator 6. While the phone never was released in the US, it set a precedent for phones to come. In 2017 and 2018, we have seen several releases of gaming phones such as the Razer Phone, ZTE Nubia Red Magic, Xiaomi Black Shark, and the new Asus ROG. Each of these phones seek to get the best performance out of the current available processors and RAM combined with large battery capacities, HD and/or high refresh rate displays,  additional cooling systems, and internal memory capacities up to 512GB as seen on the ROG.  The market is still fairly niche, but companies are seeing the value to establish footholds in the space. China is the main driving force for the market as much of its population is focused on playing multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBAs), with the US seeing some uptick in demand due to games such as Fortnite and PUBG.

Where Will the Market Go from Here?

Mobile gaming devices have mostly moved on from dedicated gaming buttons on devices, creating space for third parties and OEMs to offer add-ons such as the moto gamepad. This trend will likely continue. However, the true market drivers for gaming phone adoption will revolve around creating a vibrant game ecosystem, ensuring reliable connectivity for games, and beating the traditional flagship phones from Apple and Samsung at delivering an immersive gaming experience.

Gamers want to play against other players instead of being siloed off in single player games which have weaker replay value. With connectivity improvements (perhaps through new 5G developments) and the rise of truly massive MOBAs, gaming can now be done on the go, in the subway on your way to work, or sitting in a park enjoying the afternoon sun. If more games like Fortnite gain traction, we will see demand increase for mobile gaming phones.

However, there is competition from top flagship phones such as the iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy S9. They have similar specs and will be “good enough” for most gamers. For a mobile gaming phone to truly differentiate itself from these flagships, they need to get everything right, and at a price point that is competitive or better than these flagships. Offering dedicated cooling or larger batteries are certainly a value add for the most dedicated gamer, but possibly more integration with monitors/TVs or even a better multiplayer experience between friends in close proximity can help these gaming devices keep a competitive edge. The new race will be about how these phones can truly provide a better gaming experience over the traditional flagships. And, so far there isn’t one phone that has knocked it out of the park.