CES can often feel like Kentia Hall, E3's historic home for hardware misfits, has been given a budget and permission to con writers and enthusiasts into thinking unicycles that offer real-time Facebook updates are about to become the next big thing.
The latest such unicycle is the idea that the iPhone needs physical buttons, and any number of companies are offering any number of peripherals that will turn your iPhone into a gaming device that operates just like those Game Boys your kids love so much.
It's an interesting pitch when you're raising money — the phone you have in your pocket can be a gaming machine if you would only buy this product! — but these companies are trying to staple wings onto a pig. People may want to come by and talk about what you've done, but the bacon is not going to taste any better.
A solved problem
The problem with all these pitches is that the iPhone and iPad are already pretty great gaming devices. You need only take a look at year-end lists of the best mobile games of 2013 to see how many games don't have a problem creating ways to burn time that don't require physical buttons.
The idea that a touchscreen can't deliver a game as good as what we're used to from our consoles is the same kind of thinking that leads to people complaining that Titanfall doesn't have enough players. The games that try to replicate standard console games have always fallen short in terms of execution, and it has just as much to do with what people want out of portable games as it does the lack of physical buttons. Just because something is comfortable and expected doesn't make it superior.
From Draw Something to Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja to Cut the Rope, the biggest names in mobile gaming got that way because they used the touchscreen in novel ways. The lack of physical buttons isn't a hindrance to game design, it's a feature that smart developers have been using to their benefit for years. The developer of Ridiculous Fishing, a game which won an Apple Design award for 2013, didn't worry about not being able to use buttons; they created a game that used the hardware in fun ways.
Trying to turn mobile devices into something they're not isn't just laziness, it's detrimental to innovation in gaming as a whole. "Developers who try to replicate the past with games that take advantage of costly peripherals only limit their audience. Games like The Room instead take advantage of nearly every bit of tech inside these devices to create an experience that wouldn't be possible with a standard controller, showing us what's possible on these devices."
Smart developers never complained about the lack of buttons, nor did they inflict the pain of virtual controls onto players. They designed games that used what iOS devices offered without trying to apologize for what they lacked. The so-called core gamers who want a more traditional experience aren't looking for $100 add-ons for their phones; they already own a portable gaming platform. Your parents aren't mad the iPhone doesn't have buttons because they're too busy playing Tiny Wings and Where's My Water.
This has nothing to do with the arbitrary and often useless divide between casual and core gamers; games like Republique use the touchscreen and ergonomics of the iPad just as well, if not better, than the sudoku app your gran enjoys. The trick is that touchscreens can often be far superior to the clunkiness of a digital button or even an analog stick when it comes to crafting interesting experience. No one who played Device 6 thought how much better it would be with a controller in their hands.
The lack of physical buttons isn't a hindrance to game design, it's a feature that smart developers have been using to their benefit for years.
These games not only excelled due to their use of touchscreen controls, but they're more interesting than most of the me-too games shoveled onto traditional gaming devices.
The idea that mobile games require buttons, or even that they would be improved by them, has been stomped into the dust by years of interesting releases on iOS devices. There are certainly a few people who think it's worthwhile to strap an expensive, ungainly device onto their phone to try to pretend like it's a more traditional gaming platform, but that number will likely prove to be small.
We carry our phones in our pockets, and we use them for multiple uses every day. They're small and convenient, and they play a variety of games that are always ready for a quick session or a marathon. It's great that Apple has added support for physical controls into the latest version of iOS, but that addition has provided device manufacturers with the mirage of a market that may not exist.
Besides, I like bacon just the way it is. The question of what to do without physical buttons has long been answered by talented developers and savvy audiences. We can put the wings away.