One of my friends has recently become a full time games designer so I’ve been able to have a few interesting chats with him about various video game related topics – including designing for smartphones. One of the things we’ve spent a while discussing is that one of the most interesting aspects of smartphone games design – from a history of gaming perspective – is that it offers a very curious mix of old and new.

First off, processor speeds tend to be far slower than your average contemporary desktop PC or console so, in this respect, mobile gaming design is a bit like designing for people with yesterday’s consoles and games. This means that, when compared with the kinds of graphics and game-worlds that can be found in today’s big blockbuster titles for PC and console, mobile games have a distinctly retro look about them. Lots of top-down and 2D game-worlds, fairly simple gameplay, and some pretty basic graphics modelling.

All this provides quite a creative constraint on mobile games design which tests developers in interesting ways. It’s a good thing as it means mobile games can also push boundaries – but they are different ones to those pushed by products designed for PC and console.

However, there is a fresh twist when it comes to mobile game interfacing: namely the presence of the touchscreen.

As an interface, the touchscreen is completely different to the types of interface (keyboards, joysticks etc) used with games programmed for the equivalent processing power PC’s and consoles back when 1 Ghz was the fastest processor available even on a desktop for example.

So, effectively what we have is a second life for retro style games design – only with the interface twist of the touchscreen thrown in the mix. The result is that often we get games on our phones which look like those we used to play years ago but play like something completely new and fresh.

Take for example, Scarecrow Samurai, a top down ‘hack n slash’ game for Android, currently gathering funding on Kickstarter. The game looks like a standard arcade game which might have been a top-end title for PC or Playstation ten years ago, but is now a mobile and in-browser game. However, the use of the touchscreen will introduce an exciting new element to the point and click gameplay – which wouldn’t have featured if the game had been made as a top-end PC title in years gone by.

It’s this interesting time-warp effect that makes mobile gaming increasingly interesting as an area of innovation with regard to games design. Personally I’d like to see more games making use of the more unique hardware features that mobile gaming offers (gyroscopes, GPS etc) – although I’m sure there’s a few examples of this already. Expect more curious mash-ups, mixing video game design styles and techniques from both 2002 and 2013, in the world of mobile gaming in the coming year!