Android gaming phones have a lot of growing up to do

The Asus ROG Phone with optional TwinView Dock that adds a second screen.
 

Gaming and Android have never been bigger. Nvidia’s CEO said at Computex this week that he fully expects every person on the planet to eventually be a gamer, and Android phones have taken over from Windows PCs as the most-used method for humans to access the web. Putting the two together in a new product, then, would seem to be an instant winner, and that’s what Asus has tried to do with its Computex announcement of a new Republic of Gamers Android phone. But is there any reason to expect its fate would be any different to all the previous Android gaming phones that already crashed and burned?

The answer is complicated. Mobile gaming is undoubtedly on fire, with China’s Honor of Kings commanding an audience of some 200 million monthly players. Gaming overall has gotten a shot in the arm from the battle royale genre: Nvidia boss Jensen Huang credited games like PUBG and Fortnite with bringing 10 million more PC gamers to the family of GeForce users in the space of just eight months. PUBG is already available on Android and Fortnite is coming later this summer. So the hunger for Android gaming is real, and there’s room for a phone to distinguish itself by being the best at that task.

But I don’t think the ROG Phone is that phone. This device is full of contradictions.

What mobile gamers want from their hardware is a good display, a large battery, and — especially in the case of China, the biggest and most vibrant mobile gaming market — an attainable price. The other appealing thing is sustained performance: having a good enough power and heat management system to allow the phone to keep going without throttling itself. Asus ticks some of these boxes with its ROG Phone, but the device’s spec sheet (which includes 8GB of RAM, a special 90Hz display, and the option for 512GB of storage) betrays the fact that it’s aimed at the premium end of the mobile market.

The ROG Phone with optional AeroActive Cooler attached.
The ROG Phone with optional AeroActive Cooler attached.
 

The most active Android gamers are highly price-sensitive, while the least price-sensitive phone buyers don’t play hugely demanding games, so where exactly is the ROG Phone’s niche supposed to be? The premium segment of mobile devices is still dominated by the iPhone, and that includes gaming, where Apple offers a superior game selection and better, more consistent performance.

The gap between iOS and Android gaming has existed for a long time, and it still hasn’t been closed. Six years ago, I interviewed Marek Rabas, CEO of Madfinger Games, about the frustrating experience of trying to sell — rather than give away on an ad-supported or freemium basis — his zombie FPS game on Android. Rabas saw piracy rates in excess of 80 percent on Google’s platform. Speaking with game industry insiders at Computex this year, I was told that the piracy problem on Android is as big as ever, and without the ability to lock the platform down — which nobody has any faith that Google is able or willing to do — game developers see little incentive to invest heavily in making higher-quality games.

nvidia tegra 4
Nvidia Tegra 4 prototype tablet from 2013.
 

Attempts at justifying iPhone-like pricing for Android gaming devices have so far all been failures. Nvidia tried to be a trailblazer in this space, and I was at Computex 2011 to see its Tegra tablet prototypes, which featured much better and more sophisticated graphics than the average Android chip at the time. It was, in a sense, an attempt to build an iOS-like tier of higher-quality gaming within the Android ecosystem. Despite Nvidia’s best efforts, that initiative didn’t amount to much, owing to the reluctance of game developers. Short of paying them directly, I’m not sure there was anything more Nvidia could have done. Android’s openness is a strength in some respects, but an absolute poison pill when it comes to encouraging content producers to create premium material for the platform.

In the absence of a truly differentiated component like Nvidia’s Tegra, the vast majority of Android manufacturers are left with only one choice: picking up the latest and greatest Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. Those are damn fine processors, but they’re also ubiquitous. Cognizant of this commodification, Asus tries to distinguish itself by overclocking the Snapdragon 845 in its ROG Phone to nearly 3GHz. The extra speed won’t be much help beyond bragging rights, but the more advanced cooling system, replete with an attachable fan module, could help the ROG Phone deliver better performance over the course of a longer gaming session. Would that be a big enough difference to convince people to buy it over cheaper alternatives? I have my doubts.

Nubia Red Magic.

Much more intriguing will be the fortunes of a couple of other contenders in the suddenly rejuvenated Android gaming phone market: the LED-equipped Nubia Red Magic and the liquid-cooled Black Shark. Both are aimed squarely at the Chinese gamer, and both offer the 845 chip at a price below $500. Their makers will still have to prove that these devices offer a more valuable product than the diversity of Android phones already out there, but at least they demonstrate a coherence between their price, features, and target demographic.

Beside Asus now, the only other company daring (or foolhardy) enough to try and sell a premium Android gaming phone has been Razer with the Razer Phone, which arrived with much fanfare but has faded into obscurity since its launch last year. The Nvidia Shieldportable console and the Shield Tablet also failed to gain traction, eventually leading Nvidia to the Shield TV, which is a streaming (including game streaming) box rather than a true Android gaming device. The Ouya and Huawei’s Tron, a pair of diminutive home consoles, add to the long list of ill-fated ventures into the world of building hardware specifically for the task of Android gaming.

Nintendo Switch.
 

The search for a role model for aspiring Android gaming phone manufacturers need not be long. Nintendo’s immensely popular Switch console has just the right mix of delightful games, good ergonomics, and thoughtful design. Its specs and engineering only go as far as Nintendo needs them to re-create its home console experience in the mobile context. Far from engaging in some imaginary spec war like Asus did by overclocking the ROG Phone, Nintendo chooses to underclock the Switch so as to ensure smooth and consistent performance. The Japanese company focuses on getting the fundamentals right.

As obvious as the Switch example feels, I fear it will be a long time before any Android company comes close to it. The issues are twofold. First, the Switch doesn’t have to deal with the Android performance overhead. It can dedicate all its powers to the task of providing an enjoyable game experience. Second, and more pressingly, the Switch benefits from an enviable library of games that compel people to buy it. When it first came out, I couldn’t stop hearing about the glories and the fun of the new Zelda game everyone was playing on it. The Switch has games that your friends won’t let you forget about, whereas the best games on Android are always available on other platforms as well.

Asus’ ROG Phone and its plethora of attachments and modules have made for a splashy announcement here at Computex, but I don’t expect it to make waves once it goes on sale later in the year. It’s a fundamentally conflicted product with no obvious unique advantage. But as a lightning rod for attention, the ROG Phone has also reignited the conversation around the Android gaming market and what it will take for a hardware manufacturer to capitalize on it. The scale and growth of both Android and gaming make the opportunity too large to ignore.

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