Handhelds have always occupied a particular space in our industry. They make use of less power, fewer buttons, and smaller budgets than the boxes that sit beneath our televisions. Altogether, these differences make handhelds a unique beast, and in turn, developers are building for a platform with its own set of rules and limitations. So how do game studios handle these differences? I spoke with several developers behind many of the best games today to find out what is important in building a handheld game, and what sets it apart from the console market.
To my surprise, nearly everyone I spoke to said that as far as development is concerned, handheld development isn’t far off from the consoles. “I don’t tend to think of handheld gaming to be all that different than home console development in terms of the game content or pacing,” Jools Watsham of Renegade Kid tells me. Watsham credits this to many of today’s games, both at home and on the go, making use of frequent auto-saves. As such, Renegade Kid develops titles that play well no matter the device.
Shin’en Multimedia’s Manfred Linzner says that his studio’s game are budgeted evenly across all platforms, “We don’t make a big difference in developing for handhelds or consoles.” For Linzner, currently working on Jett Rocket II: The Wrath of Taikai, tools and engines are shared among all their projects no matter the destination. “We simply start with an idea and see how far we can go with it on a specific platform,” Linzner tells me, “In our experience this is the best approach for any game on any type of hardware.”
It seems that for many studios, game development does not vary much between a home or portable console. However, many admit that there are considerations made for a gamer who’s away from home. “Creating games for handhelds and consoles can be similar,” says Sean Velasco of Yacht Club Games, “after all, Shovel Knight is coming to both in pretty much the same form. Generally though, when you make a game for a handheld, you have to keep the portability and play session time in mind.” Velasco points to quick saves and auto saves as a benefit to portable games, and notes that “It’s best if a player can have a whole experience in one session. Pokémon is a great example; you go through a couple battles, make a little progress, save, and your car ride is over.”
For Drinkbox Studios, the folks behind Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack and Guacamelee, the most important part of development is knowing your audience. “Handheld games are a real range,” says Drinkbox’s Chris McQuinn, “Some are casual, some are more hardcore, so I think it really depends on the type of game or market you’re aiming for. I guess with that said, perhaps that is most important in handheld gaming – figuring out what your market is.”
When considering his games’ market, Watsham places an emphasis on making sure the game feels good. In working on projects like Mutant Mudds and the upcoming Treasurenauts, Watsham always tests the game on its destined handheld throughout development. “I tend to always build the game for the target device,” Watsham tells me, “so I can experience it the way the player will. How the game feels, looks, and sounds on the actual handheld you’re developing it for is very important. It may sound obvious to do this, but due to the number of times you need to build the game every day to test a new change, and the extra hassle and time involved in building it for the handheld instead of just on your PC, it can be easy to fall into the trap of testing it 90% of the time on the PC because it is easier and quicker.”
With releases like Fluidity: Spin Cycle and Stealth Inc. under their belts, Curve Studios’ Rob Clarke believes that the worry of battery life and technical restrictions are a non issue on the current set of portables. “For us,” Clarke says, “it’s less about whether a device is portable or handheld, and more about what control methods and other features we can use. For example, where does using a touch screen make sense, or when and how can we use locational data in a game?”
It’s become clear that development of handheld games isn’t as separate an entity as I once thought. Instead, developers continue to craft the best experiences they can, just as they would in any market. System features like sleep mode take care of the portability factor, meaning there is never a need to leave our Game Boys on overnight because of a Tetris streak that isn’t ready to end. Moving forward, handhelds look to be even more diverse than ever, offering up both bite sized trips and grand scale adventures, all without the risk of the massive budgets found in home console development. It all comes down to understanding your audience, and providing just the game they’re looking for.