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Gaming phones are great, but do you need one?

It seems to have been raining gaming phones in the market in recent times. Razer, ASUS and nubia have all revealed devices that are especially targeted at mobile gamers, guaranteeing a fair amount of gaming bang. Of course, these devices have been optimised for gaming and therefore boast cutting edge hardware, excellent displays, great sound and of course, very efficient cooling systems to ensure the phones themselves do not heat up too much. And for this, they often attempt to charge a premium.

On the surface, this seems perfectly fine. After all, the same thing happens in computers, where “gaming” computers come with better hardware and features tailored towards gaming, and the manufacturers charge a premium for these. And this actually works, witness the success of Dell’s Alienware and ASUS’ Republic of Gamers (RoG) series of notebooks and desktops. In fact, at CES this year, some of the most notable computers were those devoted to gaming. So you would wonder, why on earth should not the same concept be extended to phones? If there can be a dedicated audience for computer gaming, why cannot there be one for mobile gaming? If you love gaming on a phone, surely you should be buying a gaming phone, right?

Well, I am not too sure, to be brutally honest.

And that is because of the nature of gaming on computers is very different from gaming on  mobile phones. Those who play games on computers generally are a very select breed of people – people with an almost fanatical attachment to gaming, an attachment so fanatical that they are ready to invest a fair deal of money in a machine solely for the purpose of a better gaming experience. The machine – the gaming computer – is dedicated solely to their pursuit of gaming excellence. Games too are more complex, often demanding extra computing resources – faster processors, more RAM, better quality displays and so on. Many games in fact will not even run on relatively lower specced machines (remember Crysis and the more recent Red Dead Redemption?).

Gaming on mobile phones, however, is rather different. Unlike in the PC segment, the mobile gaming addict is often a more mainstream person and is likely to be playing games on his or her handset at any place at any time. One of the reasons for this is the very basic nature of mobile gaming – most mobile games are designed to be temporary diversions rather than long term addictions. You can, for instance, play an intense game like PUBG for half an hour on the Metro (network permitting) and do a fair bit in that time, but try playing Assassin’s Creed for half an hour and get the same feeling. Unlikely. PC games are more absorbing by nature, while mobile games tend to be casual.

The stress from game developers on mobiles, therefore, is not on catering to a niche that has very high end devices, but rather on trying to get across to as many users as possible. That is because unlike computer games that generally cost a pretty penny, most mobile games come with relatively lower price tags and often depend heavily on advertising revenue. The idea of a mobile game developer is not just to deliver cutting edge graphics and compelling gameplay but to be accessible to as many users as possible, which is why even a relatively high end game like PUBG or an Asphalt series title does not necessarily need a very high end device to run, but will actually even manage to run on relatively mid segment and in some cases even devices perceived to be relatively lower middle segment. I have seen people playing PUBG on Rs 11,000 phones – that’s the equivalent of trying to play Red Dead Redemption 2 perhaps on (wince alert!) an Intel Atom processor machine.

All of which sometimes makes me wonder if a gaming mobile phone even makes sense. I could, for instance, invest in something like ASUS’ ROG gaming phone (which comes with a price tag in the vicinity of Rs 65,000) and yet the experience I get would not be VASTLY superior to what I would get from a much lower priced OnePlus 6T, a POCO F1 or well, even a Nokia 8.1 (which does not even boast top of the line specs and makes no claims to being a gaming expert), leave alone something like a Pixel 3 or a Note 9. Yes, I would get better sound, the ability to connect my device to a larger display (killing the whole “mobile game” concept but that’s a different matter) and a display that would be marginally better than those on other devices, but in the truest sense of the word – the difference would not justify the extra investment.

In blunt terms, at the time of writing, I can pretty much get the gaming experience that I get on a “gaming phone” on most other flagship devices, and actually some of the flagships will even better gaming phones in departments like cameras and compact form factors. That is not the case in gaming PCs – a high-end iMac, for instance, cannot dream of taking on a high-end Alienware device in gaming. Which kind of gives one reason to pause before investing in a gaming phone. Sure, it looks cool and it has great hardware but the catch is that it does not really do too much that is radically ahead of what any other flagship does – gaming or otherwise.

Perhaps this will change when game developers start designing games specifically for gaming centric phones – imagine if PUBG2 could only be played on certain very specific hardware configurations that were found only on gaming phones? Now, THAT would be a good reason for high end gaming lovers to go for a gaming device, although even exclusivity like that would need to be maintained for a while – Fortnite was a Note 9 exclusive for a while, but it honestly did not seem to do the Samsung flagship as much good as was expected.

At present, the only reason for you to go for a gaming phone would perhaps be to get an edge in gaming tournaments – such as the PUBG tournament with Rs 1 crore prize money recently announced in India. But these are few and far between. If you love mobile gaming, then really most Android flagships should suffice to provide you the gaming fix you need. As of now.

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Nimish Dubey

Nimish Dubey has been writing on technology since 1999. He has contributed to a number of publications and websites including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Mint, Economic Times, Outlook, and India Today. He is currently the Editorial Mentor at TechPP.com and a regular contributor to Indian Express. When not writing, he loves to read and listen to classic rock.