The last three years of gaming-centric smartphones have been interesting to watch and while the new ROG Phone 3 doesn’t seem like it’s going to crack the category wide open, the parts of the pitch it gets right suggests the niche won’t be going anywhere for a while yet.
A quick recap: I first wrote about gaming phones back in 2018.
Back then, I said that “the differences between what you’ll get out of a gaming smartphone and a regular flagship are few and not all that meaningful. Yes, a gaming phone might be better suited for gaming than a mid-range option might - but there’s still one big reason to hold off on buying one just yet even if you are pretty deep into mobile gaming.”
“You probably don’t need it. Most mobile developers want as many people as possible to download and play their games. They can’t afford to take the risk that comes with releasing something that only a small percentage of audiences can play. It just isn’t commercially viable.”
At PAX AUS 2018, Alienware’s Frank Azor told me much the same.
He told me that “when you look at the performance technologies, the performance [technologies] in smartphones is even more democratized than they would be in PC, for example.”
“Everyone’s using the same chips. There’s not a lot of opportunity for significant overclocking or significant graphics integration. So a lot of the things that have helped us be successful in the PC space, those technology opportunities aren’t there yet in the gaming smartphone or smartphone space.”
Of course, since then. The competition to build the world’s first mass market gaming phone has only intensified.
Razer might have dropped out but Lenovo has moved quickly to take their place while other brands like Nubia and Black Shark have looked to stake their own claims. However, for all that’s been said and done and for all the RGB-laden smartphones that have hit the market over the last few years, it doesn’t feel like anyone is any closer to breaking out of the gamer phone out of the niche that the category was born in.
There are more gaming-specific components in the mix through stuff like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus. However, even if you’re an enthusiast this measurable but meaningless difference in performance here doesn’t do as much to help justify the premium price involved as hardware-based perks like the Air Triggers found on ASUS’ ROG Phone.
Introduced with the first-gen model and refined since then, the Air Triggers are a set of haptic sensors build into the frame of the device. When held horizontally, they let you tap on the shoulders of your smartphone for additional inputs as if they were the shoulder triggers on a traditional PS4 or Xbox Controller.
And for all my reservations about gaming phones, the Air Triggers remain one of the only compelling reasons to actually consider buying one of ASUS’ gaming phones. For all that touch interfaces have made mobile gaming accessible, they’ve done little to address their inherent lack in tactility. Unlike pressing a button on a controller or key on a keyboard, there’s no feedback confirming your input beyond what you can see - and, even then, your hands can often obscure your vision of the very thing you’re trying to interface with.
For as much as mobile gaming has advanced in recent years to make use of the more powerful CPU and GPU hardware available in the high-end of the mobile market, the intrinsic problems with entirely touchscreen-based control schemes have remained unaddressed.
That’s why Air Triggers are so cool. Even if they don’t go as far as a set of physical triggers might, they provide a familiar workaround that makes the ROG Phone 3 more than just a phone that’s better at running games but one that makes mobile gaming experience feel tangibly better.
During a recent hands-on trial with the device, my go to here was Call of Duty: Mobile. Although playable enough with the existing touch-based controls, substituting in the ROG Phone’s AirTriggers really did make it that much more comparable to a conventional Call of Duty experience.
There was a little bit of a learning curve in terms of finding the right level of sensitivity and developing the muscle memory required but, after a round of two, I found myself enjoying matches of Activision’s free-to-play shooter a lot more than I would otherwise.
If anything, my biggest takeaway here is that ASUS’ strategy with the ROG Phone - focusing less on specs and more on leveraging the design and accessory ecosystem - has the makings of a much better gaming phone than anything else out there.
Packing more and more graphical grunt into a smartphone is futile if developers aren’t going to make use of it. It’s still hard to imagine gaming phones making it big in a mainstream sense but it’s a lot easier to imagine them making that jump by working out how to make the experience of playing games on your phone better as opposed to just making phones that run games better.