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Mobile Gaming Is Having a Moment—and Backbone Wants to Unite It

Mobile gaming has never received the same respect as console and PC gaming. Yet it generated over $90 billion in 2023, accounting for half of the global games market, and runs the gamut from casual to AAA titles. It's continuing to grow, and the boundary between mobile gaming and “regular” gaming is increasingly blurry.

While gaming on the phone is usually secondary for folks with a console under the TV, there’s a huge untapped market of potential gamers who use smartphones as their primary device. I spoke with Maneet Khaira, CEO and founder of Backbone—which makes a popular mobile gaming controller—about why he thinks mobile gaming is set to soar. It’s not just better native games driving mobile forward; remote play and cloud gaming are also taking off.

Triple Threat

Smartphones are growing more powerful. Games like the Resident Evil 4 remake, Death Stranding, and Assassin's Creed Mirage coming out on the latest iPhones hint at a future where shipping your game on consoles, PC, and mobile platforms may be the norm. After all, developers want as many people as possible to play their games, and publishers will always seek more sales. More processing power and bigger screens will continue to drive higher-quality games to phones.

Remote play allows gamers to fire up console or PC titles and stream them to smartphone screens. While swinging through New York in Spider-Man 2 is less than ideal on your phone, it is a great solution for when you’re away from home, or someone else in the household is hogging the primary TV. It does require you to jump through a few hoops though—you need a console to connect to, a fast internet connection, and a mobile gaming controller.

The same speedy internet and controller combo is a prerequisite for cloud gaming. Much maligned, with a reputation damaged by the failure of Google’s Stadia, cloud gaming still has massive potential. While numbers are hard to come by, in October 2022, Microsoft revealed that more than 20 million people had used Xbox Cloud Gaming. There’s also Sony’s PlayStation cloud streaming, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, and Amazon’s Luna. Khaira feels that Apple's opening up the App Store to game streaming services will reignite the space.

Including cloud gaming as a perk of Game Pass and PlayStation Plus subscriptions has made it easier for folks to dip their toes into the water. If you tried cloud gaming a couple of years ago and got turned off by buffer and lag, you might want to take a second look–the experience is much improved already.

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Whether silicon continues to outpace the networking technology required to make streaming viable is tough to predict. The expansion of 5G and Wi-Fi 7 could pave the way for a rapid rise in cloud gaming, and that promise extends beyond your phone to smart TVs, tablets, and other screens. With the right subscription, software, and controller, you may never need a console under the TV in the future.

Does Mobile Gaming Need a Backbone?

For all the abundant choices with mobile gaming today, the scene is a fractured mess. Whether you buy individual games in Google’s Play Store, sign up for a subscription service like Apple Arcade or Xbox Game Pass, or hook into your game library on another device through Steam Link, you need multiple apps.

“We want to unify all these different gaming ecosystems and experiences in just one place,” Khaira says. Makers of the Backbone One, our favorite iPhone controller, the company has since launched a USB-C version that works with Android phones (and the latest iPhones), and 2nd Gen Lightning controllers. It also recently released a limited edition Death Stranding controller in partnership with Hideo Kojima, which included the game on iOS. It sold out in days.

It’s not just hardware that has Khaira excited, it’s the Backbone app and subscription. Designed to unite all your mobile gaming options into a single, accessible portal, he believes Backbone can do for mobile gaming what Roku did for TV streaming. In a nutshell, Backbone puts all your different games and services in one place, making it quick to hop into your latest favorite game and pick up where you left off.

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Other perks to being a Backbone+ subscriber include game capture, recording, and editing tools for folks who like to share content on social media. There are promotions, like free months of Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass, in-game content for titles like Diablo Immortal, and 30 percent off new Backbone products and accessories.

Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a cost. Yet another subscription is a hard sell nowadays. As nice as it is to have a single portal, shelling out for Backbone+ may not be worthwhile for everyone. If the one-stop shop interface for all your games is included as part of the free app, it would be easy to recommend, but $40 a year is too much to pay for folks who don’t care about the other functionality or promotions.

That old expectation that mobile games should be free is persistent. Most folks are yet to be sold on alternative models to in-app purchases and advertising, like Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass. The latest rumors suggest Apple Arcade's future is in doubt. That is a shame because, in my experience as a subscriber to both, they are a great way to discover titles worth playing. Discoverability remains a big problem for mobile games.

Breaking Down Barriers

Khaira kicked off Backbone because of the gaming sessions he had with friends. In a house full of consoles and gaming PCs, smartphones were the common denominator where they could all play Fortnite together after work. With the console wars raging and all the non-gaming giants trying to break in, what happens next is tough to predict. But the shift towards a subscription model and the platform agnosticism in mobile feels increasingly inevitable.

When the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, recently addressed the console exclusivity issue, where certain games are only available on one console, he said, “It’s not about games in service of a device, but rather the devices people want to play on should be in service of making the games as big and popular as they possibly could be.”

Whether you want to play games on your Xbox, PlayStation, gaming PC, or smartphone, it looks like that choice is opening up. The new Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile game promises to connect up to 120 players across console, PC, and mobile platforms. Activision says more than 50 million players pre-downloaded the game, and Backbone is offering perks and in-game items for subscribers (plus releasing a Prestige Edition controller to commemorate the launch).

Beyond crossplay, which enables people to play games together on different devices, we are starting to see more cross-progression, carrying your video game progress from one platform to another. Making games available anywhere makes them more accessible, allowing us all to play more. That has to be a good thing.

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