Is Mobile Killing Traditional Gaming?

So I think that’s the real challenge for us now, rather than worrying about the difference between a couple consoles and some order of magnitude, whether 3X or 4X. It’s about how do we deal with iPhone 8… if you watch where the gamers are going that’s where they are. Your iPhone 8 will probably plug into your TV, or better yet, wirelessly connect to your television set to give you that big screen gaming experience with good sound. So really, what’s the point of those next-gen consoles? It’s a very interesting situation to be looking at. That’s what we’re starting to think about more… not how do we scale from some Nintendo platform to some other future console.”

That’s Mike Capps, President of Epic Games talking. Epic Games has been one of the top five premiere big budget American game developers for the last decade. They pride themselves on providing some of the biggest, multi-million selling smash hits of this console generation, yet their president actually believes that players are migrating to smartphones.

First of all, let’s look at Mike’s imaginary belief that gamers are moving in droves to the iPhone. Sure, there may be occasionally as many as over 100,000 iOS device activations on a single day. But how many bought it for games? The iPhone and smartphones in general are part of the changing tide in consumer electronics, especially when it comes to the necessity of a home PC, but it isn’t a replacement for dedicated games devices. Game devices are specialty devices tailored to a specific task that core gamers cannot live without.

What we’re seeing is a permanent line drawn in the sand between the casual gamer and the core gamer. Forever gone are the days of the PlayStation 2. The PS2 was probably the last great console that had something for everyone. Every type of gamer, both casual and core was covered. All genres were present, and everyone was happy. That’s done forever. The casual gamer went to the Wii in 2006 and continued to enjoy their Wii Sports machine for the next five years, but once that fad had run its course, the casuals transitioned to the iOS and Android. Casuals will stay there until something better comes along.

Nintendo stockholders may be annoyed that the company cannot find another Wii Sports-like money train to strap themselves to, but that’s just too bad. The casual audience is fickle and they go with the latest thing. The DS itself was a fluke, selling nearly 150 million units worldwide since launch because it captured the imagination of the casual alongside the core. It predated the iPhone by almost three years and helped in mainstreaming the touch panel as a serious video game interface, but it was also a once in a lifetime thing. Competitors like Apple watched and learned. Thanks to the now fragmented casual/core market, the 3DS (now that it’s reasonably priced) can probably expect to match the numbers of its distant cousin the Game Boy Advance at a solid 80 million units. That’s around the same number that the PSP should clock out at, yet people still mistakingly call the PSP a failure. It wasn’t a failure. It just wasn’t #1.

But then again, what is the actual definition of being #1? You can argue that among those nearly 110 million iPhone users, a lot of casual Cut the Rope players will not see the need for a dedicated handheld with real gaming controls (the same people who largely ignored the face buttons on their DS), but what percentage of those iPhone users actually use it for games anyway? 10%? 15%? How many (wealthy) parents who got their kids an iPhone will allow them to use their credit card to download whatever games they want? If a person downloaded a copy of Angry Birds for free on their smartphone, good for them, but that’s no different than the grandpa who bought a Wii to play the packed in copy of Wii Sports and then never bought another game for the thing. Of the Wii’s 87 million sales, how many of those owners actually bought more than three games for it? How many bought one game for it? Only Nintendo knows, but it’s clearly a small fraction, otherwise it would have more developer support. How many smartphone owners are actually buying real games?

But that’s strictly talking about portables. What Mike is saying is that he believes consoles will also be made irrelevant by advancing smartphone technology. Mike can’t logically believe that all kinds of players will eventually transition into Steve Job’s walled garden. Jobs won’t even allow an official dedicated game pad to be released for the iPad. If the iPad could utilize an official mainstream traditional bluetooth controller variant to offset its restrictive touch only approach, perhaps it could be considered a real threat to consoles, but that isn’t happening because Apple doesn’t care about core games. A multi-touch screen is an amazing interface, but it cannot replace the traditional control for precise interaction. Can you imagine fighting games or FPS on an iPad? These games require microsecond reaction times. The lack of precise gaming controls would kill the experience alone, let alone the lag. Serious FPS players would never commit to playing on the iPad, let alone the iPhone and its tiny screen.

Smartphones have permanently split the portable market in half for sure, but they cannot and will not replace consoles. More likely, Mike Capps is just another middle-aged man who has grown distant from video gaming and instead finds himself more entertained by other things in life, yet still finds time to fiddle around with the occasional iPhone app. Imagine that. The president of one of the biggest core gamer studios in the world is a casual gamer.

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