Could Mobile Replace the Console?
Are smartphones and tablets really the console killers? Definitely maybe, says Mobile Pie's Will Luton
Back in August I wrote a bullish (perhaps bullshit) piece for Develop Magazine: A bold prediction that the mobile phone will kill the console.
I wanted to present a logical argument that could support what some said would never happen. I was surprised when it got a lot of attention and that it was even considered "controversial". I called it what it was at the time: A big guess.
I don't pertain to know the future of games. It's too complex a stage, with many players and successive intertwined underdogs and falls from grace. Anyone that says with certainty that they know what is next is lying or deluded.
The best we can do is guess. Our guesses are often, in whole or part, wrong. And in that context here is one of mine: In 10 years everything will be different.
Different as it was 10 years before that and the 10 years previous to that. This could be wrong. But looking at our history, the current state of technology, the new markets, new distribution, new pricing, new business models, new gamers, new games, new companies and the money at stake, I think someone, maybe you reading this, will shake it all up.
Let's imagine that an event will occur that takes the core business of console manufacturers away. Not by offering massively different content, but by offering a similar, more convenient service to a wider group.
In games we've have so much noise, that nobody knows what's going on today, let alone tomorrow. Few predicted Facebook or iOS. Many wrongly predicted Xbox, PlayStation or DS failing. Nobody saw Zynga happening. We all get it wrong. But guessing is a lot of fun.
So let's imagine that an unlikely event will occur that takes the core business of console manufacturers away. Not by offering massively different content (I'll assume there is a continued appetite for big blockbuster cinematic games), but by offering a similar, more convenient or cheaper service to a wider group.
If we look next at what piece of consumer electronics is in enough hands and has the ability to cause such a paradigm shift, you may point a finger to mobile. There are more capable smartphones in the world than there are consoles and they're full of brilliant gaming content.
On this site Rob Fahey wrote a lovely opinion piece on why iOS Airplay Mirroring and the iOS ecosystem won't kill the console. It is an appeal that the status quo will prevail.
And Rob is right. Airplay Mirroring is too limited, the mobile hardware is too far off being current gen console quality, you need expensive extras and the long form game selection is limited.
Since that was written Airplay Mirroring has had a few months in the wild and hasn't put a dent in the universe. Or even scratched the surface. I'd go as far as to say that not a single console sale has been lost to it. So, it's business as usual. Possibly forever.
Yet I don't think that's likely. I cannot imagine that in ten years people will walk in to a shop and walk out with a plastic box that you plug in to your TV and feed with discs. I believe our technological future is much more integrated, ubiquitous and exciting. I believe we'll see a big change.
The most commonly touted threats to current console supremacy are: The cloud, the smart TV, the mobile device and the social web. There are infinitely more. But these, and this is dangerous ground, seem the most likely.
Next let's set some flags in the sand - a criteria by which any piece of technology could kill the console.
- Technology is available and affordable: Think laserdisc or DAT. Great tech, but limited availability and prohibitive expense killed them in infancy.
- There is a good user experience: The iPhone didn't do much more than the next smartphone at launch, but it stole a lot of the market because it made everything so much easier.
- There is good, easily available and affordable content: So many console also-rans have lost on this. Price, quality and delivery of games is vitally important.
- Consumers adopt: This will happen because it is marketed right and it does all of the above as well as or better than a console.
The console market operates a razor model: You sell the handles (consoles) at a loss or low profit to gain market share where blades (games) are sold at a huge mark up. This is cut throat. If numbers on the handles decline, the blade sales plummet, creating a negative feedback loop.
We're also still seeing increasing budget in console software production, but market growth is reasonably stagnant. Margins are squeezed and risk is high. The hits need to be bigger and those pushed out or closed down are looking for new markets.
If a technology can meet the criteria I've outlined and begin to knock console hardware and software units in meaningful way, the house of cards could collapse quickly. With that as a context, where is mobile (iOS and Android at least) in the previous criteria?
- Technology is available: iOS Airplay Mirroring is here. Some Android devices have HDMI screen mirroring, but Google is thought to be adding wireless HDMI and controller support for future devices. USB hosting for controllers is in Android from 3.1 and higher.
- Technology is affordable: Airplay Mirroring requires an iOS 5 capable device and an Apple TV. Assuming the latter is already owned along with a wireless router the outlay is £99 for the Apple TV. Similarly a wireless HDMI TV or receiver will be required for Android. When either wireless HDMI or Airplay is built in to TVs (Jobs' autobiography talks of the iTV) out of the box and is widely adopted the barrier is dropped to zero.
- There is a good user experience: Right now that isn't the case for Airplay Mirroring. Set up is a little fiddly, the display isn't full screen (due to aspect ratio mismatch) and Apple TV only supports 720p. Also it only mirrors the mobile device's screen, so you cannot display a control scheme on the mobile, while the game shows at 1080p on the TV. The Android offering is less known and could be where they leapfrog iOS.
- There is good, easily available and affordable content: The definition of good is very subjective. iOS has some fantastic console-like games, such as Infinity Blade (which I deeply admire), Real Racing 2 and Shadow Gun. The prices are affordable and models mixed, including free-to-play, ad supported, paid with IAP and now, subscription. Also, Apple has a great database of card details and fantastic service in the App Store. Android is a little behind.
- Consumers adopt: This will occur when they are aware, in that they see or are told, of the offering (I doubt less than 5 per cent of iOS users know about Airplay mirroring) and it is good (see above).
So, perhaps mobile is almost there on a few cases. Smart TV and cloud gaming (I primarily now play on an OnLive microconsole) also meet, or are near to meeting, criteria too.
Where I think we're ultimately headed is a mix of all those technologies (and ones we can't yet imagine). All with the same content shared seamlessly across our four screens (pocket, lap, desk and wall), ubiquitously connected and delivered through the paradigm of the app.
What is under the hood of any app may be web content, such as HTML5 or Flash, OS native or cloud rendered, but it will be indistinguishable to the user. Everything is connected. Content is easily accessible and controlled in a multitude of ways.
Games will sit alongside TV, movies or music, with the notions of their separation, coming from their respective formats and retail channels, gone. Instead everything is the app and the mobile device (the pocket or lap screen) is central to the world as the most portable.
Or it could be something totally different. Because until it's happened, with all the unknown, it's just guessing.