Believing in the Second Screen

Just because you don't like what they do doesn't make your consumers "wrong"

One of the best things about writing about the games business is the opportunities it affords to meet, converse with and on occasion argue heatedly with a wide range of clever, creative and often insightful people - not only from this industry but from the other creative and technical industries which orbit it. Plenty of disagreements emerge along the lines - but it's thankfully rare to walk away from a discussion thinking, "wow, that guy is delusional". That being the introductory paragraph to this article, I suppose it's obvious that I'm now going to relate one such occasion.

Conveniently, the delusional chap in question wasn't from the games business, but rather a television executive - and the conversation in question began badly, when he asked, with exaggerated eye-rolling and an exasperated sigh, when everyone is going to stop banging on about "this second screen nonsense". To be precise, he wanted to know when "you geek types are going to give up and stop trying to push this stuff on the rest of us", because "nobody wants to have to juggle two screens".

"A lot of very clever geeks are hoping to save TV from itself before techno-anarchy in the form of unfettered zero-cost digital distribution destroys it"

That's clearly only the start of a fairly major disagreement - although it took a bit more insight into his stance before I concluded that he was outright delusional - but in itself, it offers a glimpse of how many television executives and even creatives think and act. A great many of them are inherently suspicious of new technology, and especially of "geeks" attempting to do anything with television - viewing anything proposed by said "geeks" as an attempt to upset and subvert the existing TV business model, which they understand and which has profited them handsomely, only to replace it with some kind of techno-anarchy.

The reality, bluntly, is that a lot of very clever geeks are hoping to save TV from itself before techno-anarchy in the form of unfettered zero-cost digital distribution really does destroy it, but my experience of senior people in the TV business suggests that few of them see things that way. Just as in the music business during the Napster era it became a badge of perverse pride for many senior executives to be completely, noisily ignorant of the Internet and digital technology, the same is occasionally true, albeit more cautiously, in TV today.

Anyway, in the mind of this executive, the concept of the "second screen" was yet another assault on traditional television business models by this shadowy cabal of geeks (all cabals of geeks are shadowy, of course, due to our innate preference for dark clothing). Further probing revealed that to him, the second screen is something being proposed by technology lovers, pushed and foisted onto a world that doesn't want or need it. "Who wants to be tapping another screen while they watch TV?", he pondered out loud, presuming this to be rhetorical question.

The counterpoint - which I consider to be rather more grounded in reality - is that the second screen is actually a behaviour which came from consumers themselves, and has only belatedly been picked up by technologists and creatives. Microsoft's SmartGlass and Nintendo's Wii U may be the most visible implementations of second screen technology that's overtly linked to the "first" screen, the TV itself, but their creators know well that all they're offering is a refinement of something which consumers already do - consume additional content, often social in nature, on a phone or tablet device while viewing the primary content screen on a TV.

That's not something being "foisted" on anyone. If anything, it's the content industries which are scrambling to catch up with things consumers already do - an uncomfortable state of affairs, but one which should feel intimately familiar to those in the creative businesses after the turmoil of the past couple of decades. Now, certainly, one could question whether Wii U or SmartGlass (or indeed Sony's efforts at linking Vita to the PS3) are actually a useful or effective implementation of the second screen. They have a lot to compete with; the sheer flexibility of a device like an iOS or Android-based tablet or smartphone, which offers access to all of the content on the Internet through various means, as well as being linked to all of a user's social networks, is going to be extremely hard to better in a closed system. There's absolutely a risk that technology firms have seen the rise of second screen usage and become excited for all the wrong reasons; consumers aren't simply thrilled by the idea of having a second slab of LCD in their hands supplementing the existing TV screen. It's the functionality - information access and social media - which matters, not the technology.

"The second screen is actually a behaviour which came from consumers themselves, and has only belatedly been picked up by technologists and creatives"

However, at least the technology firms have seen the rise of second screens and responded. I responded to the supposedly rhetorical question regarding "tapping another screen" by pointing out that this is already the default behaviour for many consumers. We access IMDB while watching a movie, because an actor's face is familiar and we can't recall what he's been in before. We use Wikipedia to reference points in documentaries which aren't fully explained. In terms of games, many users have FAQs or even videos open on our mobile devices to help us through tricky or dull parts.

Perhaps most importantly of all, and with the largest impact on the TV industry as a whole, live TV events have been enhanced and to an extent revived by social media. Furious US consumers who had to wait several hours for broadcaster NBC to show the London 2012 opening ceremony were not outraged simply by having to wait; they were outraged by missing out on the ability to observe or take part in the live stream of social media that accompanied the event, which is at least half the fun of watching a major live event, be it sporting, entertainment, or even political. All of this takes place on the second screen. I know; all of it has taken place in my living room in the past few months.

The grumpy response? "Well, that ruins watching TV. You're not enjoying it if your attention is half on your phone screen. People should be enjoying the show, not chatting about it on Twitter - you can do that afterwards." (I'm paraphrasing, obviously, but those were the core points of the argument made.)

This is the point at which I decided that my new pal was genuinely deluded, and it's also a point which illustrates a really important parable for the games industry - or for any creative industry. You have to build products for the consumers you have, not for the consumers you wish you had. Once you dig down through the layers of argumentation, this executive's objection to the second screen boils down to the fact that he doesn't like the idea - he feels, I suspect, that it devalues TV to have people's attention being distracted in this way. He's perfectly entitled to that opinion, but at the same time, it's clear that his consumers don't feel the same way - and to some degree at least, he has a responsibility as a businessperson to make products for those consumers, not for some fantasy group of idealised consumers who share his every view.

It's easy to poke fun, but can we in the games industry say that we aren't equally delusional at times? Many people in our industry are somewhat stuck in their ways - we define "games" in unnecessarily restrictive terms and talk about how they "should" be played, all based on our own personal preferences. I'll throw my hands in the air here and admit to various taboo behaviours under that system; I quite like cutscenes, dialogue trees and even reading back-story texts in games (I keep WOWWiki open when playing World of Warcraft, because I like the story and the world about as much as I like the game itself). I get annoyed by people who use "interactive movie" to refer disparagingly to games like Heavy Rain, because they fall outside some comfortable, accepted, pointlessly narrow definition of a game. I play games all wrong, too. I have a potion guide open pretty much constantly on my phone's browser right now, because I'm playing Skyrim (finally). I'm quick to open YouTube or GameFAQs when I get stuck in most games. And you know what? To hell with anyone tutting under their breath; I paid for the game, and I'm having fun with it, whether you consider what I'm doing the "right way" to enjoy it or not.

"The sheer flexibility of a device like an iOS or Android-based tablet or smartphone is going to be extremely hard to better in a closed system"

In other words, I'm the consumer you have, whether that's your ideal consumer or not. Of course, there are plenty of gamers out there who take a totally contrary approach to mine, and there are undoubtedly lots of others on the spectrum between us. I know people who approach Xbox games in an incredibly clinical fashion, using FAQs and guides to extract every available Achievement and GamerPoint from the game before abandoning its empty, lifeless husk; I don't see the fun in that approach at all, but they paid for it, and they're entitled to have fun with it how they like. I also know people who spend several pounds a week buying in-game credit for certain F2P games and rarely touching anything else; again, not my thing, but it's their money and they spend it how they please, and nobody has the right to decide that they're not "real" gamers or not entitled to their segment of the market.

I'm deeply unconvinced by the efforts being made by Microsoft, Nintendo et al to turn the grass roots adoption of second screen usage into something slicker and more commercial (although Nintendo at least may be on to something with the Wii U's social network system), but at least they're seeing what consumers do and attempting to understand it and provide for it. Simply saying "well, I don't like it" and pretending it doesn't exist or is somehow "wrong" is daft and, yes, delusional. Yet we do the same thing all the time, building games for rarefied ideals of the perfect gamer and pretending that everything we don't personally like is an aberration.

This isn't, by the way, an argument for asking consumers what they want at every turn - as Henry Ford observed, his customers would have told him they wanted a faster horse, while I suspect that Steve Jobs' customers would mostly have been appalled at the idea of a phone with a huge screen and no buttons (an idea which, demonstrating shockingly poor memory as well as deeply suspect reasoning skills, most of the Internet now thinks was completely obvious). Rather, it's an argument for knowing your consumer. See what they're doing, and understand why they're doing it. Never dismiss their behaviour as "wrong" because it's not the same as your behaviour. Maybe you don't think they're the consumers you deserve - well, keep that under your hat. They're the consumers you've got right now, and if you don't provide for them, you won't be in business very long.

Related stories

Nintendo plots longer lifecycle for Switch

Firm wants to extend beyond the standard 'five or six years'

By Christopher Dring

Google prepping game streaming service - Report

Offering codenamed Yeti would work either with Chromecast or potential Google console

By Brendan Sinclair

Latest comments (22)

Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters5 years ago
It's a strange one, this. Although I totally agree with Rob, I do mess about with stuff on a second screen while watching a movie and it annoys the hell out of me. It DOES ruin the movie for me when I have to rewind a section because I was busy talking to someone on skype instead of paying attention, but a lot of the time I do it anyway. Sometimes I sit and watch a movie and purposely turn all my devices off just to avoid the temptation to check twitter mid-movie to get away from that "I might be missing something" feeling. People do it, but not necessarily because they want to, but just because they can. But generally, this is just a very common case of a person who thinks his own opinions are actually facts.
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Tommy Thompson Lecturer in BSc (Hons) Computer Games Programming., University of Derby5 years ago
"Because they're the consumers Gotham deserves, but not the ones it needs right now. So we'll hunt them. Because they can take it. Because they're not our hero. They're silent guardians, watchful protectors. The dark knights."
5Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andy Bastable Lead Programmer, Microsoft / Rare5 years ago
Watching the Paralympics the other day in a holiday cottage devoid of Wifi or 3G signal I grew increasingly frustrated by the fact I couldn't google the various categories, or share opinions with twitter friends, or celebrate triumphs on Facebook with a few others. Like many others, live TV is now synonymous with being "connected". It feels oddly lack-lustre now to watch it in isolation.

Some TV execs get this, of course. Witness the display of hashtags on credits and ad breaks to encourage people to tweet about it.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (22)
James Prendergast Research Chemist 5 years ago
@ Andy: That's a really good point - "live TV is now synonymous with being "connected"." And yet, the TV viewing itself is highly uninteractive!!

It still confuses me how you can see this behaviour and demand and yet not make TV choice more interactive and instead try and lock it down all the more!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Paul Shirley Programmers 5 years ago
The majority of TV is now little more than radio with pictures, with little need to look at it to follow the content. If TV producers actually made better use of the medium maybe we'd be less interesting in those 2nd screens. This last week I've watched Dr Who and listened to almost everything else with just a few glances at the screen.

I don't do the social media thing, don't look up interesting stats or info about the programme (apart from checking rugby scores in other games;), TV just doesn't capture my attention enough. My wife seems the same. That 2nd screen isn't distracting me from TV, it's filling in for what's missing in TV.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Hugo Dubs Interactive Designer 5 years ago
Taking the olympics example, it would be great to have the ability to watch the major event on the TV, and have access to a secondary event that occurs at the same time.

One thing I hope is that advertising will be only on the second screen so I could throw it away and watch my movie/shows without being annoyed
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Graeme Quantrill Mobile App Developer 5 years ago
You see second screen apps a lot with Connected TV apps. Absolute Radio springs to mind as the TV is used for the actual playback and the mobile app is used as a controller. The main issue we've been finding is that using any form of navigation on a TV cannot be sophisticated as you'e left with up,down, left and right while with touch screen you have a lot more flexibility therefore second screen (or convergence apps is the correct term) benefit a lot.

TV is only just getting started with it's fight back against technology. Well, this is a presumption that the TV manufacturers (Samsung, LG, etc) get their act together and get their platforms in order as frankly, they're terrible right now and no one really like developing for them. Time will tell I guess.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Graeme Quantrill on 7th September 2012 4:33pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
Rob, excellent article. I applaud you for not bringing out the old dinosaur analogy to drive it home.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
David Lee Chief Concepticator, Concepticate5 years ago
I too use a 'second screen' quite often. But as much as I think we should support options for how viewers and players want to engage in 'dual content' I think we should be cognizant of what the second screen is replacing: actual, live interactions with other people in the room. It's not like we blankly watched the TV before we had Internet options--we talked to each other while it was on. It's the same with console games--watching someone play and commenting and criticizing is nearly as fun as playing.

This doesn't mean that second screen functions are mutually exclusive with real-life interaction--just that what I see more and more is people starting at smartphones and tablets. That's one thing I like about the possibilities of Wii-U since it seems it can stimulate second screen activity that engages with other people in the room.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nick Parker Consultant 5 years ago
Very soon, within the next few years, the second screen will be vital for a full interactive experience of the main (connected) TV which will become a more lean forward experience. At the moment, from my robust sample of three, that is three teenage children in the house, each one has at least two screens on in their rooms simultaneously or in the family area. That's when they're not on their compulsory 5k runs on the treadmill driving the electricity generator before breakfast of course!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kieren Bloomfield Software Engineer, EA Sports5 years ago
Well I'm going to be the grumpy old man and take a stand on the other side. The second screen is a distraction from what's going on on the main screen. I'm guilty of looking at my laptop when the TV is on because I've seen the same adverts hundred of times already. If my attention is drifting from the main screen it's not because I want a second screen, it's because the main screen isn't keeping me engrossed as it should. I'll await to see how it really works with games there's going to be a few abominations out there before the balance is struck right. As for TV and movies, sure give me something to do while adverts are on but leave me alone in a movie. I think there's still a market out there for people who want to be left alone to watch something without distraction.

As for the iPhone, I'll never get one for the very reason it doesn't have buttons, I've just got to have that tactile feedback and I know I'm not alone.

I don't think the guy is delusional, he just doesn't like the second screen idea and I can see why. Maybe he's just out of touch, I know I am. I just don't 'get it' (that includes facebook, twitter, 'social' gaming etc). It makes me feel old.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
A second screen throwing junk at you means you get twice as much junk.

Give me one screen with a program that matters any day over two, three, a hundred screens with garbage.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Hmmm.. I'm not that old yet, but still agree with both Kieren and Dave and don't think Mr. TV Executive is as delusional as the author makes him out to be.

I like the fact that TV is not a 'lean forward experience'. That's why I watch television; to sit back and relax. If I want interactivity, I play a game or go on the Internet. As far as I'm concerned television remains television and shouldn't be the internet on a big screen.

Sure, let me know what hash tag this subject has so I know what to use on Twitter if I'm inclined to discuss it, but don't assume I care about Random Person X's tweet about Random Issue Y. I'll go to Twitter if I do.

Honestly, the whole second screen craze does indeed bother me and I dare to question whether this is the future of television. I hope not, but maybe I am old. ;)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com5 years ago
Beautifully reasoned. I think that TV guy doesn't get a lot of how the modern tech-raised human being functions. Honestly, I don't myself. I can't focus on TV while paging through IMDB; I usually pause things when I look something up. But in the same way, I always avoid chat rooms because I find all the cross conversations discombobulating. At 52, I'm just part of an older generation; now we've got people on their PC watching a streaming video and discussing it on a chat sidebar while browsing facebook and texting their friend about romantic difficulties. I suspect the way I watch TV doesn't even make much sense to a lot of them.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Massimo Guarini Founding Director and CEO, Ovosonico5 years ago
The guy was not delusional. He had a point.
It has nothing to do with technology, but rather with society. Our attention span is dramatically dropping, constant distraction and throw-away behaviours are now commonly part of our lives. Real social interaction is often replaced by its digital -and lonely- counterpart.
It's a loop where we're just trying to keep pace with our evolving lifestyles by introducing even more gadgets. And that's particularly true in games since they're unfortunately still too attached to technology and hardware trends, unlike movies and music.
What's important is just the content.
When the content is compelling, everything else is secondary. Including the second screen, the 3D TV, the super audio CD and what not.
As creators is our responsibility to make compelling content.
If somebody starts tweeting while watching my movie, then I have failed. Period.
If I design a game to be enjoyed on different screens or devices, that's a different story. But that would be just a gadget anyway. The game must be compelling regardless of the technology used.
And no, I am not delusional, and I don't feel old :)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd5 years ago
I don't even understand why this is still a debate. The DS proved the advantages of two screens in gaming long before it was ever a thing for people to mess with their smartphones while watching TV. OF COURSE it has benefits. Maybe it's just me? I don't know. I've been a big fan of its uses on the 3DS and I'm looking forward to an even more versatile version of that in the Wii U...

That said, Smartglass means nothing to me. No butt
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bill Garrison Studying Student, DigiPen Institute of Technology5 years ago
The second screen phenomenon isn't really that different from "flipping channels" in the old days. It used to be part and parcel to not "watch" tv, so much as watch 5 minutes of 3 different shows---going back and forth between them. Smartphones just offer a more advanced way for people to multitask. When it comes to games I think this is a no brainer, since multitasking is in itself sort of a game mechanic.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Dinosaur Jr. here. I hate this whole trend of second screening because of many factors, not the least of which is it's incredibly stupid (:Hey, i missed that scene because i was tweeting about the scene before! Wait, what was the episode about again?"), downright rude (if you watch TV with other people in the room who give not a crap that there are 17,601 feathers in a character's cloak that took six artisans three weeks to sew or whatever). and lastly, amusingly inconsistent because it doesn't fit all entertainment occasions (see below), probably to the chagrin of the impatient techie who MUST tell every single one of his loyal virtual tribe just what the hell they're doing at every damned second.

Try doing that whole busting out a device to get the inside scoop you can surely wait for AFTER you see the show crap in a movie theater, the opera or during a Broadway play and your ass is out the door with a few punches thrown at your head. Or at least, a stern glowering from everyone you've interrupted from enjoying the show as it SHOULD be enjoyed.

Me, I'm a sense of wonder guy. I respect the work that goes into a show or film and try hard to enjoy it with no outside distractions. I like NOT knowing how long Ray Harryhausen took to animate those six or seven skeletons, how many takes it took to get Sonny Corleone all shot up at that tool booth or whether a blue or green screen was used in what Star Wars flick. All that stuff i look at (if i decide to do so) on my own time.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Greg Wilcox on 8th September 2012 9:49am

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games5 years ago
i was at IFA the other day visiting Samsung's area, and i saw lots of people having fun with phones and TV. Lots of games and all sorts of people playing them, not only with phones, but the TV itself using gesture controls like a kinect lite. Similarly so with LG. Delusioned is what that exec is, fired is what he should be as he really misses the whole point and is out of sync with what his customers want. Very bad for his company.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Yiannis Koumoutzelis on 9th September 2012 11:52pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters5 years ago
I think a few people are still missing Rob's point here. This isn't about whether you like or want it personally, but the market as a whole does want/expect it and to pretend that's not the case because you don't personally like it is delusional, especially when your job is to find the things people want and give it to them. Markets are driven by demand, and if you don't give people what they want, someone else will and make you obsolete.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Maik Buetefuer PR Manager, Ubisoft Germany5 years ago
He may be acting like an old fart, but frankly he's at least to some degree right. I too use a second screen a lot, but you can't deny the fact that it takes away attention from whatever I'm watching. The more interesting part is this: yes, a lot of technical adept people use a second screen, but why does it has to change the way we watch tv or play games. Even more important: why does it have to change the way we develop games and do tv? I use the second screen, because I want to and I choose to. The moment tv requires the second screen it becomes a struggle. There are a lot of great ideas out there and I'm looking forward to see and play them. But if a second screen is used on a regular basis, I'm pretty sure it will suck. I exclude the Wii U, especially because it's a closed system and therefor a very complete approach to the idea and no gimmick attached to an existing form of entertainment. At least that is what I hope to see. :)

To add to that: how can you possibly throw the DS/Wii U and tablets together in this discussion? Nintendo is using a unique concept while chatting with my friends while watching a Formula 1 race simply kills boredom. And to suggest the victory of a second screen for tv from the concept of the DS is downright silly. Plus, if there is no standard in the second screen (smartglass) it limits the possibilities and most of all the audience. Every Wii U game can and will utilize the second screen. Every Xbox game can't. It will never be an integral part of the gameplay experience as long as you can't be sure everyone of the audience has one. That said, the future for the second screen doesn't look so bright after all. :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Maik Buetefuer on 10th September 2012 11:42pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games5 years ago
the way i saw people playing, and having fun, i wouldn't say so with such certainty!

it is a really cool way to experience your game. if it fits your design. i would definitely love to experiment with this option.
especially since the production cost and licensing is not as expensive or complex as working for a wii U project.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.