On the eve of Sony's big announcement on February 20, widely expected to be the unveiling of the next PlayStation, a recent presentation provided some insight into Sony's thinking about the future of gaming. Chris Mahoney, director of emerging platforms for Sony Computer Entertainment America, spoke to an audience at the Appsworld conference in San Francisco last week about taking console gaming to mobile platforms.
"I'm considered one of the crazy people at PlayStation," Mahoney said. "It's my job to go out there and figure out what new area of business do we want to be in, and understand what it is the consumers want from those areas of business. I create what I call 'rebel alliances' within Sony, with people who can see the future of these new businesses."
Sony has made an important step in the direction of mobile gaming with its PlayStation Mobile program. "PlayStation Mobile is a new initiative we launched last year to bring the world of PlayStation to all PlayStation-certified devices, which includes the PS Vita, and includes Android devices like Sony Xperia tablets and phones, Wikipad, Asus, Sharp, and a bunch of different devices," Mahoney said.
The vast library of old PlayStation games brings classic console gaming straight to Android devices, but Mahoney is looking at the broader future of mobile gaming. "How do you bridge the gap between console and mobile gaming?" asks Mahoney. Sony has been considering this question for some time, he said.
"If I told you a couple of years ago that I was going to give you a screen and you were going to swipe your finger across it and you'd consider that fun, you'd have thought I was nuts"
Revenue from mobile games is growing rapidly, and Mahoney wants to know what's driving that. "There are some obvious factors that we all know about," he pointed out. "One is that it's driven by new devices and platforms. The cost of distribution comes down, and we're able to try new business models that are further enhancing how fast this new market is growing."
Mahoney noted that new game types are also a factor. "If I told you a couple of years ago that I was going to give you a screen and you were going to swipe your finger across it and you'd consider that fun, you'd have thought I was nuts. But then games like Angry Birds come out and show you this is a lot of fun."
Beyond all of those reasons, though, Mahoney said the appeal of mobile games is "We all have these little moments of downtime, like when you're at an airport or waiting at the DMV." It's gaming as a snack, a comparison that others have made as well. "When you look at mobile gaming today, it feels a lot like eating a Twinkie. A Twinkie is something where you have a craving, and you eat it, and it gives you a little sugar rush, and you feel great, but immediately afterwards you feel like that wasn't a meal," Mahoney said. "Consumers are starting to tell us some of that."
In a nationwide survey Sony conducted of all kinds of mobile gamers, 89 per cent said mobile games are fun to play; 78 per cent said they are relaxing, and 76 per cent said they are replayable. But consumers are dissatisfied with mobile games, too; 36 percent said they are low quality, 49 per cent said they are bad graphically or narratively, and 76 per cent said they are mostly a waste of time.
"Consumers are saying they want to invest their time, not waste it," Mahoney said. "And this is where I think console companies come in. We have a rich heritage of actually providing meaningful game experiences. We've built a legacy of great graphics; we have really solid narrative."
Mahoney feels there's room for a variety of games. "Lots of people tell you mobile's going to kill consoles, but I don't really see it that way," Mahoney said. "What we see is it's just a new iteration on consoles; we think consumers will demand content from both ends of the spectrum. There will be really important experiences in mobile, and there will continue to be really important experiences in consoles. It's like how independent film-making didn't kill the Hollywood blockbuster."
"Consumers are saying they want to invest their time, not waste it. And this is where I think console companies come in"
That's not to say that console games can just move right over to mobile platforms. "There is a real problem with putting console games on mobile phones; it's the device," Mahoney said. "Tablets are a little bit better, but all mobile devices have three main drawbacks: The screen size, the battery life, and where you play them. It can be sunny, too rainy, windy or noisy; it's hard to get into a console type game in that type of environment."
Sony wanted to know how to bring the level of mobile gaming up, so they surveyed people. "We asked people if they wanted God of War on a mobile phone, and they said 'Not really.'" said Mahoney. "Why not? They said they were really terrified that an amazing experience like that would kill their battery. They were also concerned that it was going to be really immersive and take lots of time. We heard this from a ton of people nationwide; they were worried about missing calls. It makes sense, because when we delved into why, people said 'My phone is a communications device, first and foremost.' Gaming is a secondary use case, and it can't cannibalize the communication capability."
"What people were saying is not that we have to fit these games into the device, but fit these games into how people use it," Mahoney explained. "People are using games during these little bursts of time. So we thought, what is a console game? A console game is ten 30-60-minute levels. Mobile games are like hundreds of levels that are three to six minutes, sometimes even less. What if we take the higher quality graphics, and the narratives that everyone is asking for, and we put it on a mobile phone and fit it into these little bursts of time. We took that back to consumers, and they said 'Yes, that's it exactly, that's what we want.'"
It wasn't that simple, though. "To deliver that level of game experience, to that many people, in a way where there's great quality but also enough quantity to keep them engaged, that's going to take a lot of work," Mahoney said. "We knew we couldn't do it ourselves. So we did what people would consider an atypical thing for a console company: We opened the platform. That was around the time we launched the PlayStation Mobile Developer program. You pay $99 a year, you have unlimited publishes on the platform, one global contract, and unified developer resources online. This is really revolutionary for console companies."
"A console game is ten 30-60-minute levels. Mobile games are like hundreds of levels that are three to six minutes, sometimes even less"
The final piece of the puzzle was to give developers a good reason to put games on the platform. "There are plenty of open platforms, so we knew we needed something more," Mahoney said. "We have a big audience of gamers. We want to take the best games and elevate them. We want you to come in and feel that you're finding something that's relevant to you and high quality."
It's still early days for the PlayStation Mobile platform, and as mobile hardware power improves there will be more devices capable of providing higher-quality output. It's too soon to tell if this initiative will really have a big impact on mobile gaming. The interesting question is whether some of this can work in the opposite direction; can the flexible business models and ease of development make their way to consoles?
Sony does intend to bring some of that thinking back to the console business, from what Mahoney said. The technical aspects of Sony's soon-to-be-announced new console will be important, no doubt; exceptional graphics and other capabilities will intrigue developers and gamers alike. The competition for console games, though, isn't just about tech specs. Developers have been attracted to online and mobile platforms because of the ease of publishing, the fact that there's little or no bureaucracy to navigate for online or mobile games can be a deciding factor in platform development decisions. Innovations in the way Sony does business with developers may have as much of an impact on the success of a new console as any technical feature.