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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.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.