For a few years in the 2010s, "second screens" were the biggest concept in gaming.
Nintendo's DS handheld is often held up as the progenitor of this idea, and many of the ideas for what to do with a second screen -- a map display, menu, or inventory, for example -- arose from developers' experimentation with the unusual form factor of the DS.
However, it was really smartphones that kicked off the broader notion of the second screen; designers noticed that much of what was being done on the "first screen" of the living room TV was now being supplemented by people simultaneously using their phone, and wondered what new kinds of interactions or possibilities were opened up by embracing that concept.
In short order, we had a console entirely built around this idea -- the Wii U -- and experimentation in many other quarters with various different implementations, ranging from Sony toying with the potential of the Vita as a second screen for the PS4, through many different companies launching companion apps designed to turn smartphones into an extension of the game experience.
The winning second screens have been the smartphone and the tablet, and they have become an absolutely ubiquitous part of the gaming experience in recent years
Some of these failed more spectacularly than others (though our views of the Wii U may be mellowing over time, given that it provided the ashes from which the Switch arose), but none of them were really all that successful. Nowadays you hardly ever hear the second screen discussed as a concept, even the notion of a companion app for a game seems a bit outdated at this point.
I'd argue, though, that the second screen concept is in rude health. But it's the original concept, the second screen as an emergent consumer behaviour, that's been incredibly successful, while attempts by platform holders and publishers to leverage or control this concept have universally fallen flat.
The winning second screens have been, perhaps predictably, the smartphone and the tablet -- the devices which inspired the notion in the first place -- and they have become an absolutely ubiquitous part of the gaming experience in recent years.
Perhaps precisely because this is a behaviour consumers adopted without it having a trademark and a monetisation model slapped on it, though, it's flown under the radar somewhat -- to the point where it's easy to underestimate the revolution these devices have created in how we play and interact with games.
This was something that struck me especially in relation to Elden Ring, which, as I'm sure is the case for many of you, has become a bottomless pit into which I have thrown a truly embarrassing number of hours (in my defence, I was housebound with an injury for weeks; what's your excuse, fellow Tarnished?).
The first few hours of the game, I managed (rather poorly) all on my lonesome. For the remainder of those 200-odd hours, the glow of a tablet on the sofa next to me was a constant companion.
Elden Ring is a game that revels in its own obtuseness; but there's a wealth of YouTube videos, wiki articles, and Reddit posts out there to guide you through the many points where the game is prancing around and demanding you answer riddles about what it's got in its pocketses before letting you proceed. It's entirely up to you how much time you spend in the game figuring things out before waking up your smart device to look for hints and solutions -- the ultimate adjustable difficulty setting, in a sense.
I'm not sure exactly how much monetisation I contributed to creators of this content as I wandered around killing everything that moved in the Lands Between several times over, but given the popularity of the game and the likelihood that a majority of players are also sneaking a look at some information as they play, the ecosystem of media that's built up around Elden Ring is probably driving a pretty solid amount of revenue on a day to day basis.
The monetisation, though, isn't really the point -- what's interesting about this is the whole interaction paradigm that's being created here, with an ecosystem of fan-created content becoming a core part of the game experience for a great many players.
Elden Ring is a pretty extreme case of this, of course -- few games are willing to be quite so impenetrable, to the point where without a wiki to guide you you'd likely miss entire huge sections of the game.
It's entirely up to you how much time you spend in [Elden Ring] figuring things out before waking up your smart device to look for hints and solutions -- the ultimate adjustable difficulty setting, in a sense
In fact, I have a strong sense that From Software designed the game in anticipation that just this kind of content ecosystem would spring up around it; many of the design decisions simply don't make any sense unless the creators were aware that players would be accessing online resources as they played. In that sense, for all that it doesn't have any overt second screen features, Elden Ring is absolutely a second screen game; I struggle to imagine playing it without the wikis and the gameplay videos, and suspect that not only would it be a frustrating experience, it also wouldn't be remotely as commercially successful.
It's absolutely fair to consider all of those fan-created resources to be an intrinsic part of Elden Ring itself, and the knowledge that such resources would rapidly spring up has clearly guided some decision-making in the game's design process. Of course, that brings us inevitably back around to the question of money, and I know that some people will immediately wince at the notion that a large, monetised ecosystem has sprung up and the developers aren't seeing a single Yen from it.
However, if the success of that ecosystem has in turn contributed to the commercial success of the game (and potentially won converts who will be day-one purchasers of future FromSoft titles, and so on), that's a virtuous circle from which everyone benefits.
Even if Elden Ring is an extreme case, some aspect of this process has become a core part of all sorts of games. Achievements and Trophies have played a big role, they encourage players to completionism, and keeping a second screen next to you is a key aspect of ensuring you haven't missed vital pick-ups or secrets as you progress.
Even beyond simply helping players to get achievements, however, a secondary media ecosystem now springs up around any successful game. Whether it's figuring out the best builds and loadouts for a character, discussing lore and story, or investigating and speculating about cut content and potential DLC, the crowd-sourced efforts of hundreds if not thousands of consumers contribute to an enormous resource of information, tips, guides, and discussion about pretty much every game released in recent years.
Accepting the role of the smartphone in play experiences opens up a number of interesting possibilities, including the potential for games to get a little less hand-holding
Platform holders have tried to capture some of that magic from themselves -- perhaps the best example to date is the PS5's trackers for objectives and trophies, which will try to point you towards suggested activities or give you hints along the way. It's a nice enough implementation, but compared to the simplicity of googling for "forbidden west pit fights thornmarsh how the hell" on a smartphone sat on the arm of your sofa, every attempt to create this functionality on-platform has been clunky at best.
This isn't to say it's impossible to build more of this kind of functionality into the game; but I wonder if it's even a goal worth pursuing. If fan-generated content can and does ably fill that gap, and smartphones already provide the perfect device for it -- isn't that actually an ideal solution?
Many developers are certainly coming to that conclusion. Elden Ring is far from the only game that seems designed with the knowledge that players will be consulting online sources as they progress (if you want another egregious example, Destiny is sitting right over there).
Accepting the role of the smartphone in play experiences opens up a number of interesting possibilities, including the potential for games -- especially open-world games -- to get a little less hand-holding, and perhaps stop drowning their map in icons.
As I mentioned, the second screen is essentially an adaptive difficulty setting for puzzles and environmental challenges, with "easy mode" sitting right there in every gamers' pocket. Consequently, quest design can get slightly more challenging and rewarding (although for all that I'm talking fondly about Elden Ring in this column -- please, not that obtuse) and let those who are impatient just look up the answer on their smartphone.
There's also the possibility for developers to actually encourage the early development of the fan content ecosystem, by working directly with content creators who make interesting guides, tips, and other analysis. This was, of course, standard practice back in the days of "strategy guide" books being sold at launch, and recently, streaming services like Disney+ have started giving early access to weekly episodes of major shows to YouTube creators who make videos analysing them for references, callbacks and easter eggs, ensuring that viewers have a ton of YouTube content to engage with right after they finish watching the new episode. There's certainly scope for a similar thing to happen with video games.
Second screens, then, didn't fade away -- they just became so much the dominant paradigm that we barely even notice them any more. Some will decry this flood of fan content showing off secrets and explaining puzzles as an example of games losing the mystery and sense of exploration they once had -- but the option to turn over your smartphone and keep playing without its accompanying glow is always there.
Instead, we should celebrate the community that good games create around themselves -- a community whose creations, via the second screen, are now an intrinsic part of the gaming experience itself.