Mobile could soon dominate - so what?
Japan's experience suggests that it might be good for everyone, says Rob Fahey
As the market for games has grown and diversified, it's become increasingly important to take any headline figures you might read with a grain of salt. Every time an analyst or a research firm announces that the games business has reached such and such a size, or that monthly revenues compare thusly with previous figures, or that a certain product or company has over- or under-performed projections, their august pronouncement isn't so much an answer as a source of more questions. What exactly are you defining as the "games business"? Which sectors have you included? How did you measure digital revenues? What about IAP? Are your figures global, regional, merely covering the increasingly unrepresentative US market or "global" for a narrow definition of "global" which means "markets we could find data for with a quick Google search, and to hell with the rest of them"? And as for projections, whose projections, arrived at through which logic and with which agenda?
In short: with a very, very few notable exceptions, most of the sector analysis and research conducted on this industry is awful. It's under-informed, narrow and rarely exposes its methodology well enough to understand and account for its flaws. It's also the best thing we've got, unfortunately, which is why sites (including this one) continue to publish this research as it becomes available, although all of it should probably carry a large flashing warning to remind readers that an infant let loose with coloured crayons and some graph paper would probably have a similar margin of error to their data.
Yet this is only when we're talking about data about what's going on right now. Start to project forward, into crystal-ball-gazing questions like "where will the market be in five years", and you're into the realms where the real nonsense starts. Models and figures are pulled out of analyst's backsides with wild abandon. Rationales and factual grounds are nowhere to be found, but incredibly slick charts and graphs abound; it's a little like astrology, except that rather than blathering about Saturn being in Capricorn and whatnot, analysts seek to bamboozle everyone with charts and then deeply, fervently hope that when the time period they're predicting actually arrives nobody will remember how wrong they were.
Even so, when all of the world's analysts start to point in the same direction - the good, the bad and the bluffing - it's worth taking note. That's the context in which the headline figures from research firm Newzoo's latest report are interesting; headline figures which, in a nutshell, suggest that 2015 will be the tipping point at which revenues from mobile game software surpass revenues from console game software.
"What's happened to consoles as mobiles have taken over? Not much, as it happens"
Newzoo, like most research firms focusing on this industry, doesn't provide sufficient detail to back up or verify its sweeping and grandiose claims, because apparently a really pretty graph with a swish background ought to suffice. They would argue, no doubt, that all the juicy detail which would explain their peculiarly high figures is what they charge clients lots of money for, an argument which is entirely true and still leaves them in the position of peddling figures while failing to show their workings. Nevertheless, Newzoo is not alone in its prediction. It's not even a particularly novel prediction, actually; research firms have been pointing at this tipping point for several years, although when exactly the graph lines would intersect has been a subject of some debate. With mobile growth still strong and the next-gen consoles performing excellently but remaining largely constrained within the core market (rather than seeing another Wii-style breakout success story), the lines are converging a little more evenly and the soothsayers are in accord; next year is the year.
So what happens then? Do burning stones rain from an angry sky to smash all our PlayStation 4s? Will a horde of rampant mobile gamers, driven to murderous insanity by Candy Crush Saga, rip the 3DS' from our hands and beat us to death with them? Shall E3 be swallowed by a lake of fire, and every presentation at GDC be replaced by an ominous looping video of Zynga founder Mark Pincus laughing savagely at the audience?
Perhaps rather than stockpiling tinned foods, filling the bath with potable water and tearfully locking away your beloved RPGs and FPS games in a lead-lined safe, it might be instructive to take a look at a market where this transition has already happened. There is, you see, a place where revenues from mobile games overtook revenues from console games several years ago - as early as 2011, according to some figures, although the safe money is on 2012/13 being the tipping point. Now, in this market, mobile games are the unquestioned market leader in revenue.
The market in question is Japan, where a well-developed market for mobile gaming on existing "feature phone" devices was supercharged by the arrival of the smartphone. Now mobile game revenues have soared well clear of console games. Unlike in the 1990s, Japan's mobile phones aren't vastly advanced compared to those overseas - they queue up here for iPhones just like everywhere else, with Apple's devices being by far the dominant player in the smartphone market, so it's not that games they're playing are technologically advanced compared to those in the west. Rather, it's that the market itself was further down the path than the west, with a wider swathe of consumers familiar and comfortable with mobile gaming, F2P models and in-game transactions.
What's happened to consoles as mobiles have taken over? Not much, as it happens. The softness of PS4's sales in Japan since the stellar launch last spring has been well noted, but it's not a meaningful indicator of an overall problem with the console market; anecdotally, I get the impression that PS4 is extremely desired but still lacks the killer apps which will actually drive Japanese gamers to go out and buy one. Indeed, the line-up of software that appeals to the local market is still weak; a few big titles will shift the needle significantly, just as Mario Kart 8 did for the Wii U (which is now back in a slump awaiting the arrival of Smash Bros; software sells hardware, as ever).
Handhelds, meanwhile, are what you'd expect to suffer most from the triumph of mobile, yet the 3DS is going gangbusters in Japan and the PS Vita is stronger in this market than anywhere else in the world. The rise of mobile to take the crown of most lucrative and expansive market hasn't even impacted the ability of Japanese publishers to launch genuinely massive new franchises on handheld consoles; Yokai Watch may not have made it to the west yet, but if it's half as pervasive over there once it launches, it'll be the biggest new gaming franchise in years.
So the consoles are still pretty healthy, especially the handheld devices. They play to their strengths, for the most part; it's notable that the biggest handheld games around at the moment, games like Smash Bros and Monster Hunter, really wouldn't work on a mobile phone as they rely on accurate, pinpoint controls that couldn't be replicated on a touchscreen to any degree of satisfaction. Other games that work well are those designed for long sessions of play; mobile devices still suffer badly from rapidly draining batteries when playing games, and while a dead battery in your 3DS is a little annoying, a dead battery in your mobile phone is a disaster, meaning few people are willing to put in significant play sessions in GPU-intensive mobile titles.
"If 2015 does see mobile overtaking console worldwide, it may be the best thing to happen to games in years; it won't hurt console, at least not for a long while yet, and it'll allow us to finally turn a corner towards mobile being seen as a platform for everyone"
What's actually more interesting than what's happened to console, though, is what's happened to mobile itself. The mobile game market in Japan is nothing short of fascinating. Ever since its meteoric growth, it's become a hugely expansive market that caters to an enormous range of tastes and demographics, as you'd expect - but the core demographic, the heart of the market for which every company seems to be competing... Well, that's oddly familiar, as it happens.
Every time you see a commuter train festooned with ads for a new mobile title, or a lengthy TV commercial promoting the latest smartphone release, or even the huge screens at Shibuya's scramble crossing taken over with a video of a mobile game, they always have something in common. Their visual language, their core mechanisms and their basic appeal is absolutely in tune with core gamers. Mobile's new position on top of the heap has opened the door to games with higher production values and more depth, aimed at the market that has always played the most and paid the most; the core.
The results aren't always appealing; mobile games launch fast and fail fast, and that's fine. When things do work out, though, they create some pretty amazing hits. Puzzle & Dragons, as you probably know by now, was the biggest-grossing game on any platform in 2013 (probably; analyst figures, you know?), and it's also incredibly deep, compelling and fun. Publisher GungHo advertises the game on trains and TV over here with videos showing advanced techniques for building chain combos in the game; just consider that for a moment, a game so successful that your advertising isn't even "here's why this game is great", it's "we know you already play, here's a tip so you can play better", displayed on evening TV across the nation. Puzzle & Dragons is far from being Japan's only "mobile core" hit, though. RPGs have been rapidly rising in prominence on mobile platforms, and now appear to be even more popular than the collect 'em up titles (mostly card battlers) which dominated up until this point; the latest big title is Mistwalker-developed RPG Terra Battle, a game which I'm resigned to installing on my phone this week because literally everyone around me doesn't talk about anything else any more.
In short, the Japanese market may be peculiar by comparison with the rest of the world, but sometimes that's simply because it's still a couple of years ahead of the western market in a few regards. Not in every regard; Japan is a very retrograde nation in terms of certain tech advances (it's worth noting that streaming video services like Netflix are an absolute disaster here, and let's not even talk about online banking), but in gaming, the market if not the technology is a little in advance of most western countries. Japan crossed the line between console-as-number-one and mobile-as-number-one a couple of years ago, and the world did not end. Console and handheld are doing fine; mobile is doing better than fine, and most excitingly of all, the new titles coming to mobile are better than ever, driven by a strong desire to get the most lucrative market in gaming, the core gamers themselves, playing. If 2015 does see mobile overtaking console worldwide, it may be the best thing to happen to games in years; it won't hurt console, at least not for a long while yet, and it'll allow us to finally turn a corner towards mobile being seen as a platform for everyone - core, casual, and everyone in between.