Posted by Eric Plante, 5 December 2011 4:00 pm
There’s more and more discussions about the impact of mobile gaming on “traditional” console usage – the latest I’ve seen is this gamesdeveloper.biz editorial and the ensuing discussion in comments.
To me, there are several questions that are unfortunately being lumped into one. I’ve listed some of the more interesting ones below. As we break them down, we see that many of them are simply answered by common sense, which will quite conveniently prevent me from making grand visionary statements.
1. Will handheld / mobile devices replace devices you hook up to a big screen?
Well, ask yourself this: will they replace your television? Judging by how much the average TV screen size has gone up over the last ten years, I’m thinking that people find the idea of watching content on a big screen pretty appealing. So, no. We will all still want to play on big screens.
2. Will the traditional console manufacturers be challenged by newcomers?
Why, of course. That’s happened several times in the past and hasn’t happened in a while now. The last big contender to jump into the ring was Microsoft with the first Xbox.
3. Will the current razor / razorblade model, prevalent on consoles, disappear?
This refers to the fact that console manufacturers reportedly sell hardware at a loss and make up their investment by taking a cut out of every game. It’s worth noting here that Nintendo has always pointed out that it sold its Wii console at a profit – so this isn’t a systematic scheme. Oh, by the way, Apple takes a 30% cut on everything sold on the App Store. Just sayin’.
4. Will the distribution model change for console games? Will the current pricing for console games change?
Another easy one: it already has, with XBLA and PSN. Core gamers have also adopted Steam and other stores on PC, where pricing has been more varied than for boxed products. As for cloud gaming, note that it is in some way an extreme example of the razor / razorblade scheme – the razor is free (the platform). It’s also another topic of discussion on its own that is a bit separate from the console-vs-mobile debate. Then how you pay for games in a cloud scenario is not new either; it is simply a subscription model or a rental model – like cable TV and the video rental store. In other markets, this model hasn’t killed others – it has complemented it. I can also buy a car, lease a car, rent a car for a day, or take a cab (the housing analogy would work too).
5. Will the inherent processing power that comes with a bigger box and more wattage protect the console market from mobile and handheld devices?
Under that seemingly narrow question actually lies the one really interesting debate!
It looks like a nice, solid argument on the surface: consoles will always be more powerful than portable devices, on average (here, “on average” covers the differences in life cycle length), and so should always offer a superior experience. The issue is that to take advantage of that power, you need to produce more complex content, and that is a justifiable expense only insofar as it is profitable to do so. And that’s exactly the question that games studios have had to answer in great detail these past few years. We’ve hit the ceiling already – there have been games that have seen terrific sales, yet have not been profitable because production costs were just too high. The industry’s already distributing production to all parts of the world, and so further reductions will need to come through greatly enhanced production efficiency - both through more finely tuned processes, and through more powerful and expressive tools. To what extent this can be done will be the determining factor in whether or not more powerful hardware can actually be put to use.
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