Saturday, July 9, 2011

Want to Change the Game Industry? Support the Xperia PLAY.

The problems with the console game industry are well documented.  The industry is fairly homogeneous (at least in the US), the cost of development is high (tens of millions of dollars has been the norm for a few years now), the hardware cycle is slow.  The game industry does a poor job at reaching people outside of the "core" gamer group (which is mostly men between 15 and 25), and generally tends to make the same sorts of games over and over again (see if you can count how many first person war games have been released in the last decade; I can't).  The big companies making games are too risk-averse to actually make anything interesting, and the developers themselves are often subjected to grueling death march development cycles.  And after all that, 10% of developers make big bucks and everybody else loses their shirts.  It's not a pretty picture.

Depending on which school of thought you come from, this is the point in the lecture at which you stand and declare that consoles are doomed and the future of gaming is ______ (pick your poison: iOS / mobile, tablets, Facebook, etc).  The argument here is that these devices are more widely accessible, development and distribution is very cheap, and even at a lower price point the potential for revenue is a better bet than a long-winded space opera designed for guys in their last year of high school.  I mean, Angry Birds made about 10 zillion dollars, who needs Call of Duty anyway?

Then, from the other side of the auditorium, the console game developer stands up and points out that Mario would be unplayable on an iPhone.  You'll never beat consoles, he argues, because a touch screen interface just isn't good enough for a lot of console genres.  Lack of physical buttons dooms mobile devices to "casual" (and he says it like it's a dirty word) games: Tetris and color matching and launching fowl.  No depth, valuable only as a time waster.  The market for more complex and meaningful games ensures a future for consoles, he argues.

Here's where I stand on the future of gaming: I think traditional game consoles are going away, but traditional console games are here to stay.  My rational is thus:

Mobile platforms are ubiquitous--everybody has a phone.  Software delivery to these platforms is extremely easy, and people download lots of apps (actually, mostly games).  Therefore, the installed base of potential customers is much, much larger than all the consoles combined.  Better yet, the hardware cycle for phones is much faster than consoles.  Phones will surpass current gen consoles very soon.  Heck, even Carmack thinks so.  And the cost to the consumer is lowered because carriers subsidize hardware in exchange for contracts.

I think simple mechanics and touch screen controls act as a gateway drug for new gamers.  The number one thing that the Nintendo Wii proved is that all kinds of people are willing to play video games if the interface is designed in a way that doesn't turn them off.  The success of mobile games is proof of this as well; the user base of iPhones is much wider than that of an Xbox360, and yet we know that iPhone users download games en masse.  Users who get hooked on playing games on their phone are more likely to try games on other devices; the phone has made it ok for them to experiment with gaming.

I also think that we've only just begun to experiment with touch screen interfaces.  Many other interface transitions have occurred in the past; people thought that Adventure games and FPSs could not work on consoles until Resident Evil and Halo came along and showed them how it was done.  Touch interfaces will certainly continue to improve and thereby widen the range of game styles that can be played on a mobile device.

That said, there is truth to the points my fictional console developer argued above: there are still a great many game genres that are simply not playable with out sticks or buttons.  And more importantly, there are a great many core gamers who are simply not interested in playing games without physical controls.  Or even on a small screen.

But consider this: if you bought an Android phone in the last year, you might have gotten one that supports HDMI out.  Better yet, you might have one that comes with a dock that has HDMI out on it.  The phone screen itself is probably not far off from the native resolution of your HD TV.  Plus your phone has Bluetooth support, and as Google demo'd at Google IO this year, support for USB devices is in the most recent versions of Android.

What if you could come home, drop your phone in its dock, pick up the wireless controller sitting on your desk, turn on your TV, and suddenly be playing a high-end game at full resolution from your couch, powered by your phone?  Part way through the game you get up to leave, grab the phone on the way out, and continue playing on the small screen in the elevator.  Sounds pretty slick, huh?

All the necessary technology for this type of device is already in place.  You've got enough power in the phones to drive a TV, support for traditional game interfaces via HDMI and Bluetooth, and a target audience of people who want a cool smartphone that can double as their game console.  If this was the norm, what would be the point of spending another couple hundred dollars on a dedicated game device? This would be fantastic for game developers; there's space for big-budget, high-end titles as well as low-cost casual games, all running on the same device and delivered through the same point of sale systems.  We could have our cake and eat it too, accomodate both the core gamer and everybody else with the same platform.

There are two major problems with this vision of the future.

The first is the problem of content delivery; console games are pretty gigantic (we're counting data in gigabytes here), and getting lots of heavy data to a mobile device is still arduous.  Nobody is about to download a 24 GB PS3 game to their phone over 3G.  The solution to this one is probably just time.  Better network infrastructure will come along and solve it.  Until then, streaming and compression technologies must pick up the slack.

The second problem is more immediate: in order for controller-based gaming to come to phones, phone games must support controllers.  The barrier to a hybrid game console / smartphone is not technology or even development cost, it's lack of applicable content.  Who cares if you can use a controller if all the games are expecting a touch interface?

This latter problem is one us mobile game developers can solve.  And the best way do start, I think, is by supporting Sony Ericsson's Xperia PLAY.

The gaming press has pretty much thumbed its nose at the PLAY.  It looks like the PSP Go (not a good association) but it can't play PSP games.  It has a few Sony logos on it but it's not really a "Playstation Phone."  Some have likened it to the N-Gage, which is a convenient conceit but not a very useful comparison; perhaps those folks have forgotten that the N-Gage had a terrible portrait-only display and required that the battery be removed before game cartridges could be inserted.  The best way to describe the PLAY is that it's a regular Android smartphone with a slide out game pad and game buttons.  That's it.  Oh, and it's also really fast (it's the fastest device I own, and I have a bunch).

Whatever you think of the PLAY, supporting its game controls in your game is a step towards a hybrid game console / mobile device future.  Consoles may die off but physical buttons will not.  By adding physical button support to your mobile game, you are increasing the business viability of a mobile console.  If every game supported physical buttons we could have such a device today.

Secondly, if the PLAY does well in the market then it is safe to assume that other manufactures will produce knock-off "gaming phones."  If these catch on, it could create a new subset of smartphone, much the way phones with physical keyboards have come to define smartphones for business people.  It would be pretty cool to have a whole array of phones with gaming controls to choose from; that would make button-based genres viable on mobile devices very quickly.  Of course, there'd need to be some games that support that interface before the manufactures are likely to really get on board.

So, if you want to promote a future where we can enjoy both console-style games and the latest tower defense color match physics playground social gold farming title on the same mobile device, support physical buttons.  Support customization of controls.  Support the Xperia PLAY pads, and hope that the device is successful enough to spawn more like it.  The game industry is in the midst of a major transition, and it's one that we, the console and mobile developers, can control.  It's an opportunity to create an environment where development doesn't suck and costs are not insane.  It's too good to pass up.

16 comments:

  1. Great article. I myself have been enamored by the idea of "hybrid" systems, and have thought about docks that could transform phones into "consoles." Heck I have an ODROID-S on my shelf next to me as I type this.

    I take a few issues with some things you've said, though.

    "The number one thing that the Nintendo Wii proved is that all kinds of people are willing to play video games if the interface is designed in a way that doesn't turn them off. The success of mobile games is proof of this as well; the user base of iPhones is much wider than that of an Xbox360, and yet we know that iPhone users download games en masse. Users who get hooked on playing games on their phone are more likely to try games on other devices; the phone has made it ok for them to experiment with gaming."

    I think the thing here is that casual gamers will always outnumber players of more traditional genres. Whatever field they move on to, whether it's the PS2, Nintendo DS, Wii, iPhone, etc., is great for whoever's making that system at the time the casuals are munching on its grass. But when they're herded onto the next shiny object, there needs to be games with depth in order for that company to be left with a playerbase. It's always about the games, and although the Xperia PLAY is a start at merging handheld game machines with phones, I don't think it's enough, and I don't think any kind of hybridizing will happen with game consoles anytime soon, either.

    The thing is, you mention slow hardware cycles for consoles as a con, but it's actually a pro. It provides stable hardware that devs can code against for years and years. With mobile phones, especially today when a manufacturer could go under overnight (hyperbole) and a new OS can become dominant in a year (maybe hyperbole?), that isn't ideal. This is why the PC was never as widely supported as consoles, and why mobile phones won't be either. You of all people know the pains of developing for all phones of a single platform, now multiply that by as many phone OS's that are out there.

    Getting back to what we agree on, I do think that the console manufacturers need to sort costs out, as they're hurting everyone in the industry.

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  2. Great article Chris. I agree 100% with your points. I think many devs love the idea of hardware game controls and would love to support the Xperia play but there are too many barriers:

    1) The SDK sucks. If you're developing an Android 2.3 game and using a native activity then all is fine and dandy. However, if you're attempted to integrate dual analog sticks to an existing game that uses a Java activity you're pretty much screwed, unless you want to create two different entry points in your app and select the right one at runtime. The alternative is to package your game as a separate application and sell it as an Xperia play exclusive, which is bad if you are already set on only maintaining 1 monolithic application on the Market. I don't know why Sony didn't just put in that extra bit of effort to support the dual analog sticks on the Java side.

    2) The Xperia Play "App Store" sucks. Its basically a gallery of games that link to different places (Android Market, websites). I spent an hour trying to purchase Brothers In Arms and still couldn't get it to work. The web store for the game kept rejecting my purchase even though I tried both Paypal and VISA options. With this kind of experience I don't see how Xperia Play exclusives could generate any kind of meaningful income (judging by the download counts of games on the Market I'm right about this), which makes it even harder to justify going through the pains outlined in 1) above.

    3) Dual analog sticks are a joke. If you've played around with the SDK, you'll know that there aren't actually two discreet touchpads, its really just 1 giant rectangular touchpad.

    At the end of the day, its just not worth it to support the play and your dev time is much better spent elsewhere. When your introducing a new platform you should always make it inviting to your devs and Sony clearly failed on this very important thing.

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  3. >Andrew

    I think the thing here is that casual gamers will always outnumber players of more traditional genres.

    Oh, no question about that. But we already have a good interface for those folks; the touch screen is correct for the casual gamer. I do think that a lot of people who are casual gamers now will grow into core gamers via their phones, though.

    The point is "what do we do with all the core gamers, and the core game design that took 30 years to build, when the consoles go away?" Those core gamers are looking for something new to do with their dollars. Their phone can be their console--we just need to provide an interface that works for them, namely physical buttons and a TV connection.

    What I'm suggesting is that the casual crowd has a good platform. The core crowd has an aging, expensive, broken-business-model platform. We can combine the two into mobile devices if we accomodate physical buttons.

    This is why the PC was never as widely supported as consoles, and why mobile phones won't be either. You of all people know the pains of developing for all phones of a single platform, now multiply that by as many phone OS's that are out there.

    I do know how hard it is to write code that runs on lots of platforms: it was easy. WAY easy, compared to writing for any of the consoles currently on the market. It took some experimentation in the early days, and there are always gains to be made when it comes to compatibility, but frankly, supporting 100% of Android devices was cake.

    The PC is still a dominant platform for certain types of games. Think social and FPSs. The games that work well on it are also the games that are played with a mouse and keyboard. Those that do not so well are the kind designed for controllers. And developers will tell you that the PC is the easiest platform to target because it's all standardized (and has pretty much infinite resources compared to a console or phone).

    So I don't buy the argument that the slow hardware cycles of consoles make them more successful for games. Instead, I think that console hardware is purposefully obscure so that it is difficult to code for, which lengthens the life of the platform by making it artificially difficult for developers to come to grips with the hardware. That's a model designed to win hardware arms races, not produce good games.

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  4. > Markus

    Forget the SDK. Forget the dual pads. As you point out, supporting them is a pain. So screw 'em. You don't need them. In fact, the dual analog pads are the least interesting part of the PLAY because they only afford the same type of input you can already do on a touch screen. The important part of the PLAY is the physical buttons: the dpad and the face buttons. They are *trivial* to support. Heck, Replica Island supports them with code I wrote a year before the PLAY was even released. They are just key events, and you should be supporting customizable keyboard controls anyway. If you support the pads you ready your game for a future in which an Android device (or, dare I say it, Apple TV) ships with a controller. The PLAY is the only real device you can use to test this right now, though, which is why I recommend it.

    Also, you are confused about how Android Market works. It's a reasonable form of confusion, as the Xperia PLAY's games list interface flattens several different markets into one interface. The game you are trying to download isn't coming from Android Market, it's coming from some third party store (I'm guessing it's Gameloft's terrible web store). The best way to publish on Android is definitely Android Market, and though it has some issues, it works way better than other third-party web-based systems.

    And anyway, none of that has anything to do with the PLAY; you can support it and still ship on Android Market as a generic game. There's no need to do any PLAY-specific coding. I'm saying that to support hard keys, the PLAY is a great test unit, and by supporting that type of control in addition to normal touch screen controls, you are increasing the chances of better gaming devices in the future.

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  5. @Chris

    "The PC is still a dominant platform for certain types of games. Think social and FPSs. The games that work well on it are also the games that are played with a mouse and keyboard. Those that do not so well are the kind designed for controllers. And developers will tell you that the PC is the easiest platform to target because it's all standardized (and has pretty much infinite resources compared to a console or phone)."

    I think we've seen games be much less targeted at PCs as this generation went on. BioWare is pretty much doing console to PC ports, not the other way around these days. FPS's like Call of Duty have sold the most copies on consoles. There are obviously certain kind of games that are most suited to PC, but those games aren't super popular, and games that have been traditionally the PC's are becoming more popular on consoles.

    So I don't think we can call consoles dead, or dying, or going away. They serve the needs of developers quite well. Not all developers of course, Cave Story was a PC game after all even if the PC might not have been the optimal platform

    "Instead, I think that console hardware is purposefully obscure so that it is difficult to code for, which lengthens the life of the platform by making it artificially difficult for developers to come to grips with the hardware. That's a model designed to win hardware arms races, not produce good games."

    I think that sounds too much like a conspiracy theory. The only truth to such a statement is Sony deliberately underclocking PSPs for the first couple years, only to allow dev's to buff their games up later on. Even still, that's not what you're talking about.

    Ease of development will continue to be a sticking point for the console makers, I'm sure. It'll have to be going forward, if they want to survive.

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  6. @Andrew

    I think we've seen games be much less targeted at PCs as this generation went on.

    Console-capable games have moved to consoles, sure. But don't ignore Farmville and flash games. Those are as much a part of the game industry as Black Ops or Mass Effect. However, those types of games are not threatened by mobile devices. Console games, however, are.

    So I don't think we can call consoles dead, or dying, or going away. They serve the needs of developers quite well.

    I don't agree that the serve the needs of developers, but even if that was the case, that's not enough to save them. They need to serve the needs of the users to survive.

    Why to you play a console game? Because you can play it on a big TV? Because the production value is high? Because it has a physical controller?

    Your mobile phone can take the place of that device. It could do it now, but in a year it will do it better than the consoles themselves. Controller, TV, production value--no problems there. Plus, everybody has a phone. So if your phone can do everything your console can do, why buy a console?

    I think there is at least one more hardware iteration left in the big three. Nintendo, I think, is the best poised to survive this transition because they have a killer combination of fantastic software, indisputable brand power, and hard-to-mimic interface systems. But the things that other consoles sell on (namely processing power and production value) are no longer points that consoles can compete with mobile hardware on. Sure, the next Xbox will be super powerful and blow everybody away... for a year, maybe, at which point everybody's mobile phone will have the same power. So the era, I think, is over.

    I think that sounds too much like a conspiracy theory.

    Consoles are designed with two things in mind: making low-cost, powerful devices and making devices that will survive for a five-to-seven year hardware cycle. All three make decisions in their design that make it harder to program, sometimes in order to lower cost (like the loss of out-of-order opcode processing in the PS3 and 360), and sometimes just because they can. Sony in particular designs hardware that is hard to grapple with. They even admit that this is purposeful (see http://news.cnet.com/sony-ps3-is-hard-to-develop-for-on-purpose/). Difficult hardware means that software continues to improve in quality over the life of the hardware as developers get better and understanding it and build better tools. That's very much to the benefit of the console makers, but it doesn't help developers and it certainly does not benefit customers.

    The model fails when the developer can write the same software for a larger audience at less cost, which is what mobile phones represent.

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  7. I think really it comes down to the games, Chris. There's a lot of creativity but no depth whatsoever (I realize you aim to fix this with Robot Invader.) As it is phones are surely capable of supporting both Angry Birds and Mass Effect, but the less casual games are just... too sparse. Phones have been capable of games like Pokemon for about a decade now, but no phone game has ever come close to matching that amount of depth, production value, and ease of play together.

    I do agree Nintendo seems best poised as they always seem to do more than beef up the specs with each new console.

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  8. Oh, I agree with that completely! But I think that the reason for the lack of depth is that the type of depth we're talking about requires control systems that are more expressive than a touch screen. That's why devices like the PLAY are key to making the transition to a single device that can support all kinds of games--console-style, casual, whatever.

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  9. Ah yeah yeah, now I get what you're saying. If the Play is a resounding success then we might just start seeing that happen. I understand now.

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  10. @Andrew

    "There are obviously certain kind of games that are most suited to PC, but those games aren't super popular, and games that have been traditionally the PC's are becoming more popular on consoles."

    I know this is slightly off topic, but I have to cut in and say that this is simply not true.
    Take a look at the three biggest eSport games, Starcraft, League of Legends, and CS, they are obviously extremely popular and they're all for the pc. And although CS could technically work on consoles as well, the other two could not...

    Anyway, great article Chris, I would love it if there were more phones with controls like the PLAY, I'm getting a new phone upgrading from a Hero quite soon, and although the hardware of the PLAY is a little outdated now compared to the newest dual-core phones, it's very high up on my list just because of the physical controls.

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  11. I think external control systems like the Zeemote or other blue-tooth enabled console controls are a lot more fun than the PLAY -- and the control systems upgrade with your phone. Way better deal for users (casual and hardcore.)

    PS: you long posters should be doing your own blogs, I really liked reading your counter points to Chris' opinion. Well spoken @Andrew, @Anton and @Chris.

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  12. @Chris

    Fair enough. If you don't use the dual touchpads then integration is a walk in the park. However I still feel that the dual touchpads was suppose to be one of the big selling points of the PLAY. For example, you can implement dual analog type controls without painting big virtual sticks on the screen that take up valuable screen real estate.

    As for the PLAY's game portal. I do understand how it works and I think it sucks. If the portal just contained links to the Android Market that wouldn't even be that bad. Its the fact that it also contains links to third party web stores (like the horrible Gameloft one) that ruins it. They should have mandated Gameloft to put their games on the Android Market. Instead, PLAY users are now stuck with an inconsistent experience when purchasing their games.

    Just to be clear, I agree with the points you made in this article. I just think that in terms of being the first major step towards smartphones with hardware gaming controls, the PLAY is a big let down. Sony had such a great opportunity here, and they fouled it up.

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  13. @Cory

    I'm not super excited about the Zeemote specifically (the SDK requires you to use compatibility-destroying undocumented code, mega fail), but I agree it's another option for sure. To support those you need to add support for hard keys to your game, which still moves us toward the goal of making a single device where all types of games are possible.

    @Markus

    Agreed that the game portal on the PLAY is lame. Gameloft in general is lame. But it's just pre-embedded software on one device; it doesn't really affect me as a developer, nor does it change the PLAY's utility as an agent of change.

    The dual analog sticks are a selling point of the PLAY, but they are not the part of the device that interests me. You can use them and remain backwards compatible if you like, but as you mentioned it's a bit of a pain to setup. I don't need them for my game designs (at the moment, anyway), so I'm just ignoring them. The hard keys are by far the most important aspect of that device.

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  14. Nice article Chris. I stumbled across this blog after researching a Windup Knight article http://www.gametrender.net/2012/02/wind-up-knight-awesome-android.html . The main thing for me about Windup is that it works so well on my Xperia Play-you've really done a great job in translating the buttons , very slick and fast and possibly one of the most enjoyable titles on the Play. The only complaint I have about the play is that already it's looking underpowered compared to the dual core beast heaving to on the horizon. But I wonder if the future will hold an Xperia Play 2 , as I think it will be heartbreaking to go back to a normal touchscreen after the Play.

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  15. hi there next xbox 720 ps4 internet saying gamers get too customized there consoles with cpu ram storage options like costomized pcs soo gamers chose there technolgy

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