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.