Saturday, 22 September 2012

Mobile Gaming: A Threat to Consoles?

Okay, I'm going to start this by saying that really, anyone with a brain can answer this but apparently it needs to be addressed. Mobile Gaming has become a huge part of the industry it cannot be denied. Now whilst many people out there think that mobile gaming is a big threat to the industry. That by having easy access via downloads from an App Store or Google Play or whatever Nokia is doing nowadays, the smartphone and tablet gaming companies have captured many gamers and it will drastically damage the industry forever. I'm here to say; no in fact it is the opposite, it's made it bigger and better than ever. 

Let's start by realising that the audience hasn't transferred, this current generation of Wii, PS3 and 360 has sold more console units than any of the previous generations including the previous where the PS2 became the best selling home console of all time. Now before anyone points out that smartphones have only been around this generation and just started gaining steam, I should point out that the first iPhone, the smartphone that kick-started this so-called "competition", was released less than a year after the Wii, the best selling home console of this generation. In addition as I write this the pre-orders for the Wii U are sold out practically everywhere and I can't find a damn single one to buy, which is really pissing me of and getting me so god-damn annoyed that I can't contain it anymore I'm gonna scr-- Sorry where was I? Ah yes; iPhones... 

The audience hasn't shifted, it's just grown. People are still looking at the gaming audience like it's 1985 and the NES has just been released, they fail to realise that gamers aren't just people who play these things for a giggle and a bit of fun to pass time. They play it for hours and hours, they try to be the best, they actually compete online like sports, sometimes even for money.  Now were this 1985 I'd say yeah, these smartphones are a competition because gamers back then were pretty casual. There weren't many games that took longer than five hours to complete tops if you were good at it and even those that did like Final Fantasy don't take anywhere near the kind of hours invested that their modern counterparts have... even if those games aren't quite my "personal favourites" shall we say? It's much the same as movies, people don't watch movies to pass time, they watch them to be truly entertained and for the art of it too; otherwise films like The Godfather wouldn't be so popular.

Let's compare the NES games of the 80s with the Smartphone games of today. Super Mario Bros. is not a game for the hardcore, it's something fun to play to pass a bit of time, you go from level to level in a linear fashion, take a few shortcuts here and there, find secrets and just enjoy a fun little game you can beat with easy in an hour or two even if you've never played it before. What is Angry Birds? A game where you go from level to level in a linear fashion, shooting birds at wooden beams and pigs, each level gets more difficult and you can easily pick up and play this game. Sure there were some more "hardcore" games out there, like The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. Well, the same Final Fantasy, with improved visuals from the original PSP port, is now out on iOS too but Final Fantasy XIII sure isn't. 


See back in the 80s, for the most part games had a pretty  much 90% casual audience. Just look at the controller at how simple it was. A directional pad that is easy to read, Up, Down, Left, Right, two buttons, A and B. And a Start and Select, which at the time, were literally used for just that, Starting the game and Selecting the mode you wanted to play. It was simple, it was easy to look at and hey, it was something to pass the time or have a little fun with; only a few games were there to be taken seriously and even those were very basic at the time. Final Fantasy wasn't the epic kind of storytelling that exists today and nor was Zelda the kind of complex game it is today really, it was a "kill bad guys, solve puzzles, save the princess" kind of game. Anyone could understand it, your Grandpa could play these games. The controls and the game itself were so damn simple...

Try giving this monstrocity to your G-Pa today! What is this, stick, there's like four buttons and.. a... an... another stick? Buttons on the back and what's this glowing X in the center... is it... is it radioactive? Why is it vibrating, Oh my god, oh Jesus, lordy help me!! What the fuuuuuu--?!!

No-one would know what the hell to make of this if it had been thrown into the market in 1985. People would lose patience and get angry with all the buttons and all the complexities. Nintendo kept it simple with their controller and then, did the same with the GameBoy when they went handheld to play on the go. It was simple, it was easy to use... not unlike a touch screen of a smart phone no?

Finally here come the 90s and everyone's used to these two buttons so... BAM! Two new buttons! Two shoulder buttons that, well weren't used much in those days but still... SUPER NINTENDO IS HERE MOTHERF***A!! This control was built in mind for people who had played the NES, they knew the basics of playing and game and now they were ready for those training wheels to be taken off and go wild with four face buttons, the games have now taken a leap up. Now admittedly as I write this I'm constantly hearing egoraptor's voice in my head a little from his Megaman X Sequelitis Episode. And he had point, everyone had played MegaMan, they were used to it, so it evolved into Megaman X, a true sequel, the training wheels are off bitch! Now you're playing with power... because it's so baaaad... and Super Nintendoes What Genesis Do--? I'm getting carried away here.


Point is, upgrades. The third Nintendo console ramped it up. Added an analog stick and... for some reason three handles... I dunno maybe Nintendo figured, eh, but the late 90s Nuclear War will have turned everyone into a mutant with three arms. Then when World War III didn't break out they just rolled with it anyway. Sony brought the rain with two analog sticks, the third of which, sorta wouldn't be used until like 2003 really, but it set a new Standard that Nintendo launched out with the C-Stick on the GameCube and Microsoft rolled out on their... well I certainly ain't gonna call that controller because it's nothing but a monstrosity designed for bigfoot to play video games.

See that's how video games have evolved. The market has shifted because well, the gaming companies had their peeps. They had gamers now, people who bought consoles for games to get invested in these two-sticked, four face buttoned, four shoulder buttoned, controller rumbling games. They had grown up with them and become gamers, it's own new culture. But that was kind of a problem in a way, no new people were getting brought into this industry unless it was to grab a cheap DVD player from a PS2. Gamers were the only people buying these consoles. And these consoles were only getting more and more expensive causing adults to go crazy and scream "shut up and stop taking my damn money!"... that's the meme right?

So in 2006 comes a whole new console for the home market... The Nintendo Wii. To this day, it's still the dumbest name I can think of. No wait, scratch that, Wii U is the dumbest name I think of. This console got hardcore gamers panties all in a bunch. "What is this game, there's no blood and violence in it?" and "This is for babies, I'm gonna go play my console with an X on it because it's X-Treme!!!" (which sorta plays into how I feel Microsoft are sort of the new Sega but more on that later). But Nintendo realising the state of the industry and their own dwindling sales as a gaming company realised what went wrong. People were looking at the controls, seeing them as too complex and thinking "SCREW THAT!" and moving on. I must admit, even as a long-time gamer, I was getting a bit exhausted too just like all the non-gamers out there. But not with the Wii they wouldn't be. The Wii was simple, it was easy to grasp and perhaps most importantly, it was cheap. Did this damage Nintendo's reputation, actually not as much as people think. Nintendo fanboys like myself stuck around and enjoyed the new control. And really by the time of the GameCube those gamers who wanted to stay with Nintendo were sorta stuck with them for life as fanboys, so their reputation wasn't as badly damaged as people seem to think, the people who would have left Nintendo's fanbase had... kinda already left with Sony and Microsoft taking what was once Sega's fans.


The Wii Remote was simple: you literally do what you're doing on the screen. You've seen tennis right? Swing the remote like a tennis racket. You've played golf right? Swing it like a golf club. You've shot alien monsters before right? Point at the screen and pull the trigger. It was genius, and it brought a whole new set of gamers to the industry along with the Nintendo DS, propelling Nintendo to new sales heights. But in addition to that, it was a simple button set up too, one big ass button on where the thumb is that basically means "YES" and turned on the side, you've got that classic NES controller once again. Suddenly people who'd never played games in the past were buying up Wii's like they were going to run out of stock, and well, they did for a time. It took me literally a year after launch before I finally managed to get one and even then I had to bribe a few people sell my soul go to extreme lengths to get one.

Casual gamers were back in the fold once again, they didn't have to deal with complex bullcrap and didn't have to read a frickin' tech manual to use it. This control was like their TV remote at home, hell I'm actually really surprised it never became one. Casual gamers had a place they could play games to pass some time, maybe they'd try out the nunchuck attachment, seemed easy enough; Play some Zelda or some thing with a bit more meat. Perhaps they'd even invest a little money into a Classic Controller and try out something bigger like Xenoblade Chronicles or Monster Hunter 3... maybe their foray by becoming gamers afterall.

Okay, time out from the gamer-tech-talk. What is a Smartphone exactly? It's a thin phone with a screen that is literally impossible to not know how to use. You touch the screen, any moron could learn how to use it. It's perhaps even simpler than the NES controller. The screen can create touch-pad controls for you to use with icons that indicate what they do rather than letters to make it even simpler. So of course, casual gamers flock to these devices. They pass the time on the go. But the days of the NES and Gameboy are long since gone. Companies have moved on and a subset of people known as gamers have been created. Casual gamers are being brought into the fold by smartphones just as they were by the Wii. They give people who have never even tried a video game before their first taste of the gaming world. Perhaps they'll buy a Wii U because they like the idea of the tablet, it's simple and easy to understand and has an even greater evolutionary bracket to turn them into hardcore gamers with the buttons that smartphones don't have. And see that's the problem with Smartphones, they don't have buttons and even if someone invented buttons, you can't replace a big 50" screen with a tiny 4" iPhone 5 screen. Nor can you just suddenly get gamers to give up what they've become accustomed to with those multiple-button controls by saying "hey look $0.99 games!" You just can't. Especially not with Nintendo's eShop, the PlayStation Store and XBox Live Arcade giving cheap games too in the near future. Can you integrate new functions like a touch screen, sure, the DS and soon to be Wii U are evidence of this. That adds something new to the formula whilst changing nothing from the old, it evolves it further. 

Smartphones have helped crack open much of the casual audience. But no self-respecting gamer is going to stop playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, throw away their controller and go say "Hell yeah, I want me some Plants Vs. Zombies, I'm gonna throw my time into this badboy!". In fact companies have even realised this. The upcoming launch of the Ouya, a console built on made-famous-by-smartphones Android OS, will be launched soon taking easy to program and cheap approach to the home market for a cost effective $99. The Wii U, a console with Nintendo's market in mind and the Smartphone audience evolving at the right time could make a killing and based on my frustrations of not being able to find one, it already is.

The point of all this is this: The Smartphone is not a threat to consoles, if anything it's helping to broaden their appeal. Smartphones are growing sure, and the fact that a new model is released each year with greater processing power is fantastic but without a big screen, without buttons, this doesn't even begin to hamper the market of the handheld console, let alone the home console. Handhelds like the 3DS (not really the Vita) are selling like hotcakes because they are essentially offering something Smartphones simply can't and never will without losing their sleak, held in the hand, easy to carry appeal and then would lose their primary reason people buy them. TO BE PHONES! Don't believe me? Google: Nokia N-Gage. In addition they'd lose their secondary reason people buy them, to be use-all devices for everything. If Smartphones became gaming devices then they'd be just that; gaming devices. They wouldn't be smartphones anymore. Home consoles have nothing to fear and everything to gain from the increase of casual players on the phones. Of course many gamers are complete morons and don't realise this yet and will continue to bash "casual games" and "casual gamers" because they just don't get the concept of a constantly evolving market but the figures don't lie... the world of gaming isn't going anywhere and it isn't headed for another crash.

If anything, we gamers are in for a golden age soon the likes of which hasn't been seen since we saw a little brown and red plumber jumping on fanged-walking-mushrooms and eating glowing flowers to shoot fireballs (yeah I realise it as I write it) run across our screens twenty-seven years ago, bringing us back from what could have been the end of video games as we know it.