If there’s one thing that can be said of the gaming industry, it’s that big moments of sweeping change punctuate a history that is otherwise quite uniform. Big leaps like 3D graphics or wireless controllers become the norm, but little innovations like voice control fail to catch on in the bigger market. Is it really easier or faster to verbally command Commander Shepard to switch weapons, or to just poke the button yourself?
What then could be said of mobile gaming? I remember a couple short years ago, many in the industry declared that mobile is the end of dedicated consoles like the Xbox One or handhelds like the Nintendo DS. Well, not quite. Mobile gaming in both concept and execution does provide several ideas that could be huge to mainstream gaming, with a few steps back as well.
There’s good and bad. Microtransactions? The industry tends to loves them because they are often lucrative. Gamers on the other hand have opinions ranging from both ends of the spectrum. Most often we hear the call for the good old days when buying a game meant you bought the whole thing, not just one chapter at a time.
The consensus about the business model seems to be that downloadable content is fine, but piecemealing chapters is not. Particularly when doing so puts the overall price of the ‘completed game’ at higher than the market standard. Some have gone so far as to claim that microtransactions are ruining gaming as we know it.
What is responsible for this paradigm shift? There are a variety of factors yet two of the most important are leadership and market trends.
There’s a direct correlation between the vision of senior leadership at video game publishing companies and the types of products they focus on. Nintendo under the leadership of Iwata and his predecessors was focused on innovative gameplay and authenticity above all else. They strove to remain loyal to their fans and the brands they built even if it meant lagging behind in graphics or pure processing power. This focus on innovation provided an environment where the creative spirit of Nintendo could thrive, and that’s how we received products like the Wii or 3DS. Each leader and their successor has focused on these same key tenets.
Meanwhile in the mobile arena, the focus has changed – notably during the leadership shift from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook. Mobile gaming blossomed under Cook, reaching levels unseen in the early days of the iPhone. Combined with the popularity of Android based platforms, mobile gaming has accomplished unforeseen levels of popularity. Before long, tablets flooded the market leading big budget games to the small(er) screen.
This is where the market trends start coming into the picture. Small businesses and individuals are free to publish games and apps on Android and iOS stores, and as part of this they set their own prices. The practice of creating free games with paid but optional add-ons became popular. Production companies and publishers took notice that making mobile games could be lucrative. Millions upon millions have phones worldwide, and these little charges of a dollar here or there are too small to say ‘no’ to for many.
I think the lasting contribution of mobile gaming is accessibility. Small publishers now have the platform to release their small budget games to the public. Everyone has to start somewhere, and millions of phone owners who had never gamed before are now part of the casual crowd. Mobile gaming benefited from a time when digital game distribution grew exponentially. It is this convenience and accessibility that I believe makes mobile continue to be attractive.
A couple years ago, the ‘future of gaming’ was mobile. Now the ‘future of gaming’ is virtual reality. I think that in time we’ll find the truth was somewhere in the middle. There’s certainly something to be said for the convenience of mobile games, but it can never replace the immersive nature of playing on the big screen. I imagine a future with the combined accessibility and convenience of mobile with the immersion of console gaming and VR. Which next big thing change that?