Smartphone games are killing gaming consoles

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 9:32am

Is the vogue for smartphone games killing the games console? It's been six years since Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft launched their Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games consoles. Now sales have stalled.

Web-enabled devices such as phones, tablets and laptops are partly to blame. These make it easy for anyone to discover new and addictive video games without the need for a console.

The Wii, with about 97 million sales worldwide, has outperformed the PlayStation 3 (64 million) and Xbox 360 (67 million). But the latter's Kinect accessory, which allows voice commands and gesture control, was the last major innovation. That was in 2010.

"I don't see a huge leap forward in gaming since the Kinect, so it's no surprise that games console sales are stagnating," says Reuben Verghese, vice-president for Asia at app development company Accedo. "There just hasn't been a justifiable reason for people to rush out and buy an expensive new console, especially in this economic climate."

Nintendo is hoping its forthcoming attempt will bring the console up to date. The end of this year will see the launch of its U console, which will include small smartphone-like controllers fitted with a touch screen and microphone. As well as allowing gaming on its small screen, it also enables mobile gaming.

Sony and Nintendo also sell hand-held gaming gadgets. But the trend for mobile gaming finds its ultimate expression in the iPhone and Android smartphones, which are taking the pastime to the masses.

Games such as CityVille or Words With Friends that can be played as smartphone apps or on Facebook are designed to be dipped in and out of, perhaps while commuting, or before going to bed.

So-called "massively multiplayer online" games (MMO) are on the rise, and will probably inform how the "big three" approach future games consoles. "MMO developers have been very good at generating new games to keep people hooked, as well as a community feel that people enjoy," says Jaclyn Wilkins, gaming expert at law firm Charles Russell. "It's something that games played through consoles need to harness as well."

Details of Microsoft and Sony's plans are scant, though Sony's purchase in July of cloud gaming service Gaikai could be telling.

Whether we need new consoles at all is debatable. Some feel they have already been innovated out of existence. "Playing casual games on a touch-screen phone is fine, but when it comes to playing the more addictive and immersive titles, seamless gameplay is impossible," says Bo Nyman, CEO of Swedish firm Fructel. His company has invented a wireless controller that transforms an Android smartphone and tablet, Apple iPhone or iPad into a portable games console.

Designed to mimic a familiar controller, the Gametel (HK$450) pairs wirelessly - and automatically - with a smartphone. "It delivers a console experience on your Android device, iPhone and iPad. It frees the screen from fingers, opens up a bigger viewing area, and delivers more responsive physical controls," explains Nyman.

The only downside here is content. Linked to an app, titles include Android favourites such as Cordy, Sleepy Jack, Asphalt 5 HD, Reckless Getaway, and iCADE's suite of classic retro games on Apple's iTunes App Store. But none are likely to tempt hard-core gamers away from their console. A similar problem plagues attempts by Panasonic and LG, which have launched downloadable games on their latest smart televisions.

Mobile games can't yet compete with the likes of Halo or Mass Effect on a games console. The action is in high definition and surround sound, and a Facebook or Twitter dimension would be a distraction. But even so, the era of buying an optical disc to play on one machine is certainly coming to a close.

Cloud gaming enables a title to be downloaded to a number of devices for a once-only fee. It's possible to play for five minutes on a smartphone, pause the game, and pick it up at exactly that point later in the day on, say, a tablet or television. Owners of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader can already do this if they choose to sync their books with a Kindle app on a smartphone or tablet. "They will have to embrace cloud gaming," Wilkins says of the gaming giants. "It's a big area of development. We're starting to see cross-platform accessibility, and that's definitely the way to go."

Nintendo is making some attempt to embrace mobile gaming with its touch-screen controller. Its Nintendo Network will also allow for online and cloud gaming, video calling and the downloading of new titles from a virtual console service.

Microsoft's SmartGlass and Sony's PlayStation Mobile are expected to offer similar "play on anything" functionality.

Not surprisingly, it's tablets and smartphones that will probably be the dominant conduits.

"If there is any new hardware development, it will be around tablets and phones because it's a much bigger sector of the market," adds Wilkins, who thinks that the launch of the iPad 3 will be a significant leap. "Soon tablets will be as powerful as consoles."

Fragmented and confusing, yet more popular than ever, the video games industry is at a crossroads.

Ideally, it needs more processing power in smartphones, higher bandwidth on a global scale, and a jump in cloud technology development. Device-neutral, video-rich augmented reality experiences integrated with social media are the future.

To quote the action from the popular smartphone game Angry Birds, getting there could be harder than aiming an angry bird at a grinning pig.