Mobile gravity, and what it may mean for games (part 1)

Ben Evans had a couple of posts several weeks ago that I’ve been chewing on:

Microsoft, capitulation and the end of Windows Everywhere

The smartphone is the new sun

In particular, his central summary/analogy that “the smartphone is the Sun and everything else orbits around it” is both elegant and provocative. Combining his two posts, you can say that he looked at it from both a platform perspective and a supply chain perspective.

From an end-user perspective (consumption behavior), there’s certainly data that supports the analogy. Especially in emerging markets, mobile share of internet consumption has been steadily rising (e.g. this recent post).

This is a virtuous & self-reinforcing cycle – because of the healthy growth and sheer size of the smartphone market (e.g. people see it as a critical personal device, replaced every 2 years), it now commands the tech supply chain; because of the userbase and growth outlook, developers are naturally shifting their attention/priority to mobile; and as there are more mobile apps that users have formed sticky habits with, and as these apps build their inter-connectivity / inter-dependency (symbiotic relationships, e.g. wechat as social identity / payment provider for other mobile apps), it becomes more and more cumbersome for users to context-switch to non-mobile platforms 1 for tasks, and hence more incentive for aspiring developers to solve these tasks on the dominant mobile platforms (and hence the cycle goes).

Another analogy (and IMO fittingly also physics related) to describe this is “mobile gravity”, the first part of this post’s title. All other hardware / software products that we regularly experience in our daily lives are encountering the gravitational pull of the mobile hw/sw ecosystem. A few obvious examples:

  • Mobile is a key enabler of the on-demand economy. Uber and its clones are forcing people to rethink our entire relationship with cars / public transportation. In this case, “mobile gravity” will likely permanently transform the auto industry, at least in the end-user service experience layer (and probably beyond that, in the supply chain & production as well, which is not a new concept if you’ve been following asymco)
  • In some smaller products / services, they have been/will be completely pulled in by “mobile gravity” and are no longer standalone categories. MP3 players (iPods) and compact digital cameras are 2 prime examples of dedicated-purpose products that have been replaced by the general purpose smartphone. Dedicated gaming handhelds are another product category that may be dangerously close to being assimilated, because the jobs they are hired to do can mostly be performed competently by smartphones
  • Some portable electronics categories will be embraced by mobile as peripherals. The Apple Watch (and wearables in general) act as extensions of mobile computing – they are kind of interesting as standalone products, but where they unlock value is when they work together with mobile platforms. And it’s not hard to imagine niche categories such as DSLRs move more of their tasks to the mobile computer and just act as “dumb cameras” that have the hardware capabilities to take complex photos2

So far I believe I have been stating the obvious. I think few people today would disagree that smartphones will likely remain the most personal computing device for the next decade3.

What I wanted to drill down further to discuss, and which forms the second part of the post’s title, is what exactly does this mean for games? (After all, I currently work in this specific sector of tech.) Though with a question so broad (and vaguely presented), there are of course many different ways to speculate.

The most obvious implication (and perhaps the most uninteresting as it’s so obvious) is the rise of smartphones as a gaming platform in its own right. Clash of ClansCandy Crush SagaGame of WarPuzzle & Dragons and Monster Strike are 5 games that were/are in the $1B/yr revenue ball-park, with millions (if not tens of millions) or players. By any traditional games-industry measure these are massive numbers4. And there will likely be more of these games (by sheer virtue of the platform sizes, and people’s intrinsic needs for amusement on the go, which is a gross & criminal over-simplification of the “jobs being done” by these games).

But as many would quickly point out, there’s a world of difference between the 5 games I listed above and “core” console & PC gaming titles such as Metal Gear Solid 5The Witcher 3, and the Call of Duty franchise, to name a few. And this is where things start to get interesting IMO…  If by “console & PC gaming” we are actually referring to the core content experience (hi-fidelity audio-visuals presented in an immersive format such as a big screen or VR in future, richness of interactivity and gameplay depth etc.), I don’t think the need for that is going away. I think people will continue to crave  these types of highly polished entertainment experiences, and the bar will continue to be raised – bigger screens, higher fidelity, more immersion (VR?).

Again, stating the obvious I think. But what’s not obvious is whether Windows / Mac / Xbox One / PS4 (which btw are all based on the x86 CPU architecture) will be the software platforms powering these core experiences in 5 years’ time.

I think one way to think about this is via the following set of questions regarding the content experience:

  • What is the desired experience? e.g. “a cinematic story set in a big & richly detailed open-world that the player is fully immersed in” (which is kind of what The Witcher 3 is)
  • How do you interact with the experience? This includes both the input method but also the presentation method, e.g. “designed for big screen (40″+ TV) viewing, and meant to be played with a dual-stick gamepad” or “designed for a VR device with a VR controller”
  • What’s required to power the experience? This is computing horsepower, storage, power consumption, network requirements (e.g. latency is a key bar for good real-time PVP experiences), and also the presentation hardware and input method hardware

It’s important to note that while from a current standpoint mobile platforms are far behind PC/console in most of the above listed requirements, things are constantly in flux and paradigms can be broken:

  • Many peripheral vendors have tried making a controller peripheral for smartphones / tablets. From what I’ve read (haven’t bought any, partly because a lack of games, which is the classic chicken & egg problem) they are mostly suboptimal, but as long as there’s continued effort a breakthrough could be coming. Similarly there are experiments like the Steam controller that’s trying to reach parity with the keyboard+mouse in the living room
  • Related to above, a well crafted game can sell the peripherals required to play the game… Rock Band / Guitar Hero is the prime example where the hardware barrier to entry didn’t matter – people wanted the experience that bad. So it’s not unfathomable a phenomenal game can sell the platform and the peripherals needed to enjoy the game
  • We may frequently over-estimate the input method lock-in. Keyboard+mouse is seen as the pinnacle for FPS gaming (much more accurate / responsive than gamepads, which is partly why multi-platform FPSes don’t support cross-platform play), but let’s not forget that console FPSes generally speaking outsell their PC counterparts by a lot (which leads to development decisions such as making Destiny console-only). Similarly, there are developers constantly pushing the limits of our imagination in terms of what’s “playable” on a touchscreen – The Executive being a recent example of a touchscreen fighting game that I had a good time with (caveat being I’m not a core fighting game player)
  • I’m skeptical about the current wave of VR devices, but again this is something that likely will be cracked one day, and when that day comes, gaming will be one of the biggest applications and you will no longer be constrained to your living room to enjoy a core experience

I’m going to take a quick break here… I feel I’ve rambled a lot. There are still a few more things I’d like to note down in a next post. As a small teaser, despite what I wrote above, it’s not necessarily all doom & gloom for PC/console – at the end of the day, “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves”, and there are some angles that PC/console platforms can leverage to sustain their position in gaming.

 

  1. I’m not speaking of specific form-factors / devices, but rather software platforms, i.e. Windows vs. iOS vs. Android. I suspect iOS / Android & other mobile platforms will increasingly expand to more form-factors, just like how they’ve already done so with both the tablet and the smart-watch↩︎︎
  2. As an aside – DSLRs on-camera software generally suck in terms of their usability, and feel they belong to the feature-phone era. This cannot sustain – either DSLRs actively integrate with mobile platforms, or they will be replaced by new specialized camera peripherals for mobile platforms that can perform the tasks of the DSLR↩︎︎
  3. They will continue to evolve / extend, but the basic premise of a battery-constrained, ultra-portable computing device with built-in wireless connectivity will probably persist for a while.↩︎︎
  4. BTW this doesn’t equate to mobile gaming being a profitable field – it’s very much a “red ocean” as I understand it and these are the “unicorns” amongst a sea of “dead” games.↩︎︎
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