This article is one half of a point-counterpoint with Rob Enderle, whose response is entitled "Smartphones Suck at Gaming."
When I take the subway to Grey Area HQ in our downtown Helsinki office, I always try to pay attention to what the people around me are doing. There have been a couple big shifts among commuters in the past few years, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. The first shift was the move away from books and magazines and toward portable MP3 players and gaming devices.
Cell phones, and especially smart phones, represent the second shift. We’re looking to our phones for entertainment and diversion—often in the form of games.
Video games are not what they used to be, and neither is the profile of an average gamer. Today we consume games much like we consume music, and your average music listener looks a lot like your average gamer. Some are casual consumers, others are hardcore fans of particular genres, styles, and studios. This means the definition of a gamer is as broad as the definition of a music listener. There are no “average gamers,” just like there are no “average music listeners.” It's all of us.
Remember when games and gamers used to be a subculture? To this day, the “gamer” archetype is a guy in his twenties who looks like he has not left his computer for days, having played for several nights in a row fueled by nothing but pizza and Coca-Cola. And some gamers still look like this, but that archetypal image has very little to do with the masses who now enjoy video games.
This “Angry Birds Moment,” as I like to call it, snuck into the mainstream due to a couple of factors:
1. The games themselves have changed dramatically;
2. So have the devices and platforms we use for gaming
The Games They are A-Changin’
Conventional wisdom a few years ago was that the more graphically intense a game was, the more fun it was. Gaming culture was built around fragging and frame rates, and great games were built around immersive experiences that required hours of continuous dedicated playtime.
But based on the types of games that are popular today, the general public appears to prefer simpler games, experienced in snack-size gaming sessions—a minute here, a minute there.
This shift has been driven by a burgeoning category of games. Casual games like those from Yahoo! Games and PopCap started the democratization of gaming nearly ten years ago; more recently, social games like Farmville, Words With Friends, and Draw Something have had success among a huge and diverse audience.
Social games are built around simple content and even simpler gameplay loops, which give the player a feeling of success and advancement despite the swiftness of the interaction. We all know these games. Companies like Zynga and Playfish have pioneered this gaming category and they have entered our lives on the back of Facebook. Zynga alone currently boasts 232 million monthly active users and 60 million daily active users. With around 845 million users, Facebook has helped propel both casual and social games out of the subculture and into the mainstream.
For evidence of the market power of social games, look no further than OMGPOP, which is reportedly being snapped up for $200M by Zynga on the strength of 30 million Draw Something downloads.
And of course, there’s Angry Birds, another insanely popular casual game that began on mobile and moved into the social realm on Facebook. Angry Birds is now as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse, and more than any other game, represents the incredible momentum behind casual gaming right now.
But as Rob Enderle points out in his companion Spark Salon article, there are still “hardcore” gamers who prefer console games with killer graphics that often require hours of gameplay. In my opinion, this generation of players is growing up. With less time to sit on a console, snack-sized mobile gaming is going to become a more realistic and viable choice—especially as mobile hardware continues to advance and the experience becomes more and more immersive. With the console-rivaling technology right around the corner, there’s going to be a new mobile environment with room for both the “casual” and “hardcore” gamer.
If Facebook brought social gaming into the mainstream, mobile made it explode. Today’s mobile games are so simple, it might be easier to play a game on your phone than to make a call.
The rise of high-powered mobile handsets has not only changed the fabric of our society, but has transformed the gaming landscape for hardware manufacturers, game developers, and gamers themselves. As Enderle points out, it’s up to manufactures and developers to adapt to the new landscape, but this is happening quickly, and proprietary game devices rule no more. Every smartphone is now a high-powered gaming platform full of bite-sized content to fill every idle moment of the day. The trend is obvious, and according to Cisco’s “Visual Networking Index (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update,” the number of mobile devices is expected to exceed the world's population by 2012. By 2016, there will be 1.4 mobile devices per capita. Furthermore, the number of mobile-connected tablets tripled last year to 34 million, each generating 3.4 times more traffic than the average smartphone.
Meanwhile, companies like Nintendo see its proprietary Nintendo 3DS struggle to take off.
That’s not necessarily bad news for game developers, because when every mobile handset is also the ultimate gaming platform, it means more mobile gamers, which means there’s a greater incentive for developers to build great games. I say that as a game developer myself. A gaming critic at The New York Times wrote that Shadow Cities, which my company launched last year, “isn’t just the future of mobile gaming. It may actually be the most interesting, innovative, provocative and far-reaching video game in the world right now, on any system.”
And it was built to run on a phone.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.