Panel: Are Smartphones the New Consoles?

Panel: Are Smartphones the New Consoles?

“It’s not a technology problem or a hardware problem or a business problem – it’s a design problem,” said Microsoft Game Studio’s business development manager Phil Waymouth today, when addressing the difficulties of moving from creating standalone console games to crafting cross-media IPs that spans platforms. He was speaking at the Evolve Conference in Brighton, as part of a panel brought together to discuss whether smartphones have become the new consoles – and he could very well have been addressing the session’s wider topic.

While the panel, which also included Fishlabs’ co-founder Michael Schade and journalist Stuart Dredge, could agree that the statistics certainly suggest that phones are starting to seriously rival consoles as gaming devices, the surrounding discussion painted a more complex picture. iOS and Android games may account for 34 percent of the portable market, but there are still significant differences.

For starters, the technology comparison may not be as straightforward as it seems. “The rate at which mobile technology is accelerating is tremendous and terrifying at the same time,” admitted Waymouth. “iD’s John Carmack recently said it would be two years before mobile tech hits the seventh generation console place. In all of these things there are compromises, though – it’s not just about graphical power per se. It’s about graphical power per battery consumption, or some other compromise. So is battery life accelerating along with power? If pure graphical power is what you want to shout about, that doesn’t make a device.”

Such advances in graphical power may even come with their own problems, too, argued Schade. “Eventually phones will surpass the rendering capabilities of current platforms, and then the big question is how do you monetise for that high quality platform? How do you explain to the mobile user that FIFA is 99c on phone and 60 bucks at retailer? The challenge becomes the fact that the console has a smaller install base and higher production values, while mobile has a larger install base but much more price pressure.”

Dredge argued that developers should continue to approach mobile and console games from different perspectives. “Luckily in the last few years, people have been separating graphical power from gameplay and UI,” he said. “You could put Gears Of War or something like it on mobiles, but how do you make it fit for short bursts, how do you deal with the gameplay and the controls?” The holy grail, meanwhile, may ultimately lie with making a single IP work across a range of different platforms with releases tailored to specific devices. 

It’s something EA Sports is already working on with its Football Club – a cross-platform hub that connects various versions of FIFA – and it’s something that Microsoft’s also looking into with its Connected Services team. “Creating something that translates across all these devices is really tricky to do, though,” admitted Waymouth. “Creating something that holds together and is a first class experience on each device. We’re continuing to invest in the plumbing – the infrastructure to share Achievement data and friends lists – and we’re going in that direction, but I don’t think it’s just becoming one market, and I think there has to be unique experiences on each device. I don’t think we’ll be launching a Kinect camera for your phone.”

“As a journalist, I’m fascinated by how you even make this work across platforms,” concluded Dredge. “You’re dealing with Apple’s payment system, say, and Facebook’s payment system. It seems exciting, but it’s probably challenging. If you’re a publisher and you want people to pay just once for your game, it’s going to be marvellously entertaining when you walk into Apple to try and sort that out. There’s going to be a lot of work involved.”