For decades, the decision makers in video games have put their focus on the console business. PC games have ebbed and flowed over time, but the console cash cow has remained the place to be for what's known in the industry as "AAA" game franchises--Assassin's Creed, Grand Theft Auto and Need for Speed.
But that's changing. The rise of mobile gaming and the proliferation of free-to-play games on PC, mobile, and consoles has ushered in a transition that could very well spell the death knell for the traditional oversized box that sits beneath your HD TV. And that means new opportunities for game developers and gamers alike.
Improved tools for mobile game makers
Andy Hess spent seven years at Apple overseeing the relationships between game makers and the App Store where he saw developers under pressure to create traditional console experiences while also keeping an eye on the mobile market. "They know they need to extend their franchises into the mobile space so they can retain engagement with their customers," said Hess, now managing mobile and independent games for Epic Games. "That's been hard to do until recently because the tools that they use to build content on consoles to engage people in a very emotional way simply didn't scale for mobile. And the mobile devices, until recently, didn't really have the power to run console-quality experiences."
What changed? Credit the introduction of Unreal Engine 4 technology--now available for a $19 monthly subscription for anyone to access. (Those who want to sell games using the technology pay Epic a 5 percent royalty; those who want to just play with it pay nothing but the subscription.) Prior to March, developers and publishers would pay Epic millions of dollars for this same technology. This new model gives small teams and start-ups powerful tools to quickly and efficiently bring their ideas to fruition.
Game development has changed drastically. Just last year, many publishers would spend $30 million or more on a single team to focus on games for consoles and then hire a separate team with a much smaller budget of around $1 million to create a lower-tiered mobile experience. And there was no synergy between these two teams.
"Now game engine technology has emerged to take advantage of all these platforms, allowing the exact same assets to be used across PC, console, and mobile devices while still achieving a visual target that would be indistinguishable to the layman," Hess said. "What we're already seeing is more advanced mobile experiences designed for greater engagement over more hours that differentiates itself from the flood of game content developed by small teams."
Jim Merrick, vice president of marketing for mobile processor maker Qualcomm, calls the speed at which mobile chips are advancing "Moore's Law on steroids." And his company has helped fuel that, announcing five new Snapdragon processors in 2014 alone.
"There are so many new handsets in development, so many tablets and mobile devices that we're seeing the rate of innovation continuing to accelerate," Merrick said. "Mobile has always been so far behind and now the top technology feature sets are identical to mobile chipsets like Nvidia's K1 and Qualcomm's Snapdragon."
For gamers, this means the current crop of hit 2D mobile games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga will reside next to deeper, longer 3D interactive experiences closer to the types of games that currently define consoles and PCs. The ability for developers to use the same technology, like Unreal Engine 4 across platforms evens the playing field between what's possible on consoles and what's possible on mobile.
Market research firm Emarketer forecasts a global installed base of 1.75 billion smartphones by the end of 2014. And the number of tablets entering the marketplace increases on a monthly basis with the launch of new devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, and Nvidia Tegra Note 7. There are also new hybrid devices like the Nvidia Shield that are bridging the gap between consoles and mobile devices.
A level playing field
Bill Rehbock, general manager of mobile games at Nvidia, points to the Mount & Blade game from Taleworlds that runs on the Nvidia Shield, with peer-to-peer capabilities for mobile and the PC. "You can have 64 multiplayer online players, and some can be playing on the Shield device with its built-in game controller, some can be playing through the Shield on the living room HD TV, and some can be playing on their PC with mouse and keyboard controls," Rehbock said. "And no one will know which device their opponents are playing on, and it doesn't matter because the experience is seamless across each device."
Game developers love this concept because it drastically increases the potential audience for a title beyond just PC gamers. And when you consider a potential convergence of mobile devices with the console experience, the future looks even brighter.
The Nvidia Tegra K1 chipset, which ships this summer, will bring games to mobile on par with the latest current gen games. Nvidia's Rehbock believes that by next year, mobile technology will catch up to Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
"Mobile devices will be smart enough to know I'm in my living room and will just beam this content on my large display with the great surround system, or maybe it's just a snippet of content that will work very easily with the one-finger gameplay or if I'm in a desktop scenario and I want to take a break from my Excel spreadsheet I can just jump into a first-person shooter," Epic Games's Hess said. "That's the direction things are going. Content providers will need to think about providing a content experience that's appropriate not just for the device, but more importantly, the context of the user with that device."
Another sign the game is changing: Microsoft's recent decision to cut the entry-level price price of its Xbox One console. "I would argue it is the beginning of the end for consoles," Rehbock said. "Nvidia or Qualcomm can work with a company and make a device that works as a handheld or on a big screen or on the PC. From a consumer standpoint, it's liberating because when they make a purchase it's going to work everywhere. This is honestly what everybody has been asking for since the Atari 2600. And we're finally almost there. That's the part that's so exciting and so liberating from a game development and a publisher standpoint."
Xbox One and PS4 will be around for the better part of the next decade with support from Microsoft and Sony, but the odds of a PlayStation 5 being designed to only sit beneath your TV are slim to none. It's likely these two consumer electronics giants, which already have their hands in mobile, will evolve with the times. But what they're facing off against now are devices that are more affordable, more powerful and more upgradeable than anything ever seen in the past.