What does mobile gaming mean for the future of PC and console gaming?

June 3, 2013
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Not too long ago, mobile games were minor distractions with awful graphics and meaningless gameplay. While this still is true for some titles, many mobile developers have begun pushing the envelope further, breaking new ground and showing just how beautiful and entertaining mobile games can be.

That’s why it isn’t surprising to see many tech journalists and gaming experts ask questions like “will mobile gaming to do consoles what consoles did to PC gaming?” It’s a fair question.

In the winter of 1993 I first laid my eyes on what – at the time – I considered the most beautiful video game I had ever seen, Myst for the Macintosh. Back then, I was in elementary school and didn’t fully understand that the game wasn’t true 3D, all I remember thinking was that my Super Nintendo sure as hell couldn’t pull off that kind of visual quality.

Fast-forwarding to a decade later, console and PC games were much closer together in terms of graphics and online capabilities. Sure, the PC provided a superior experience in just about every way (and still does), but for many gamers, the convenience and lower prices associated with a console outweighed the benefits of building a gaming rig.

Today, PC gaming is still an important part of gaming culture. There are gamers that will never touch a console and will stick fiercely by the PC. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny the impact that console gaming has had on PC gaming in recent times.

Not only are some PC games “held back” graphically because they are under-optimized ports originally made for the console, but even traditional PC control mechanics (like point and click PC games) have become less common as controller-style gameplay has risen to dominance.

The same kind of changes seem likely for consoles and PCs as the mobile gaming industry grows.

How mobile gaming has already affected console and PC gaming

I’ve heard talk about how mobile gaming will affect the future of console and PC gaming many times before, but the truth is that it has already begun to impact PC and console gaming.

Windows 8 is choke-full of mobile-style games for the new Modern UI. Many popular mobile games are also available right from your browser as a PC game. We are even seeing some of these mobile titles make their way over to online stores for consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360. Many times these titles, such as Angry Birds, aren’t much different from the mobile versions, in a similar way that some PC ports aren’t much different from the console versions.

And then there are “freemium” titles. In the mobile gaming world, many folks like the idea of free games. While many of us truly hate games that rely heavily on in-app purchases, they have quickly become commonplace in the mobile world – but what about on the console and PC?

Most console games still stick to traditional methods of paying “full cost” upfront, but titles like Dust 541 break from that tradition, instead offering a free game experience that has micro-transactions that allow gamers to buy currency that can help them buy special items in the game. There are also quite a few PC games that utilize the freemium model.

Last but not least, let’s not forget about the Nintendo Wii U, which is obviously influenced by the growth of mobile gaming and the usage of touchscreens.

Of course freemium (shareware?) games and casual games existed long before the mobile gaming era really took off, but it’s hard to deny the impact that mobile devices have had in the acceptance and growth of freemium and casual games.

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Game-changing developments: game streaming & Android micro-consoles

Mobile gaming might already be mainstream, but I believe we are still in the very early stages of a mobile gaming revolution.

The next step forward could be found in devices like the Ouya, Gamestick and Gamepop. These so-called micro-consoles use the power of Android and a library of mobile games. They are aimed at casual gamers, families, open-source junkies and folks that simply can’t afford to pay the higher prices associated with console hardware and games.

At the moment, systems like the Ouya are far from comparable to today’s gaming consoles, not just graphically but also in terms of game quality. Give it a few years though and we could be looking at a very different scene.

This is especially true as technologies like OnLive (game streaming) continue to evolve.

If you haven’t used OnLive before, it works reasonably well with a fast connection– though it has some flaws like occasional lag that hold it back from being truly exceptional. But technology changes quickly and the combination of improved Internet connections, faster servers and better streaming delivery systems could mean that in a few years you could have a game streamed to your mobile phone, tablet or micro-console that is every bit as advanced and functional as you’d find on your console or even PC.

Additionally, devices like the Tegra 4-powered Nvidia Shield offer an interesting look at what could be the future of handheld gaming. The Shield offers beautiful graphics, the power of Android and a 5-inch display. Additionally there is functionality baked-in that allows the streaming of PC games over to the device, providing deeper gaming experiences than currently found on Android.

Who’s going to care, and who isn’t?

Mobile gaming will NOT replace PC or console gaming. Despite what some “analysts” say, PC and console gaming aren’t dead, dying or in any major trouble.

It’s hard to say if mobile gaming will even overtake console gaming in market dominance in the foreseeable future, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a close second. Its biggest potential audience likely will be families and casual gamers. The reason for this is that these audiences don’t tend to care about graphics or even features.

The Wii sold like gang-busters and yet had an inferior online, social gaming and graphics experience. All you need is hype, affordability and a few quality titles to win over these type of gamers. This means that Sony and Microsoft might not need to worry much, but Nintendo should think long and hard about their strategy going forward.

In the end, so-called “hardcore” gamers won’t easily toss aside their traditional home consoles or custom gaming rigs in favor of a mobile gaming device, micro-console or game streaming services. That’s not the point though.

PC gamers still exist despite the dominance of console gaming. The same could soon be said for console gaming, it will still be around — but it won’t necessarily be the primary gateway to the world of gaming. That also means that we might see console and PC gaming ‘evolve’ in a way that reflects popular trends in the mobile gaming world. Just like PC gaming has (arguably) changed due to console gaming.

Could I be wrong? Of course. My crystal ball doesn’t always get it right, after all. What do you think, how might mobile games affect the future of PC and console gaming? Conversely, do you feel it won’t directly affect the PC/console gaming scene any more than it already has?

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