A fascinating article cropped up on Gameindustry.biz today, and like many things I read about the video game industry, this got me thinking. I have some pretty strong opinions on where console gaming is headed – just listen to Episode 3 of Game Geex The Podcast if you don’t believe me. But to extrapolate the notion to the point that smartphones could completely replace consoles? Ultimately it comes down to one question: Where is our better UI?
Sure smartphones are getting, well smarter, and handheld devices like the Asus quad core tablet I’ve been drooling over have more computing power than the Xbox 360 sitting on my TV stand, but what they don’t have is an intuitive user interface. Sure you can use an external gamepad (in fact there are some bundles out there that sell tablets with gamepads), but doing so detracts from the magic that is touchscreen navigation. What made the iPhone and its smartphone successors so popular was the intuitive touchscreen interface, but it is that very interface that limits them when it comes to gaming.
There is only so much you can do without buttons. Our reflexes have been honed through years of interaction with computing devices, elevators, telephones and the like. We’re acclimated to the current gaming user interface because of this, and current smartphone tech doesn’t make good use of those reflexes. I can get a lot more done on a keyboard than I can pointing my finger, but that’s not to say the solution is simply to hook up a keyboard to my Captivate so I can play the latest mobile RPG. No, what this means rather, is that the current generation of phones, and their immediate successors will not replace console gaming, simply from the nature of how we interact with them.
Now once we move to a new type of UI, one that blends better with the natural movements of our bodies, then I expect a new type of device will emerge. For the moment I’ll call this virtual reality, because there aren’t terms for the Stephenson-esque technology I envision will come our way in the quasi-near future. Once this new virtual reality device comes along I imagine that will be our new console, and probably also our new smartphone.
There’s a secondary aspect to this conundrum, and that has to do with the psychology of gaming. Console games fall into one of two categories: multiplayer and singleplayer. The singleplayer experience is obviously a solitary one, gaming from the comfort of your home. I simply can’t see a smartphone replacing this experience, no matter how powerful it is. We gaming using our televisions, wide windows into the worlds we explore. To shrink those windows to handheld size is to decrease the level of immersion.
On the other hand, multiplayer experiences would translate well to a mobile device, because you then could congregate (theoretically) together with those you are playing with (or against). The level of immersion is less important, because you are interacting over voice chat with other players, therefore having a small handheld display might be more beneficial. Having access to your game wherever you go would allow more opportunities to play, which would allow gamers to hone their skills on the bus, in the lunchroom, and even in class when their teachers aren’t looking. The multiplayer games would do very well if the technology and interface would enable gamers to play their FPS games say on the go. The singleplayer games, however, I see as firmly rooted in our living rooms until the Jetsons arrive on our doorstep to change how we interact with technology forever. Until then, I doubt mobile with circumvent console, because to do that it would have to change what it is at its core, and then it loses on both fronts -- and by extension, so would we.