How Much of a Threat is Mobile Gaming?

We’re all about disposability these days.  Nothing is built to last anymore.  Remember when you paid $300 for a top-loading VCR?  Chances are likely, that VCR is still working today for someone.  A 20 year car is almost unheard of these days – with people leasing and trading up every two years, who cares?

Of course, video gaming has taken a hit too.  Gone are the days when most games would give you months of entertainment; now games are designed to be purchased on Friday, finished by Sunday and returned to Gamestop for store credit by Monday.  We’re told DLC (Downloadable Content) is the answer to that – where not only do we buy the game ONCE, but we keep buying the content over and over again.  I remember when that sort of mentality was just for the yearly release of the standard sports games; bug fixes and new team rosters for only $60 a year.

To be fair, extensive online multiplayer like that found in Call of Duty can keep the game alive for a lot of people – but for those that do not elect to play online games (yes, there are plenty of people out there that don’t), video gaming as a “durable good” is quickly dying out.

This has been happening for years now – and unfortunately seems to be the accepted norm with big budget story-driven console games.

Portable gaming has tended to be a little different than their big brother console games.  Due to the nature of portability and time factors involved in their play, gaming on handhelds has tended to be lean more toward endlessly playable and replayable content or larger adventures purposefully broken down into smaller nuggets for consumption on the road.

However, a new segment of portable gaming has arrived; mobile devices such as cell phones and tablets – bringing a more diverse group of users looking to kill time in the doctor’s office or stave off boredom until the movie starts; but wouldn’t buy (or at least carry around) a dedicated gaming device.

If you thought games on consoles were quickly becoming throw away – mobile devices bring a whole new meaning to the word “disposable”.

These games come to you free of charge (usually with ads all over it) or for a nominal fee of $1-$5.  Statistically shown, these games will be played once or twice – then never touched (and usually uninstalled) again.  Users of these “apps” find this model acceptable – even enjoy it – as they apparently get a never-ending supply of “worse than Flash” games to burn their time with.

Proponents of mobile gaming will scream names like “Angry Birds” and “Fruit Ninja” when faced with accusations of mobile gaming being disposable, soulless and utterly forgettable.  Of course, the facts and statistics don’t lie.  With tens of thousands of shovelware titles appearing on every app market, these “gems” represent one fraction of 1% of the available games for the mobile platform.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day, it would seem.

What makes this disposable nature in mobile gaming such a big deal?  The people blowing the family nest egg ninety-nine cents at a time seem to be happy with the arrangement.  Apparently it is worth a tenth of a sawbuck to have their time consumed (if even just the amount of time it takes to select, download and uninstall the title).  So who cares?  Who bears the brunt of this new “app market gaming”?

Why the actual gamer, of course.  The ones looking for a more rich, less disposable gaming experience (something beyond five minutes).  Instead of getting new, daring IPs with some sort of cohesive entertainment – they are forced to select from fruit slicing and airplane landing knock offs.  Cut this, poke that and enjoy the level selection layout which everyone has stolen from Angry Birds.

Your other choice, of course, is to play shoehorned games on the mobile device.  Forget about how crappy touch screen virtual dpads are … forget about any sort of tactile button presses (so necessary to play a good game of pinball) – seems there are about 4 genres of games you can successfully pull off on a touchscreen only device – but that doesn’t stop developers from trying to shove them on the platform anyway.  Ever thought you would play Pac-Man without a joystick?  Swipe to move?  WHAT?

If you want those sort of games – well, by cracky they are available.  The best part is that you will find yourself so frustrated with the crappy controls, it won’t even occur to you to realize you actually paid $4.99 instead of getting it for free.
Again, why should real gamers care about this new gaming market?  Let the rubes play their glorified Flash games (you know, the ones they would NEVER had played on the PC) while the rest of us enjoy or dedicated gaming machines that still play real games – right?

Apparently not.  Seems these new “more casual than casual” gamers don’t believe there is a segregated market here.  In fact, they believe you shouldn’t be paying for games anymore.  After all, Angry Birds is just $1 – so why should you be paying $30 for a Pokemon cartridge?  Nintendo should just roll over and make $1 first party games (would it even BE first party anymore?) on cell phones – otherwise, they can’t compete.

Why should you care?  Because there are a LOT of these poor souls out there.  Everyone has a cell phone.  It seems EVERYONE is willing to pay a $1 – even if they uninstall the game in five minutes – their money was well spent.  That gives them the loudest voice and that causes developers to listen.

The last thing we want is every developer of quality games to take their franchises to the cell phone as $4 touch-n-scratch diluted experiences.  I seem to remember a large outcry of people when big franchises on 360 and PS3 were translated into motion games on the Wii.  This really isn’t much different – but it gets a bye because … why?  They already have their phone with them?

The truth is that game development on consoles is expensive.  You can’t charge $1 for a $6M game and hope to break even – let alone score a profit – not with everyone taking a piece of the pie and developers seeing pennies on the dollar.

“But they are doing it now!” scream the mobile gamers.  EA has Madden 12 on the cell phone now.  Only $5.  “It can be done!” they say.  What they fail to realize is that EA could only afford to make and deliver that game because of the subsidies and assets being provided by full console versions of the game.  Let’s not forget the “actual” game has an actual joystick and buttons to perform your moves and passes.

What people fail to realize is that while cell phone gaming used to be a one or two man shop job (at best) is quickly ramping up into a full house development effort.  Gotta have HD graphics.   Gotta have orchestral soundtrack.  Gotta hire actors for voice overs.  Gotta have cut scene art.  All this is driving the development costs and requirements up – and if you think that these development houses can pay the bills and make money by throwing up Viagra ads or charging a buck a pop, there is a serious reality check in your future.  Established studios and IPs are already commanding $4.99 to $9.99 for watered down franchise titles.

There is obviously a market for cheap/free mobile distractions (most of them don’t even deserve the moniker of “games”).  We need disposability in our lifestyle – the Millenials generation loves it.  The question is – just how big of a threat is it to “conventional” gaming?

The real questions are – will mobile gamers still consider $10 games disposable?  Will they continue to endure the watered down, “touch screen only cesspool of controls” if the games aren’t free or $1 anymore?  Will the extensive efforts of major studios on cell phones up the ante and force mobile gamers to pay 5x-10x as much as they are now?  Can the mobile gaming market survive the paradigm shift necessary to make it a threat to dedicated consoles?

The answers – no, no, no and no.  The mobile gaming market is a SEGMENT of the market – not a replacement of the status quo; no more threatening than the Wii was to conventional pixel-counting console game players.  Mobile gaming isn’t a preference – it’s a lack of options.  It’s something to do after you’ve read your email, realized no one was on IM to BS with and before the movie starts or the doctor calls your name.

Take anyone remotely serious about gaming.  Put them in a room with a 360, a 3DS and a cell phone and see what they play most.  After reading a couple of blog posts, the cell phone gets put down in favor of a real gaming device (unless they hold on to it to read IMs between rounds of Call of Duty).

Just like there is a large market for Flash games on the PC, there is a market for disposable gaming on mobile devices.
Activision never lost a sale on Portal because Bob HAD to play two more rounds of Bejeweled.  EA never lost a sale of Battlefield because Johnny was in the middle of tending his crops in Farmville.

These are FILLERS – simple distractions to occupy you until what you REALLY want to do is available to you.  They are not a standalone sustainable market that is going to REPLACE anything – but rather compliment what you do when you actually have a choice.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+