Walk through densely populated areas, and you’ll spot the latest trend in gaming: smart phones and tablets, but not just in the hands of adults. The iPhone and iPad have become the new babysitters, easily distracting children with movies, music and a variety of Apps, leading us to wonder where all the DS and PSP systems have gone.
To be fair, you’ll still see a bunch of traditional handhelds, mostly from Nintendo, but Apple’s managed to disrupt the market with all in one devices, most notably the iPad and iPad 2, which play host to some of the world’s most popular games. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will need to adapt to the ever-changing market or face devastating consequences.
On that note, can the iPhone and iPad edge consoles and other handhelds for market domination? To find out, we spoke with several key App Store developers, all of whom have had success on Apple’s platform, and despite championing the technology, responses were mixed.
“Apple’s products fill a specific niche in the market, and by design, cannot be what consoles are,” says Piotr Gajos, Sourcebits’ VP of Design. “First person shooters, fighting games and platformers require precision control. Bottom line, some genres of games simply don’t work that well with the multi-touch interaction model.”
Not only that, but Gajos feels the iPad lags behind consoles in the power department.
“These two consoles [Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3] are utter monsters in comparison to iPad in terms of sheer horsepower. Unreal Engine 3, used to develop Gears of War 3, looks stunning on Xbox 360 and its counterpart on iPad is nowhere near the level of fidelity. And Playstation 3 is so powerful that it’s being used by the U.S. Army to power their simulators [source]. I don’t see a small portable device achieving this kind of performance within the next two to three years.”
Despite Infinity Blade’s graphical brilliance, it pales in comparison to Gears of War 3.
As for iPad’s battle with other handhelds, Gajos thinks the design may prevent it from vaulting the competition.
“It’s very thin, which makes it easy to carry around in a bag, but it’s quite heavy. Let’s also not forget the controls. Other handhelds provide buttons and d-pads, which makes them significantly better to play certain genres of games.”
Brian Cho, Booyah’s Director of Business Development & Marketing, disagrees.
“Devices such as iPad and iPhone are the ultimate disruptors for the gaming industry as we know it. They make games more accessible through intuitive touch interface and have sensible price points that minimize risk for the end consumer. In addition, the true portability and online connectivity of these devices train users to pay for content digitally and stay connected perpetually. Such devices also enable a new frontier for the industry through real world signals such as geo-location, augmented reality and near field communication.”
Engineous Games’ Nitzan Wilnai, shares this opinion.
“Apple’s iOS devices are easier to create content for and the games are a lot cheaper.”
Fredrik Wester, from Paradox, also feels that console games are too expensive.
“Why buy a DS game at $40 when you can pick up an iPhone/iPad game for $1-5?”
Wilnai added, “The iPad can be plugged into the TV, benefits from yearly hardware updates, is easy to create content for and it is possible to use an iPhone as a controller. There are already rumours that the iPad 3 will have 2048×1536 resolution, far surpassing the 360 and PS3 capabilities. The iPad is the new home console and in the future, will replace the 360, PS3 and Wii.”
That’s clearly a bold statement, but perhaps a reasonable one as gamers evolve.
Said Wester, “The interactivity of the iDevices makes them attractive for kids to use, and the iPad’s screen helps deliver all kinds of games.”
The iPad and iPad 2 touch screens help bring casual gaming to the masses.
It also appears that developers enjoy the ease of use and accessibility Apple’s iOS platform provides, which is in stark contrast to the console business.
“Sony and Nintendo SDK’s are difficult to setup and require hardware development kits,” says Wilnai. “Both publishers are notoriously slow and tough in approving games.”
“They [console manufacturers] need to open their download channels. Today, they act as gatekeepers rather than business facilitators.” Said Wester.
Brian Cho, Booyah’s Director of Business Development & Marketing followed that with, “They should compete with the freemium and lower price games found in the app store. More importantly, hardware manufacturers need to understand the fundamental shift from a consumer packaged goods business to a service via digital distribution, similar to the music and movie industry.”
Taking this a step further, Wester feels that console makers have spent too much time on what’s popular instead of fostering a healthy development community.
“These companies focus too much on trending topics. Currently, motion games are the flavour of the day, but this has taken focus away from everything else. To increase the business and interest in the platforms, they should work to get more interesting and talented developers and publishers to work on their respective platforms.”
With this in mind, it appears that Nintendo may suffer the most from Apple’s aggressive tactics.
Brad Hilderbrand, Sourcebits’ PR/Marketing Manager said, “Nintendo has the most to lose. With Wii sales flagging and the DSi being replaced by the 3DS, they’re in a very vulnerable spot in the handheld market they’ve traditionally dominated.”
Brian Cho echoed this sentiment.
“Devices such as the 3DS and NGP may have a difficult time competing against Apple’s iOS devices in the near future. The current market share and the ubiquity of devices such as the iPhone places a significant barrier to entry for new competitors.”
Angry Birds has become one of biggest games, easily trumping big name console franchises.
“Also,” Hilderbrand said, “you’ll notice Nintendo is the only company to take shots at Apple directly, with Satoru Iwata commenting at the Game Developer’s Conference that Apple’s App Store model is bad business. Sounds like a company afraid of the competition wanting to placate restless investors and consumers.”
Sourcebits’ VP of Sales, Brian Meehan, was more adamant.
“My kids will never own a DS or PSP. They have everything via smart phones and tablets.”
Meehan went as far to suggest that those handhelds are on their way out.
“When I travel, I love to walk from the back of the plane to the front and see what people are doing on their devices. Not surprisingly, it’s mostly games. I particularly see a lot of Angry Birds on iPhones and iPads. Not just one or two, but 10 to 15.”
Angry Birds, apparently, is the casual gamer’s go to App.
“If you look at the market cap for easy-to-play casual games vs. the market cap for epic first person shooter type games,” said Sourcebits’ VP of Sales Dan Gonzales, “you’ll quickly understand the importance of Angry Birds. The hardcore gamer, while fairly large in a historical context, is completely dwarfed by the number of casual gamers adopting smart phones and tablets.”
“The world is changing and fast,” said Meehan. “Angry Birds is the world’s new [Super] Mario Bros.”
Cho also thinks the plumber’s in danger of becoming less relevant.
“By removing barriers to entry found in traditional gaming , devices like the iPad are defining the new generation of gamers who will grow up playing the next Angry Birds over the new Super Mario.”
Adapting to change, of course, is key to success, something that Jon Walsh, CEO of Fuse, agrees with.
“The future of game publishing, and gaming, should not be considered in terms of whether or not the console market will disappear, so much as it relates to the shift in consumer attitudes. Mobility and the ubiquity of smart phones, and soon tablets, are freeing people and gaming from the confines of the living room.”
With all of this taken into account, at the end of the day, consumers will purchase the consoles, tablets and smart phones with the best games.
“Content,” said Cho, “will always be king in the gaming industry regardless of platform and delivery.”
Whether or not Apple will win the war, of course, remains to be seen.