It’s been trendy for some time now to compare home console experiences with mobile ones, either by extolling the virtues of a powerful dedicated machine over phones or by highlighting the vast range of experiences one can have on iOS for a fraction of the price console players pay for a single game. While it’s clear both dedicated game platforms and integrated app stores have their own strengths and weaknesses, it’s also clear that console manufacturers are worried about the amount of market share they’re consistently losing to the likes of Android, iOS and even Steam.
So the new arms race seems to be one of innovation. A race to see who between Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony can be the first to retain the benefits of a dedicated games system – power, compatibility, centrality – while encompassing the allure of app stores – availability, omnipotence, low cost – as well.
One might point to an attempt by Sony that seems to be right on the money – a digital store for mobile devices called PlayStation Mobile. However the service has stumbled significantly after failing to take into account a very important aspect of mobile gaming – integrated content delivery.
If somebody has an iPhone they have the App Store. They only have to tap it to find out what the current most popular paid and free games are. Sony’s proposition that you check whether your smartphone is PlayStation certified, download the PSM client from their website, sign in and then pay several dollars for Aqua Kitty (all the while dealing with a frankly inelegant interface and control solution) seems pretty useless by comparison. What’s more accessing your games requires going through the client and said clunky interface, meaning the jump-in-and-play appeal of many mobile games is substantially reduced.
If the plan is eventually to have Sony’s Android phones intimately connected to PSM for gaming content then the company can most likely turn this around – imagine your smartphone sharing experiences across your PS3 and PSVita – but the app within a confusing app architecture of the service is currently no match for either Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store.
Of course Sony has another horse in the race and a much more successful one. PlayStation Plus is an initiative not aimed at expanding games to more mobile platforms but at giving gamers the kind of bang for their buck that rival services offer. The idea is that a player pays a yearly subscription fee and in return games that usually carry a full cost price-tag on PlayStation Network are discounted, often to within a half-dollar of an iOS game. More excitingly, every month PS+ subscribers can download some of the biggest and most popular PlayStation games for no extra charge at all. The user stands to save hundreds of dollars a year, and in return Sony ensures more eyeballs are constantly glued to their store and more hands to their controllers. This model of subscription rather than discrete purchases is going to define the future of software sales, both at the console-provider’s level seen in PS+ and at the developer’s level à la the ‘season pass’ subscription for The Walking Dead or Halo 4’s Spartan Ops content.
Speaking of subscriptions, what of the payment plan option Microsoft is currently trialing in the US for its Xbox 360? If their next home console was offered on a monthly payment plan with no upfront cost, would you be more likely to get one? It’s an interesting proposition that brings to the fore another of the reasons mobile gaming is so accessible. While an Apple iPhone costs as much or more as a new video game console, phones are typically paid for with a monthly plan that includes calls, text, data usage and the cost of the phone all in one. Typically a user can get a new iPhone and 10 or 20 really good games for less than a digital copy of Aqua Kitty. So if one of the hardware manufacturers were to follow a similar route – perhaps offering a monthly payment plan that included the cost of the hardware AND a game content service like Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus – the barrier to entry that plays such a large role in segregating console games from mobile ones would be significantly removed.
Nintendo’s not to be left out of the discussion of course, and The New York Times recently ran an interesting article on the place of their Wii U and its fight against tablet gaming. While acknowledging the system’s embrace of multimedia applications like Nintendo TVii, the article fails to focus on one of the most prescient aspects the new system in its competition with digital distribution platforms – its eShop. Not only is Nintendo now offering all its first-party software for download direct from the store (as it is also doing on 3DS) but it has also announced that developers will set their own prices on the Wii U eShop. This move constitutes a significant shift from Nintendo’s past online stores and their overpriced and under-competitive offerings, bringing it more in line with systems including Apple’s App Store and Valve’s Steam.
One of the most developer-friendly aspects of the App Store is the ability to price your game according to the kind of experience it offers. For example 5th Cell can sell Scribblenauts on iOS for free, safe in the knowledge that many people will fall in love with it and be happy to make the additional in-app purchase for more levels. The list of highest-grossing iOS games is frequently filled with games that are free to play, simply because those games, if good enough, reach such a massive number of players that many are bound to pay for a deeper experience. It’s easy to see how, if the eShop is furnished appropriately with one or two really good free-to-play games a week, developer’s could find similar success with Nintendo’s system.
Nintendo’s also rumoured to be working on a miniaturized and much cheaper version of their 6-year-old Wii console, but one hopes that if the rumour is true the company also plans to launch an expanded digital store that offers Wii games liberated from their physical discs, while at the same time significantly decreasing the price of their fantastic Virtual Console library. Best case scenario a Wii Mini would take all these measures and then remove the disc drive entirely (imagine an inexpensive, tiny, Virtual Console box that also offered digital versions of Skyward Sword and The Last Story!) but that’s unlikely to happen.
All-in-all while we’re sure to see more stumbling and floundering in attempts to combat platforms like iOS, it’s still way too early to count consoles out as irrelevant like many commentators and armchair analysts have. In the scheme of things finding new payment models and modes of delivery are not big hurdles for dedicated games hardware, and in the future we can likely expect there to be a continued place for both integrated app-store delivered experiences and those delivered on the next machines from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.