Most people know very well that the video game industry, and in particular the mobile gaming sector, is growing at a staggering rate. In the U.S. alone, sales in the smartphone and tablet gaming market more than doubled between 2005 and 2010 – reaching $898 million – and revenues are projected to increase 82% by 2015. In fact, the mobile – and PC – sectors of the video game industry are set to experience the steadiest growth in the coming years. All this from a market that really didn’t exist until the release of the first iPhone in 2007! (No offense, Nokia Snake enthusiasts.)
Clearly there are many reasons for this phenomenon. Many would argue that one of the most important reasons for this boom is the explosion in smartphone and tablet computer sales, making games more accessible to a larger and newer demographic. This new audience has in part driven the sustained accelerated pace of mobile game production over the past five years. In the next few years, many more games will be released to the mobile market, adding to the already over 125,000 games at the iTunes App Store, and the over 200,000 games at the Google Play Store (mind you, of course there is bound to be some platform cross-over here). According to 148Apps.biz, games are the largest single category of apps at the iTunes store, comprising almost 1 out of 5 apps (17%, to be precise). I find it hard to believe that mobile games’ dominance in app stores will likely see any change in the near future.
What this makes me think about is how will mobile games of the future be. At the rate we’re going – 146 new mobile games were added a day to the iTunes store in July 2012 – it’s easy to make a conservative estimate that in ten years over 300,000 more games will be available for downloading. Now, I don’t need to be reminded of economic theories of how industries experience accelerated growth at first then level off after a while (in fact, this seems to have happened with the game console market back in the late to mid 90s). But I’d argue that, because of the accessibility of mobile games and the vast consumer base for them, the mobile industry is markedly different from other segments of the video game industry. As smartphones and tablet computers become more and more popular with consumers, games will continue to reign as the most sought after apps, thus perpetuating their ‘hyper-production’ by game studios.
So, again I ask, what will mobile games look like in the future? I suppose that greatly depends on the capacity and new functionality that mobile devices might offer in the future – new features that game designers can take advantage of. Paul Briden at Know Your Mobile makes a great point that, until now, a lot of the advancement in mobile gaming has been focused on graphics. Which now look phenomenal – in some cases almost as good as Triple-A titles. The author goes on by saying that though there has been a lot of innovation in terms of gameplay, citing the “unique potential of touch input”, he suggests that “the nature of mobile games has remained remarkably static when you compare it to the far broader spectrum of console and PC-gaming”. He argues that mobile games lack more complexity because of the inherent limitations of phone and tablet hardware, and as a result, these games aren’t capable of cranking “up the complexity and deliver these visuals alongside immersive environments with deep interaction and lots of other stuff happening in the background.” He concludes that in order to deliver more advanced gaming experiences on mobile devices, “the majority of the processing crunch is going to have to be taken care of outside of the device… running remotely and streaming to a phone or tablet”.
I completely agree with Briden – the “limit of what smartphone processors are capable of” does effectively limit mobile game experience. However, whereas in his article Briden seems more concerned with how to bring mobile gaming experiences in line with consoles and PC, I’m more curious about how developers will approach the whole issue of mobile game innovation – in particular terms of gameplay and game mechanics. It’s never possible to say that “everything has been done”. But, when considering this question, you’ve got to ask yourself: What hasn’t been done yet? If in a decade there will be over 500,000 games for mobile devices, what direction will have been taken by developers in terms radical game concepts? What kind of mobile games will gamers want to play? Is it reasonable to think that games like Angry Birds and Cut-the-Rope will be just as successful in 2020 as they are today?
To be fair, change in the video game world doesn’t only represent the scope of mobile gaming. New technologies will certainly change the sphere of PC and console games (check this out, for instance). But mobile games are a heck of a lot cheaper and faster to develop, making them more manageable for small studios. This suggests that in the coming years more games will be produced for mobile devices than for PC or console. So what direction will smaller, independent studios take in terms of developing games that will be ‘revolutionary’ – with respect to game design and mechanics? How much risk are developers willing to take? How different can mobile game experiences of the future be in comparison to what we have on our smartphones and tablet computers today?
You might say that I’m being unreasonable, arguing that these questions can’t be answered because 1. it’s difficult for most developers to conceptualize mobile games of the future while lacking the technology that will lend to these ‘revolutionary’ game experiences; and 2. no one can say for certain what people’s mobile video game preferences will be like a decade from now, or even interpret what the mobile platform will look like at that time. Fair enough. I may not be a ‘mobile game futurist’ with grandiose ideas of what smartphone and tablet gamers are set to experience in the future, but based on what is out there today and what has been suggested by industry analysts and insiders, I’d like to outline some of these predictions about the future of mobile gaming. Check out Part 2 next week.