Pulling It All Together: The Future of Gaming

This entry is part 7 of David’s series on The Future of Gaming. Click for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.

This series has been going on for a month and a half now, and finally we’re at my grand conclusion. Before we get into it, let’s briefly recap what we’ve said over the past several weeks:

  • The iPhone has fundamentally changed the gaming industry. It’s brought gaming back to the mainstream, back to a large audience, and back to where it was in the early 1990s before gaming developed its own spin-off culture. The iPhone, and smartphones more generally, has helped put gaming truly back in the discussion with movies and books as mainstream entertainment that appeals to the majority of people, rather than a niche side culture.
  • The iPhone’s App Store is the shopping paradigm of the future: its centrality allows for game shopping to be simply, accessible and reliable, largely dodging the problems with accessibility that have plagued the game industry in the past. Compare it to other industries: with movies, you go, buy a ticket, and watch. With books, you buy the book and read it. With games before, you had to buy the console, buy a game for the right console, understand how to navigate the console’s setup… easy once you knew how to do it, but challenging for novices. Now, game-buying is as easy as movie-going. That, coupled with flexible pricing schemes (appealing to independent developers), will make the App Store the paradigm for future game-buying, just as we’ve seen it take hold with the Xbox Live Arcade, among other things.
  • The ubiquity of smartphones, however, is what puts them over the edge. Through devices that aren’t dedicated to gaming, gaming can re-enter the mainstream without the stigma often attached to it. A future where everyone has a smartphone is a future where it’s justifiable for anyone to drop $500 on a device that plays games because it does so much else as well. It’s a future where the smartphone can tap into your location, personal preferences, or social circle to customize the game-playing experience just for you. It’s a future where gaming isn’t just accepted, it’s expected; recently I heard one of my non-gamer friends ask another, in shock, “You don’t have Angry Birds on your phone?” What was the last game that it was shocking to hear non-gamers hadn’t played? Super Mario Bros.? And with all this ubiquity comes more ubiquity: the more people have it, the more people want it. It’s an unstoppable snowball effect.
  • But smartphones do leave certain things to be desired: their power can never match actual consoles. Enter the OnLive Paradigm: it might not be OnLive the company that achieves this, but cloud gaming is real and coming. This is a world where servers and computers up in the cloud can take care of all the computing power for you, so all your device needs to do is receive a high-bandwidth video signal and send controller actions back at high speeds. Modern high-speed internet is almost fast enough to achieve this, so there is little doubt that a few years from now, the infrastructure will be more than ready for this. Add on to that the benefits that both the developers and the consumers get and the fact that the market is trending toward cloud computing in every domain and you can rest assured that this is the direction the gaming industry is going.
  • So we can stream the contents of the game screen to your smartphone screen in essentially real-time, but nothing can mimic the experience of actually being in a room, controller in your hands, surround-sound speakers all around you, a big TV in front of you, totally immersed in the experience, and therefore traditional consoles will still dominate, right? Wrong. Enter the tiny final piece of the puzzle: the Wii U’s in-room wireless streaming. Now, your smartphone doesn’t have to be the screen on which you play your games; it’s just the router, receiving signal from the server and wirelessly transmitting it to the TV and speakers, and receiving signal from your bluetooth controller and wirelessly sending it back to the server. Traditonal controller? Easy. Motion gaming? No problem. All the device cares about is routing signal to and from the server. For this, it doesn’t even need a screen.

So, then, what is the future of gaming? There is a device in your pocket. It’s your smartphone. It probably looks a lot like a modern iPhone. When you tell it to enter gaming mode, it becomes little more than a powerful portal to cloud gaming. It sits there, accessing the server and downloading the contents of the screen of the game. It instantly wirelessly transmits this screen to your television, the audio to your speaks, the tactile feedback to your controller, etc. When you press a button, your controller wirelessly sends that signal to the smartphone, which then sends it to the server in realtime, allowing you to play the game despite sitting hundreds of miles away from the server itself.

Accessing games is as simple as loading the device and accessing the online App Store; and odds are, the contents of that screen will be streamed to you as well. You’ll browse through the games and choose the one you want to play, or choose from one of the ones you’ve already purchased. I might anticipate a subscription model rather than a per-game pricing scheme, more a la GameFly than the App Store. Once playing, you’ll be instantly transported into the game screen, and as far as the gameplay experience is concerned, it won’t be any degraded from your modern consoles. You won’t have to buy the modern console, though, just to play the game.

Going on a trip? No worries, your smartphone syncs up with any television, not just your one at home. Just pack up your phone and your controller and your gameplay experience in that hotel in New Jersey is nearly the same as the one at your home in Texas. Lost your device? Don’t worry. All your data was stored up on the server; once your new device arrives, you won’t even be able to tell you lost anything. No saved data, no purchase data, no personal data, nothing needs to be stored on the portable device itself.

Want to show a game to a friend that might not be into gaming? No problem at all — you both have devices physically capable of playing the game, it’s just a matter of showing them the application itself. No expensive console to purchase in the first place, no preparation overhead, no complicated setup; gaming is accessible again, to anyone in any audience. There are no barriers to playing the game: just load it up and go. Want to talk flexibility? This system has more flexibility than any other gaming system you’ve seen; new peripherals can be developed by anyone for any game, given that the only requirement is that they communicate wirelessly with the phone. Not only does this allow for things like traditional and motion gaming, but future control styles as well, such as the often-rumored brain-based controller.

Smartphones’ made criticism in the gaming industry is that they play nothing but small little casual minigames; no intense graphics, no engrossing plots, no complicated gameplay. But with these paradigms in play, it’s no longer about what the smartphone can do; it’s what the server can do. And with individuals sharing virtual consoles over the internet, those servers can be made all the more powerful because fewer are necessary. Repairs become trivial because all repairs are handled in-house rather than through complicated shipping procedures. Console upgrades? A thing of the past; when new equipment comes out, it’s put into the existing server spaces. Smartphones won’t just facilitate a gameplay experience that matches today’s; it will exceed today’s, constantly improving at a much more cost efficient rate to both the players and the corporations.

So, what is the future of gaming? In a word, accessibility. Accessible to everyone, both technologically through owning the phones and culturally through the expectation of gaming. Accessible to everyone, both physically through the flexibility of the interface and mentally through the ease of its use. Accessible to everyone, both geographically through the ubiquity of internet access and personally through the storage of all data in the cloud. Accessible to everyone, at all times, everywhere, in every possible meaning of the word.

This brings us to the end of the “main” case I’m making for my view of the future of gaming. Next week, I’ll be addressing some of the counter-arguments that might exist to this line of reasoning. If you have any thoughts on why my view might be inaccurate, email me at ddjgames(at)gmail.com.

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