Have you ever been on a busy train carriage which pulls up to an equally busy station at rush hour? The doors open, and several moments of eyeballing and general unhappiness ensue as the people already on the train realise that yes, all of those people on the crowded platform are definitely going to try to squeeze onto this train. Some shuffle backwards to make room; others puff out their chests and try to claim as much air space around themselves as possible, projecting physically the notion that there’s no room at the inn. It never works; puff all you like, you’re still going to get a face full of someone’s slightly sweaty hair and a peculiarly sharp elbow rammed into your kidneys for the rest of the journey.
“PlayStation Mobile hasn’t been all that impressive thus far, and the cost wasn’t very high in the first place, but the platform has immense potential”
It’s those few moments that I think of when I consider how mobile games businesses and the traditional business – most notably the console platform holder businesses – have considered each other over the past five years. There’s been an uneasy standoff in some regards. Some have talked down mobile, while others have expressed fear (or in some instances, rather unseemly joy) at the notion that mobile will kill off dedicated gaming hardware for good. For the first few years, platform holders focused on downplaying the importance of mobile, even as publishers spent huge amounts of money on getting their foot in the door by acquiring hot mobile and social gaming firms (few of whom turned out to be worth the money paid, in the end).
It’s increasingly obvious that we’re now in stage two of this relationship. The people from the platform have boarded the train, and we’re on our way to destinations unknown. It’s now crowded and a bit uncomfortable, and some people are going to get crushed. The past year, and the coming years, will see an interesting dance being played out – a jockeying for position, an attempt to remove elbows from ribs or to figure out who ought to be giving up a seat for whom. I wouldn’t put much stead by anyone proclaiming to know who’s going to be in the best state when they alight at the next station.
Look at the past week’s events for some interesting pointers on just how intertwined these businesses are becoming. Sony, which has arguably embraced mobile as part of its core games strategy more than any other platform holder (that’s not saying a great deal, admittedly), has completely dropped the cost barrier for developers who want to create games for the PlayStation Mobile platform. PlayStation Mobile hasn’t been all that impressive thus far, and the cost wasn’t very high in the first place, but the platform has immense potential. Its problem, right now, is that it targets PlayStation Vita and a handful of not terribly popular Android handsets – primarily Sony Xperia phones, but also a menagerie of handsets from the likes of HTC. PS Mobile arguably needs a big platform coup to become a serious contender. If Sony could get the platform supported on Samsung’s phones (perhaps an olive branch too far) or finally get a bit of momentum behind Vita, PS Mobile could be a serious feather in the company’s cap.
“Finally, we now have an actual business move from Nintendo which acknowledges that games exist on mobile devices”
More dramatic, in a sense, is Nintendo’s announcement that it’s going to launch tools aimed at helping smartphone developers to bring their software to the Wii U. This announcement is more important in terms of what it adds to the mood music of the industry than it is in actual commercial terms, I suspect. Lots of commentators have spent the past five years arguing either that Nintendo should or must bring its world-class IP to mobile devices, and plenty of hot air has been generated over the industry’s favourite fantasy football pairing of Apple and Nintendo, regardless of the extraordinary cultural clash such a combination would inevitably engender. Through all of this, Nintendo maintained a stoic silence about the import of the mobile space, broken only by Satoru Iwata’s occasional acknowledgement of new competition for gamers’ attention – acknowledgement that may have gained a slightly wry edge when the 3DS started confounding everyone by outperforming its world-beating predecessor, at least in Japan (which is also a seriously big market for mobile games).
Finally, we now have an actual business move from Nintendo which acknowledges that games exist on mobile devices, and not just Pokemon companion applications. Yet it’s precisely the opposite of what the world has insisted the company must do. Far from putting Nintendo games on iOS or Android, Nintendo is inviting developers on those platforms to come and bring their games to Wii U. Apple market commentator John Gruber describes this as Nintendo being “on the right road, but driving in the wrong direction”. I take his point, and I’m not even sure I entirely disagree (although I certainly don’t entirely agree either) – but I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer brass neck of Nintendo’s move.
With both Nintendo’s outreach to bring smartphone games to the Wii U and Sony’s PlayStation Mobile platform, I can’t help but feel that there’s a strong element of PR involved. Not PR aimed at consumers, but PR aimed squarely at developers – small studios in particular, people who have come to see mobile phones as the natural home for their software while regarding Nintendo and Sony’s platforms as being closed-up gardens, tucked away behind high walls that can only be scaled by multinational publishers and other such deep-pocketed types. We’ve seen with the tone and pitch of Sony’s PlayStation 4 announcements how important it considers it to be to get support from grassroots developers as well as sewing up a steady stream of AAA titles. PlayStation Mobile as an early shot in that war – and to the surprise of many, it looks like Nintendo may now be willing to court the same market.
“The real objective is something else – it’s a way to show developers that the gates to console development are standing open in a way they never really were before”
So is this a “fight back” against the rise of mobile? Not really, no. The reality is that even if GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons is making millions of dollars a day on mobile (it’s the most embarrassingly addictive mobile game I’ve ever played, for the record, and while I have yet to give it a single Yen of my hard-earned after a month of play, I won’t regret doing so down the line), its presence on the Wii U still wouldn’t be a system seller, or even a terribly big commercial success, most likely. Much of the coverage of Nintendo’s announcement has been focused on the idea of existing mobile titles being launched on Wii U, just as early coverage of PlayStation Mobile pitched it alternately as a way to bring PSone classics to mobile phones and a way to bring mobile phone games to Vita. In both cases, the real objective is something else – it’s a way to show developers that the gates to console development are standing open in a way they never really were before.
For Sony, the realisation of the increasingly distributed nature of game development – which was once centralised in a tiny number of publishers and a slightly less tiny number of expensively-run studios – took a tough hardware generation and a fair bit of internal struggle. For Nintendo, I suspect that it runs even more counter to the firm’s internal philosophy, and I would not be hugely optimistic about the company’s chances of building a really welcoming platform for the wider development community. All the same, a firm doesn’t stay in business for over a century without becoming pretty good at moving with the wind when the times require it. First for Sony and now for Nintendo, the strategy for dealing with the influx of mobile is not to surrender – it’s to be about figuring out how to co-exist in the industry’s new reality.