Are Tablets like the iPad Poised to Dethrone Game Consoles?

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Thank you, Cevat Yerli, CEO of Crytek, the guys behind the bleeding-edge PC shooter Crysis, for confirming in so many words what I’ve been saying for years: Tablet-gaming is here, and it’s a clear and present threat to console gaming.

Said Yerli in a VG24/7 interview: “The current generations are drying out and the longer we wait for the next generation of consoles, the higher the likelihood that they could fall behind tablets in terms of being the first thing people reach for when the time comes to play games. Tablets are putting pressure on the gaming industry, and taking over in some ways, so that should be kept in mind.”

(MORE: 7 Reasons Apple’s New iPad Could Replace Your Games Console)

That the guy whose company created the most processing-intensive shooter in the history of gaming — it still takes a monster rig, five years on, to get the original Crysis purring with bells and whistles enabled — is warning that tablets could supersede consoles should give even the most dismissive enthusiasts pause.

But even Yerli’s warning — which implies that if next-gen consoles arrive sooner than later, all may yet be well in console-dom — brushes past several key points in tablet-gaming’s favor.

Tablets aren’t locked into 10-year hardware cycles. The Xbox 360 arrived in 2005 and the PlayStation 3 a year later in 2006. The technology inside each of those boxes is now at least six years old. And with price drops and budget bundles to come, these boxes are probably still at least two to three years away from official retirement. That’s a 10-year cycle, cradle to grave — an eternity in tech-dom. And unless Microsoft and Sony plan to iterate their next-gen consoles every couple years, we’re probably talking another 10-year attempt.

Tablets, by contrast, are turning up with better, faster internal components on average of once a year. The iPad, which launched the tablet revolution barely two years ago in April 2010, has since iterated through three generations, each dramatically more capable than the last. Does anyone expect that pace to slow?

The newest iPad, released in March 2012, includes a dual-core CPU and quad-core graphics processor capable of pushing 3.1 million pixels around its 2,048 x 1,536 Retina screen. Run Airplay Mirroring through your Apple TV-connected HD television at 720p — the same resolution as most current-gen console games — and it has even more headroom to crunch pixels. And imagine what the next iPad (or Android tablets) might be capable of, especially if tablet manufacturers get behind wireless controllers that’ll let you play console-style games without interface compromises.

Tablet gaming is far less expensive. Tablets like the iPad cost significantly more than game consoles up front, it’s true, but games on the iPad cost a fraction as much. Pick up five new games at console gaming’s $60 asking price and you’ve already doubled your investment in a $300 game console. Any guesses how much the average console gamer spends on games in a year?

(LIST: The 10 Best-Looking HD ‘Retina’ iPad Games)

You can do a lot more with a tablet. In addition to games, tablets are media capturing, viewing and sharing hubs, GPS navigation tools, Internet and social networking portals, e-readers, and — as app-makers port over stuff like Adobe Photoshop and AutoCAD — often capable of rivaling dedicated PCs. Even the upcoming Wii U, with its simplistic tablet-style controller, offers a fraction of the functionality found in your average iOS or Android slate. And here’s the real tell: People are snapping up tablets in droves despite their higher cost.

Gamers would probably balk at the notion of spending $200 to $300 on a new game console every two to three years, but no one’s batting an eye when it comes to laying out $500 or more for a new iPad. Global sales of the iPad alone topped 84 million units worldwide by March 2012 (neither the Xbox 360 nor the PlayStation 3 are anywhere near that number at this point). And according to an AYTM survey, existing iPad owners said they were three times more likely than non-owners to buy the next iPad — the one released in March 2012 — within six months of launch.

Tablets share a common architecture with other mobile gaming devices. Namely smartphones, which makes porting games between the two relatively simple. And smartphones are now the leading platform for gaming in the U.S., according to a survey prepared for mobile games publisher PopCap. The number of games available for iOS devices alone is extraordinary, dwarfing the total available on every other gaming platform in the history of the genre combined.

Gamers already play more on mobile devices than consoles. According to the PopCap mobile gaming survey, 46% of all time spent playing video games occurs on mobile devices. In that mix, tablets still lag behind game consoles — 13% versus 18%, respectively — and well behind desktop/laptop computers (32%), but the rise of tablet gaming in just two years from nothing to game console territory is intimidating any way you slice it. And the year-on-year growth of mobile gaming in the U.S. is huge: The number of Internet users who’ve played a mobile game in the past month (in 2012) increased 45% over 2011. How long before tablet gaming’s percentage eclipses console gaming’s? Not long, I’m betting.

(LIST: 25 Best iPad Games for Your New ‘Resolutionary’ Tablet)

I have nothing against traditional game consoles. They’re where I still expend most of my gaming hours, and I’d buy whatever’s next from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo whether I covered games for a living or not. But I don’t feel any special allegiance to those guys, nor to the notion of jamming large slabs of stylized plastic (that look like old-school desktop computers) into my entertainment center. Say Activision ported Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 to the next iPad, and say Apple finally got off its hands and released a proper wireless gamepad — I’d have no compunctions about flipping.

Last thing, then I’ll hop off my soapbox. Note where Yerli says consoles could fall behind tablets “in terms of being the first thing people reach for when the time comes to play games.” I’ve been arguing that tablets will eventually — and in some cases already can — go toe to toe with game consoles. But Yerli’s driving at something even more tectonic: The simplicity of interfacing with tablets as well as their unbeatable economic advantages (read: super cheap games) could eventually splinter the traditional console gaming market.

How many are going to take a good long look at whatever’s next from Microsoft or Sony and wonder — just my prediction here — why they’re only seeing refined versions of the same games they’ve been playing for years? The top selling console games are all formula-friendly sequels, after all, e.g. Call of Duty: Black Ops, Gran Turismo 5, Halo 3, God of War III, Gears of War 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV. Is that the future of gaming? Souped-up versions of the same tired ideas, idolized by players that debate each game’s merits in the language of frame rates and poly-counts?

Yerli doesn’t seem to think so. He argues the “next generation [of] gaming is that playing with friends, and playing on multiple devices and having complimentary experiences with them, will be a big part of the process,” adding that “people are playing shorter cycles in games, and session-based games are going to be key.”

What better platform for that than one of the most versatile computing devices in history that already caters to shorter-session gaming on the go?

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