A Sobering Look at Mobile’s Impact on Console and Handheld Gaming

The future of dedicated game devices looks dim.

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Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

Attendees walk between signs for Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox on the first day of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, California, June 11, 2013.

I hadn’t heard of Asymco before last night, but I noticed it on Twitter by way of Kotaku, then started reading and couldn’t stop because, you know, numbers and charts and carefully composed critical text. I suppose by the end my eyes must have looked like Kylie Sven Opossum’s in Fantastic Mr. Fox, swirling away in little spirals of dismay.

I can’t vouch for Asymco’s figures, but the broad sweeps look correct, and Asymco founder Horace Dediu — formerly an eight-year analyst and business dev manager with Nokia — says he’s drawing upon publicly reported data, so we’re going to assume he’s done his homework.

The takeaway from his breakdown may sound like conventional wisdom because it is: mobile gaming is encroaching on traditional gaming. You’ve been hearing that line for years now, and it’s probably the right line — carefully illustrated here in scatter charts depicting sales with trailing average trend lines (and also here, in a prior chart that pulls everything in, including iOS and Android).

The trend lines in the Nintendo chart, for instance, show the DS and Wii peaking around 2008-2009, after which all of Nintendo’s platforms plummet through 3Q 2013. Look at the Wii U and 3DS and you can see — again, no surprise since this is all public stuff — neither platform growing at anything like the pace of their predecessors. Or as Dediu puts it, “gaming as provided by mobile phone platforms is absorbing the growth that the new generation should have delivered.”

Then Dediu digs into Sony’s numbers, contrasting them with Nintendo’s and writing this:

It’s one thing to suggest that Nintendo consoles have “failed”, it’s another to show that Nintendo consoles and portables have failed, and yet another to show that two competitors in the games business seem to be failing in unison across all their product lines.

Cue the Kronos Quartet playing Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings here.

Yes, things should look a little less grave once we’re ringing in the new year, after the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 sally forth to do battle with cynical assumptions and recharge the industry’s batteries for a bit. But Dediu thinks we’ll see a bounce and little more, after which it’s game over (his post’s title) for discrete game systems, from dedicated handhelds to consoles.

That’s essentially the position I’ve taken in recent years, though I’m no oracle when it comes to timeframes: that gaming, traditional or otherwise, is headed for diversified, post-PC platforms, where gaming’s a branch on the tree instead of the trunk. Think PC gaming, only the PC’s in your pocket, or strapped to your arm, or floating around a living room, or perched on your nose, streaming to whatever screen you want it to, offering whatever interface you need to get the job done — not parked in your entertainment center, divorced from (or only feebly connected to) the technology you carry (or wear) on your person, anywhere you go.

Once Apple or Google (or whoever) square that circle, it really is game over for static hardware. When you look at discrete consoles — including the Xbox One and PS4 — you’re gazing backward through time at a paradigm’s final hurrahs, not gaming’s future. Hyping the next Call of Duty or Battlefield probably lands these guys gazillions because the game costs $60 or $70 or $100 and has its devoted core, but it’s not going to grow that core, much less rope in the sort of players that patronized Nintendo’s Wii or DS on their way to tablets and smartphones.

That isn’t, by the way, to say the future can’t involve Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. That’s where Dediu overreaches in my view. It’s also not to say the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and even the Wii U can’t do well this round if Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo (and, crucially, third party developers) can produce genre-defining games that tap these system’s idiosyncrasies, say Kinect revised for Xbox One, the Vita-PS4 interconnect or the Wii U GamePad.

I’d throw in with the next round of consoles whether I had to cover them professionally or no, because I want a gamepad not a touchpad and a big screen not a tablet screen when I’m tooling around San Andreas or stalking Spanish ships near Havana or squashing zombies with a combo motorcycle-steamroller in Los Perdidos. There’s just no reason, technical or otherwise, that an Apple or a Google couldn’t make those experiences part of the all-in-one mobile computing paradigm, nuts to bolts, control interface to high-definition display. You can bet the powers that be at Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are plotting to be part of that transition, and are far from deaf to it.