That Other Second Screen: Tablets To Get In Sync With Gaming Consoles

It has been years since I suffered the noise and chaos of an E3 gaming conference. I admit to being way too old for this now. Put me in the middle of this high-volume cacophonous and "booth-babe"-filled sensory overload experience, and the cranky old geezer is sure to come out and ask someone to turn the damn noise down. And so I watch it from afar. At last week's annual show the pressure that console gaming was feeling from smartphones and tablets was unmistakable. In both the rollout of Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 the companies showed innovative uses of tablets as second screens that were more deeply integrated into game play than we have ever seen before.

In one fighting game for the upcoming Xbox, for instance, players on a smartphone or tablet can monitor and even arrange for multiplayer matchups as the game goes on among other players. In an upcoming EA version of Need for Speed Rivals, a second or third player in the room can do more, and can use a tablet to get a helicopter view on the action and aid one of the players information. In other games, devices can be used to help other players, get game hints, and even build gaming worlds that can be used immediately in a console version of the game.

Even more so than the TV industry, the gaming industry understands that smartphones and tablets are a clear challenge to the console gaming economy that needs to be engaged proactively. It is hard to tell whether console game sales are declining and being overshadowed by device gaming growth because the latter is replacing the former. The consoles are between generations as they await the next big hardware refresh, and traditionally this is always a time when game sales tend to taper off.

But the momentum, creativity and Buzz is so clearly with handheld devices when it comes to gaming that the consoles seem to be doing everything that they can to co-opt devices in order for their own platforms to feel more relevant. This may or may not work, because dedicated, massively powerful gaming consoles attached to TVs simply may be in their last stages of relevance and usefulness.

But out of desperation comes creativity. What may be most interesting about this stage of second-screen console game is the ideas it generates. I had been hopeful that Nintendo’s Wii U with its tablet style controller was going to help imagine new two-screen linkages. But that platform has been incredibly disappointing. The innovations in gaming across these platforms may inspire some new ideas for engaging the second screen in TV content.

Right now it is still unclear how much people really do want to engage content across screens in any synchronized way. Twitter appears to be a big hit when it comes to monitoring and making commentary about shows. Many second-screen apps appear to be more of a cluttered and bothersome experience that quickly becomes tiresome to tend. And it is quite possible that the “personal” in these devices shows itself in people’s desire to do their own thing with a second screen while the TV is on. But we have only begun to imagine the possibilities for how the living room can become a synchronized two-screen experiences. There may be something worth learning in how the gaming industry comes at the opportunity. 

For marketers the opportunity is clear when it comes to second-screen console gaming. Sponsor it. Arguably, marketers never got their heads wrapped around gaming at the scale and importance the industry really merits. This is the signature medium for generations X and Y. And yet things like advergaming, in-game product placement and even dynamic ad serving always felt like awkward attempts by marketing to cozy up to the cool kids. The one concept that made the most sense for marketing around games was to sponsor the experience and give gamers more of the games they love.

Sponsoring free game levels and upgrades, hints and other add-ons has been a way to ingratiate a sponsor without interrupting the gamer. Second-screen gaming would seem to be a perfect place for this sort of games marketing. It not only underwrites an enhanced experience but gets the sponsor logo and pitch off of the main gaming screen and onto a less intrusive one where the gamer might be in a better position to access a brand’s assets.  These more integrated second screens may allow marketers to both get out of the gamer’s way and still have a visible presence. 

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