Commentary

Upping The Game

As both Sony and Microsoft gear up for at least one more wave of high-priced, multi-function consoles, it is understandable that the emphasis in this next-gen push is more on their over-the-top TV capabilities than their gaming prowess. Or at least I hope so. Much like PC gaming before it, the technical dazzle of console gaming reached the point of diminishing returns in the PS3 and Xbox 360.

There is a point at which the graphics and functionality of a next generation of gaming hardware, or any consumer electronic hardware for that matter, can demonstrate only incremental gains over the last generation. How much more hyper-realistic can the graphics get and with what increased entertainment value?

This is the perfect point in a CE life cycle for the kind of disruption tablets and smartphones represent. We have already seen a substantial market shift in development interest and investment toward mobile in recent years. That is not to say that the "Call of Duty," "Halo" or other premiere console franchises will not still enjoy extravagant development budgets and sales on the next generation of consoles.

I am sure there will always be a place for these immersive, big-screen gaming experiences. Watching some of these titles fill a wall with CGI and flood a room with 5.1 channel sound remains one of the great achievements in consumer entertainment and technology of our generation.

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But from the beginning, even before smartphones, mobile screens have been demonstrating just how much wider a swath of experiences gaming cuts in contemporary culture. I recall the early days of feature phone downloads, when major publishers like EA tried mightily to port their marquee franchises onto the uppermost phone models. One of the early lessons of those many failed attempts was that even hardcore gamers preferred simple and more casual fare on occasion, and usually that occasion was with a phone in their hands.

Likewise, the arrival of smartphones and eventually tablets reminded us all in the media industry just how popular, compelling and financially lucrative gaming is -- especially for the generations raised on them.

Lesson learned. After the successes of "Angry Birds," "Cut the Rope" and many others, no one doubts how central gaming is to the app economy. And now we are entering a new wave of development that is pushing device gaming to yet another level that competes directly with consoles.

Two recent games come to mind that demonstrate just how much of a threat devices can be even for higher-end console experiences. I have spent some time now with the iPad version of Deus Ex and X-Com. Each is damned close to a console experience.

Deus Ex is a first-person action role playing game with a sophisticated world back story. But more to the point, it has found artful ways of packing a ton of detailed console interface onto a 9.7-inch screen. Console veterans are used to coordinating left and right analog sticks to navigate first-person movement with good fluidity. I always have found virtualized thumbsticks cumbersome on touchscreens, so I didn’t have high hopes.

Deus Ex does a good job of segmenting the screen so that taps and finger movement in different zones have discrete responses. This is much more complex to track than the typical casual game, but if managing a torrent of detail and options in the height of a firefight is not your bag, then what are you doing in a game like this anyway?

Designers of all sorts could do worse than to reference this game for ideas on compressing interfaces. The drop-down and contextual menus put pretty much the full array of console game choices and depth onto the tablet screen. Likewise, the latest X-Com strategy title is among the most complete true ports of a PC/console game at the high end to devices I have seen.

With just a few interface tweaks to accommodate the absence of a controller, the game lets you make a complex set of tactical decisions in moving a squad through an isomorphic playing field. The CGI cut scenes and interstitial scenes are superbly done.

Both of these games suggest a tablet platform genuinely nipping at the heels of consoles. For marketers, they show just how elaborate and immersive an interactive narrative experience is possible on these platforms. I think we sell short the trendy concept of “game-ify” when we use it to describe adding rewards and achievements to apps.

There is a deeper way in which gaming narratives and interfaces can also inform mobile experiences. Games like "X-Com" and "Deux Ex" are not just engaging. They are genuinely immersive. Their use of audio, point of view, and manageable chunks of interactivity are all design skills that the gaming worlds are honing well.

When these games work well, they balance interactivity with managed experiences. They have an intense awareness of where the player is in a challenge and what they need to move themselves to the next level. That is an understanding of the end users' need state that almost any brand should envy.

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