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Thursday, Apr 7, 2011
What is the state of mobile/handheld gaming out in the wild? If the sights taken in on one recent trip are any indication, the traditional kings of the jungle might need to worry about their place in the food chain.

Recently, I had to travel from England to the San Francisco Bay Area.  Because of my modest net worth and the unfortunate unreliability of matter-transport/teleportation technology, I faced a nearly 24-hour journey.  I figured that since I would already be stuck in a variety of vehicles and security lines, I might as well find a more productive use for my time and spy on people.  The information that I was after was nothing so trite as national secrets or personal financial information.  I wanted to see if anyone was playing video games and, if so, what they were playing.


After what amounted to essentially an all-nighter of observation, I came away from the project quite surprised.  I saw little of what I expected and much of what I did not.  Although it was hardly a scientific survey, my little gaming sightseeing adventure did affect the way I think about mobile gaming and made me even more interested in the future of the field.
  
Phase 1: Oxford to Heathrow Airport, approximately 6:00 am (GMT) to 9:00 am (GMT)


After squaring away all the last minute packing, I made sure to put my Nintendo DS in my backpack in case I ran across an impromptu Mario Kart contest or needed to poke away at Picross 3D to pass the time.  Tellingly, the DS would remain in my backpack—unopened—for the duration of the journey.


The bus on the way over to Heathrow was devoid of gamers.  Despite containing people of all types and from seemingly all walks of life, no one was playing anything.  Perhaps it was too early to be staring at a bright LCD screen?


About an hour outside of Heathrow, we passed another bus fully covered by a LittleBigPlanet 2 advertisement.  While it wasn’t technically what I was looking for, it was the first trace of video games I had seen.


Later, when the bus finally got to the airport and began to make its stops at the various terminals, we passed a huge billboard advertising a Samsung Galaxy phone with Android operating system.  As we zoomed past, I saw a huge Gameloft logo in the add, along with a screenshot of a game I couldn’t recognize.


Phase 2: Heathrow Airport, approximately 9:00 am (GMT) to 12:00 pm (GMT)


If the airport was any indication, the Galaxy ads were working.  While exploring the airport and waiting for my flight, I passed dozens of people with smart phones.  Android phones, Blackberrys, and iPhones all made good showings, but video games did not.  Instead of matching three or breaking blocks, people were staring intently at screens displaying a familiar blue and white color pattern.  Even folks who were physically alone weren’t by themselves.  They were connected to Facebook.


Phase 3: London to Toronto, approximately 12:00 pm (GMT) to 4:00 pm (EDT)


As we taxied on the runway, people were finally forced to disconnect from the Internet and Facebook.  I expected this would coax people towards portable gaming, but I had not anticipated the lure of an older medium: television.  Even us peons in coach had seat-back monitors with dozens of movies and television shows on demand.  As soon as the entertainment system booted up, nearly everyone found something watch instead of something to play.


The entertainment system claimed to have games, so I decided to do some research.  Based on past experience, I didn’t expect much.  Nevertheless, any expectations I had were defied; selecting the game option brought up a screen that informed me that games were “unavailable at this time.”  Complementary travel-gaming was out of the question.


On my various stretch breaks, I surveyed the cabin in search of any mobile gaming action.  There was nary a Nintendo DS nor PSP to be found.  All I managed to find was one man playing a match three game on his Blackberry.  Later, in an exhilarating change of pace, this same person switched to Sudoku.  Strangely, I saw several people still browsing Facebook on their smart phones.  I can only assume that there is either some way to cache Facebook on mobile devices for offline access or that I was flying with daredevils who delighted in scorning the “no wi-fi” rule.


Phase 4: Pearson Airport, Toronto, approximately 4:00 pm (EDT) to 5:45 (EDT)


My brief layover in the Great White North yielded few mobile game sightings.  The only notable event happened as I was racing to catch my connecting flight: while stumbling to the gate, I passed a Bell Canada kiosk.  In addition to allowing customers to access the Internet, it offered a small selection of simple games that ranged from a generic match three game to a Breakout knock off.  It wasn’t a sophisticated machine by any stretch of the imagination, but I could see the appeal of taking a quick break and enjoying some Tim Horton’s and playing some not-quite-Bejeweled.  Thankfully, my wife reminded me that we had a flight to catch, so we moved on.


Phase 5: Toronto to San Francisco, approximately 5:45 pm (EDT) to 8:30 pm (PDT)


Like the first flight, this one was nearly devoid of games.  As was the case in the first plane, everyone had seat-back entertainment centers, and the majority of people used them for the flight’s duration.  I was disappointed to find that the built-in games were once again unavailable.  Again, the folks with smart phones stayed connected to Facebook as long as possible and resumed their browsing almost immediately when allowed. 


The one notable exception was a person sitting in the same row as us who was playing an iOS game called Battleheart.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, we started chatting, and I soon learned that he actually worked in the games industry.  Before we started talking about other games, he explained that Battleheart was a character and party-based RPG that combined traditional design concepts with intuitive touch-based control.  While we spoke about everything from triple-A games to Facebook games, we never really got around to talking about traditional handhelds.


Phase 6: SFO to Hayward, California, approximately 8:30 pm (PDT) to 10:00 pm (PDT)


By the time we arrived in San Francisco, sleep deprivation and jet lag was making it hard to remember when and where I was.  Even so, I stuck to my mission and scanned the airport for more signs of mobile gaming.  It was late and relatively uncrowded, but my bleary eyes spied precious few examples of travelling players. 


What I did notice on the drive away from the airport was that the city had been overrun by advertisements for Homefront.  I remember being intrigued by the image of a war-torn San Francisco, but because I would have precious little time to play games in the short term, I was resigned to putting it on the back burner.


Conclusions


Admittedly, this little survey is neither comprehensive, nor scientific.  However, I was still surprised by some of the qualitative data I collected.  If the actual numbers are anything like my experience, the future of the mobile and handheld markets will be very interesting.


First, I was shocked to not see any Nintendo or Sony devices.  I can only imagine that this would be worrisome to both companies, seeing as how Nintendo just launched a brand new system and Sony looks to follow suit.  What is long term fate of these expensive, largely proprietary systems?


For all I know, I could have passed hundreds of people who were lugging around a DS without ever playing it.  With the advent of on-demand airplane entertainment and adequate gaming experiences on mobile phones, there are fewer reasons to fire up a dedicated gaming device.  In light of this, Nintendo’s attempt to infuse the 3DS with social and media aspects like StreetPass and Netflix are understandable.  Even before convincing people to buy games, they need to convince people to open the device itself.


Intellectually, I know that Facebook boasts hundreds of millions of users, but it was still striking to witness the site’s ubiquity in the real world.  Whenever I saw someone with a smart phone, there was a good chance they were using it to access Facebook.  When people switched their devices back on after landing, they would visit Facebook.  While waiting to board: Facebook.  While waiting for luggage: Facebook.  I’m sure Facebook has these numbers, but the amount of time people spend on the website must be staggering.  It makes perfect sense that everyone from indie developers to EA is trying to figure out the best way to make games for the platform.  The people are already there, the trick is to figure out how best to proceed.


I think EA might be on to something with Dragon Age: Legends.  When I saw the Homefront ads, I was interested in the game’s concept but was unable or unwilling to invest in the full experience.  Had Homefront had a stand-alone Facebook game and had I possessed a smartphone, I know how I would have spent the hour-long ride home.  Tying the mobile experience to the core game via gameplay and story would have only increased my interest in pursuing the experience.  By making use of a device many that people will always be carrying (a smartphone) and choosing a hugely popular platform (Facebook) traditional game companies can craft experiences that supplement the console versions of a franchise while also playing to the strengths of portable gaming.


Ultimately, the future of portable gaming itself seems to be an issue of travel.  Will hardware companies like Nintendo and Sony be able to entice players to revisit mostly game-only destinations like the 3DS or the NGP, or will publishers and phone manufacturers increasingly journey to smart phones and Facebook to meet players?  Based on my last trip, the ubiquity of on-demand entertainment and the rise of powerful mobile phones suggests that traditional game companies better get used to traveling.

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