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What If iOS Gaming Is A Fad?

In a much-quoted article last week, EA CEO John Riccitiello said consoles are now only 40% of the games industry, and that the company’s fastest-growing platform is the iPad, which didn’t even exist 18 months ago.

Taken together with the presence of Angry Birds plushies at every mall in the U.S., is this a sign of the ascendance of an iOS era in gaming? Maybe, but we’ve played this game before, and it doesn’t end well.

Only five years ago, it was a resurgent Nintendo that turned the gaming industry upside down with the Wii, a massive success and the first time since the NES that Nintendo had the top box for a console generation. Fortune praised Nintendo for rolling Sony and Microsoft, Roughly Drafted’s Daniel Eran Dilger was ready to bury the Xbox 360 in early 2008, and Penny Arcade taunted Sony for saying the overpriced PS3 was as hard to find in early 2007 as the then-rare Wii.

Yet today, Wii sales are collapsing, the company has chosen (or been forced?) to announce its next generation console while Xbox 360 and PS3 soldier on, and Kotaku is making fun of EA for actually putting significant effort into Madden NFL 12 for Wii, writing “it seems these days that most companies making games just don’t care about making Wii games anymore.”

It’s a fickle industry, but this is still a fast and hard fall for what, as of December, was still the top non-portable gaming console. How can the most popular console not have an economically and artistically strong ecosystem of game development built up around it?

Well, who are the Wii gamers? As conventional wisdom reminds us, the win of the Wii was to recruit non-traditional gamers: not just the usual shooter and sports fans, but casual gamers, young kids, the elderly, and many others. The Fortune article above has great praise for this as a business strategy:

Talk about lost in translation. Turns out there’s a name for the line of attack Iwata has been taking: the blue-ocean strategy. Two years ago business professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne published a book by that title. It theorizes that the most innovative companies have one thing in common – they separate themselves from a throng of bloody competition (in the red ocean) and set out to create new markets (in the blue ocean).

This should sound familiar to a lot of us… because doesn’t it describe Apple to a T? Isn’t the smartphone, and even moreso the tablet, a blue ocean that allowed Apple to escape the carnage of the PC wars?

And when we think of iOS gaming, haven’t we seen a profound shift to new audiences and new games? The big iOS games aren’t old franchise warhorses; the ones that everyone can think of are small novelties, often from hitherto unknown developers.

So here’s the thing… what if the crowd that was playing Wii Sports in 2008 are the ones who are playing Cut The Rope today? Well, doesn’t that make it more likely they’re not going to linger long in iOS gaming? It’s great in the here and now, but a fickle fan base may grow bored of fruit-slicing and zombie-deterring and move on to the next shiny thing. It happened to the Wii, so why couldn’t it happen to iOS?

Speaking subjectively, what dulled my interest in Wii was the avalanche of mini-game shovelware, which drowned out the few valiant attempts to use the console’s unique features in interesting ways. Granted, that didn’t pan out as well as expected anyways: the sword-swinging of Soul Calibur Legends was a letdown for me, and maybe that’s why I didn’t seek out many of the games that actually tried, like Zack and Wiki and No More Heroes.

My own hope is that the larger and more diverse ecosystem of iOS game developers will keep things more interesting, and ensure there’s always something new for everyone. The market is so much more competitive than the retail-constrained Wii, that a play-it-safe me-too strategy (like trying to make the next Carnival Games for Wii) is unlikely to succeed for long: there’s not much point copying Angry Birds when Rovio is perfectly happy to keep updating their app with more levels than we can keep up with. Better to innovate with good gameplay, appropriate social features, and polish: Casey’s Contraptions is a great example of all three.

Final Fantasy Tactics soundtrack atop my iPad 2At some point, the iPad became my console of choice. Oh, someday I’ll go back and finish Steambot Chronicles on the PS2. But right now, I’m anxiously anticipating the iPad version of Final Fantasy Tactics, the iPhone/iPod version of which was submitted to Apple this week. I played it on the PS1 back in the 90’s, and am more than ready to sink 70 hours into another run through The War of the Lions, even knowing full well how it ends (sniff). See that picture? That’s the 2-CD original soundtrack of FFT, which I bought back at Anime Weekend Atlanta back when paying $50 for imported CDs from Japan was freaking awesome.

It’s a hopeful sign that Square Enix is betting on the iOS platform to support deeper and more intricate games, and price points higher than $1.99. Maybe that’s Square Enix’s “blue ocean” to escape the carnage of 99c novelties on the one hand, and multi-million dollar development disasters in the living room console war. If it works, it might be just what the platform needs to avoid a Wii-like implosion down the road.

Comment (1)

  1. EssentialParadox

    I was one of the first to jump on the Wii and herald it as the new era of console gaming and Nintendo the ultimate successor over Microsoft and Sony. I’m also a big apple fan and owner of an iPad. I think you’ve made a good comparison and that there is one thing separating Apple’s strategy from Nintendo’s…

    Nintendo played for the short term. They focused on high concept, novelty, and high profits. After about a year owning my launch-day Wii, I started to realize this was dooming them and Wii owners to failure. Nintendo ignored online gaming. Nintendo ignored the hardcore gaming habits of western gamers. Nintendo ignored indie developers. All Nintendo focused on was earning as much profit in a short space of time as possible, long effects be damned. Now they’re facing those long term consequences.

    Apple, however, don’t focus on profits; they focus on products and users, but Apple also deeply, DEEPLY care about their developers. Just by releasing Game Center, Apple already leap-frogged Nintendo’s terrible online system in one simple update. In fact, overall iPads and iPhones are better gaming consoles than Nintendo’s are today. That itself speaks volumes. I’d be surprised if Nintendo don’t switch to a 3rd party developer soon.

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