What Games Are: There Is No Iron Throne Of Games Anymore

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

As I am a medium-sized Song of Ice and Fire geek, I find myself thinking of the famous Cersei Lannister quote: “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.

The Rusty Throne

This is essentially how the games industry has behaved for the longest time. It has a history of generational prize fights, of kings and contenders and pride going before a fall. It was a place where previous winners became abject losers, from Atari to Sega, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft. And there were many young 3DO-sized pretenders that never got out of the gate.

The real kingmakers were developers. Faced with the choice to work with one dedicated platform or another, or try their hand at PC distribution, many would evaluate based on appeal and conventional wisdom about the market’s tastes. So, depending on who courted them best, offering the best tools or the best business opportunities, developers would always choose and then become locked in. Porting costs were expensive and difficult.

A virtuous circle of audience and developers then formed, each propping up the other until such time as the platform started to feel played out. The only consistent exception to this rule was Nintendo, who developed both the platform and its games, and so needed a smaller audience to thrive.

Yet the pattern started to shift somewhere around 2005. According to the normal order of succession, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 should have become king when Sony fumbled the ball. But actually it was Nintendo, with the fresh-faced and deliberately cheap Wii, who rose to prominence and left the other two achieving a kind of détente.

A common assumption of the time had it that the industry had simply moved from a phase of monopoly to oligopoly, but there were a couple of other factors at play. One was that – outside of a couple of very big third parties – developing games for these formats became prohibitively expensive for most studios. So the platform holders took a greater hand in developing and publishing the successful games on their own platforms. This led to smaller choices.

A second factor was that, after years of sputtering, smartphones finally managed to roar into life in 2007, and in the following year the world learned what an app was. Apps started to change perceptions of value around software and games, as did social gaming. Foundational ideas like how the economics of gaming should behave, and consequently what game products should look like, raised significant questions.

The numbers indicated stagnation, or even contraction, of the console idea. The Xbox 360 was launched eight years ago today on May 12, 2005 and went on to sell around 70-75 million units. Sony’s Playstation 3 launched in November 2006 and also sold about 70-75 million units. Nintendo’s Wii also launched in November 2006 and has sold just shy of 100 million units. These are all pretty good, but none is close to the Playstation 2 (155 million units). Meanwhile the iPad has sold at least 100 million units in three short years, the iPhone is north of 250 million and the combined sales of Samsung’s Galaxy models probably dwarfs that number.

A third factor was technology. Developers don’t really have to make the choice to go with any one platform any more. At the high end of the scale, big publishers opted for Epic’s Unreal engine, which made it much easier to port between multiple game systems. And at the lower end, Unity in particular has made it much easier for game makers to get into many arenas cheaply. That in turn has affected how they think, such that making games these days is no longer an all-in business. Now the virtuous circle can, and frequently does, extend beyond the platform.

This leads me to the idea that there is no longer one Iron Throne of gaming. That the very notion that a hardware monopoly, or even an oligopoly, will continue to own the market is archaic.

Elegantly Democratic

Most of the interesting stories about games have come from non-traditional sources over the last few years. Technological innovations like mass asynchronous social gaming happened beyond the Wall, and a decline in PC sales and console software sales corresponded to a rise in tablets and apps. The Wii, despite its initial roar, faded quickly. So did products like Kinect. The market changed, becoming much more chaotic and faddish in some respect. But also much more tribal.

Here’s a small example: Five years ago I regularly bought Xbox 360 games at my local GAME store. GAME wasn’t my only source of games (Amazon was another) but I often found it the easiest to browse and the most immediate delivery vehicle. An average purchase would probably be around $30, and time from purchase-to-playing could be measured in hours.

This weekend, on the other hand, I opened my iPad and downloaded Running with Friends, Impossible Road, Oregon Settler, Ace Patrol, Paper Titans, Star Command and Year Walk. Some of these games were free (as in free-to-play), some were $2 or $3. Most of them are pretty good and some of them look beautiful. After my purchase they had all downloaded and installed in about 10 minutes, and then I was playing away.

It sounds trivial, but that kind of elegant experience and low price fundamentally undoes many of the basic precepts of the old way of looking at things. I don’t just mean that the games are cheaper and more easily accessed (although that’s a part of it). They are much more disposable. $0.99 spent on Angry Birds Friends is just a lot less of a commitment than $69.99 spent on Call of Duty, and that means players are much more likely to drop a game if it’s not instantly engaging.

It also means that players have access to vastly more games and can try tons of them before they find the one that’s right for them. This means that marketing stories, as opposed to platform stories, are more important than ever. Recognition, resonance and so on matter more because the one thing you (as a game maker) don’t have is the guaranteed attention that comes with a platform sugar daddy.

Almost all the really interesting stuff is happening anywhere but console because of access and price. It’s relatively easy to be on iOS (though hard to be successful there because of so much competition) compared to Xbox Live. It’s much easier to connect to fans through general-purpose devices that also sell games than games machines that also sell content. This applies just as much to the bingo-gaming business or the frontier of indie development.

Some would say that all this proves is that Apple became the new king, but if so Tim Cook wears a fairly disinterested crown. The iOS shift was more like the old computer revolution than a dedicated gaming movement. And while games certainly make up a huge part of that experience today, Apple (and Google and Facebook, too) operate a curation/aggregation marketplace rather than the traditional dictatorial console platform.

There is no king any more, not like we used to know anyway. And little need for him to return.

Nobody Needs The Targaryens

In the Song of Ice and Fire, Daenerys Targaryen is on an extended quest to form her armies and return to take back the crown of Westeros in the belief that this is her divine right. At some point I think, perhaps in a later book, there’ll come a moment when she realizes that she was wrong. In fact my bet is that the Iron Throne is eventually melted for scrap. I feel a similar way about games.

A common counter-argument to all the new school game thinking seems to say “Okay, okay, fine. All these touch-based games are all well and good, but they can’t do Halo 4.” In other words, phones and tablets are for casuals, but real gamers know the score. They know that the mono/oligopoly approach is right, and is where the good games come from. They are waiting for a new king.

Actually, “real gamers” (whoever they are) are actually often to be found playing indie games on Steam and funding Kickstarter projects. Many of the most significant games in that sphere get their first breaks elsewhere, such as Minecraft. Many of the big trends happen well outside official platforms, where the conversation is more connected. Meanwhile the would-be kings operate what amounts to a television model, while Valve is proposing to create a Steam Box that gets around the console problem once and for all.

This means dedicated devices like the PS3 are actually second- or even third-string platforms now. My friend Mike Bithell, for example, released Thomas Was Alone first on a variety of small PC-download stores, then Steam, and only much more recently on PSN. He doesn’t need official sanction to go make his game, just Unity and some way to accept credit card payments. And that means Sony comes calling to him rather than the other way around.

In addition, the presumed hardware advantage of consoles is less impressive than ever. Halo 4 may weave a big song and dance, tell a story, and also put you in the game world with haptic feedback. But when I look at wonderfully stylized games like Year Walk, I remember that the actual story in Halo 4 felt largely like a re-run of bad Babylon 5 episodes.

And as for the joypad factor? Well OUYA, Gamestick, GamePop and other microconsoles are becoming more and more interesting. They’re trying to bring a lot of that app store thinking to your television at a low price, and while that idea has yet to cross the chasm into the mainstream, it seems only a matter of time. At the moment, more “royalist” elements of gaming journalism tend to think of microconsoles as 3DOs (primarily asking who are the devices supposed to be for) and evaluating their chances based on the criteria of “proper” consoles. But, as Darrell wrote yesterday, that’s probably the wrong way to look at them.

However what is apparent is just how trivial they could make the joypad-gap seem. And did I mention how they almost all work with Android and Unity?

The Republic of Gaming

It’s highly unlikely that any major console will win the Iron Throne ever again. Gaming is changing from a monarchic model to something approaching a democratic one, where a flood of formats and cross-platform solutions overcome monolithic ideas of quality and price, and of the need to choose a platform to be the king.

The old kings are still carrying on as though they’re playing the game of thrones, trying to out-maneuver one another with a raft of press events. But what you’ve got ask yourself is whether all of that is just so much noise and bluster celebrating the emperor’s new clothes?