Is Mobile Gaming The New Core Gaming?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Let’s talk about perspective. People’s understanding of “the games industry” is usually much smaller than it actually is. They tend to think in terms of the platforms that they play as the heart of everything and then extrapolate outward. And the groups of people who do that tend to clump together, forming subcultures.

But not all subcultures are created equal. Many a games journalist or YouTuber, for example, operates largely within a dichotomy that considers console and PC gaming as “core”. All else (Facebook, web, mobile) is considered casual. Indeed some segments (casino, sports, gasification) are considered to verge on evil.

This mental model of the industry has fed its media and developers for a long time. Go to the pages of any major gaming site and you’ll see it in action. Gamespot, to take a random example, splits the topline of its blog content along platform lines like “PS4”, “Wii U” and so on. These are also the sites that prop up E3 for the most part, acting as the big press organs to spread the gaming evangel.

The “core” mental model has just been the tradition of how games have grown up. Since the year dot it’s been consoles and computers, each vying for attention at one time or another. It’s been self-identifying gamers, and a rich sub-culture has grown up around them. Video games, the narrative tells us, are taking over the world. Games are bigger than movies. Everyone’s a gamer. Maybe so, but if they are then that takeover is not happening from the 150m or so “core” gamers that have more or less been an incrementally growing bloc for the last 10 years. They love the narrative of being the masters of the media universe but they’re not really.

Consider this report that Sony PS4 is crushing other next generation consoles. The gaming media is very excited by this news. In many ways gaming reporters have a long love affair with Sony and had been waiting for the company to come out of the madness of its PS3 days, and when it indicated that the fever had passed they rejoiced. And they continue to do so. In the gaming world this number is a vindication of the Tolkien-esque rise, fall and rise again. King Sony has returned to Gondor, and such and such. (But King Sony is losing money hand over fist to get there).

And yet, as I pointed out on Twitter, 13.5m’s all well and good until you consider that Apple sold 10m iPhones in a weekend, and it sells between 12 and 14m iPads per quarter. Then you have Samsung selling frankly hilarious numbers of its devices and even Microsoft selling nearly a billion dollars worth of Surfaces. That’s 3m or more machines, or nearly half the number of Xbox Ones that it’s sold to date.

Now I know many core fans are rushing to type that just because people are buying phones and tablets does not make them gamers. That there may be millions more such machines out there selling every year, but the heart of the gaming culture is still with the core. This increasingly looks like an outright fiction.

Mobile is set to outpace the console industry in terms of revenue in 2015 according to Newzoo. Yes, you heard right. Tiny little app games that may or may not be free to play are set to eclipse mighty console in terms of dollars and cents. And moreover to grow a full 30% beyond that into 2017, which pretty much eats PC gaming too.

When you consider the money involved this is pretty staggering news, but even more staggering is what it says about reach. Console and PC games are often $40-$60 a pop, still seeking that premium dollar and working to get high ARPU. Mobile games are diminutive by comparison, with a $5 price point considered a big deal, and the usual value being more like $2. For mobile to eclipse premium products so comprehensively means there are potentially 20-30 times as many mobile game players out there than on older platforms.

Now can we really still claim that console and PC are the “core” while mobile is casual? Isn’t it time to rethink that language? Mobile isn’t slowing down. It’s not a temporary bubble from which all will eventually recover their sanity and return to old faithful. It’s already had several periods of excitement and stagnation, rejuvenation and exploitation. But people are still downloading apps like crazy anyway. Their appetite is permanent. Mobile, I’m willing to say, is now the core.

Analogies to cinema and television abound. Perhaps core as the big budget gaming experience and mobile and the make-do TV that isn’t available when it’s around. But I don’t think that holds much water. In the cinema/TV model there is a common user that chooses between the two depending on mood. This is not the case in gaming because platform selection requires platform purchase. The difference is more like the people who like music versus the people who like high end music hardware. It’s a harder choice.

The old “core” thus becomes the new “specialist”. Gaming gains a mainstream while its old subculture reinforces its position in an ever-narrowing landscape. That’s how it works. Now what’s left is for the more artistic side of mobile gaming development and publishing to step up creatively and – as I said last week – provide the HBO side to mobile culture.

This shift and its further potential brings up many interesting questions for developers. One is whether mobile is quietly building an army of new-gamers (as it were), folks for whom the past associations with gaming are tangental. Another is whether we’ll start to see a proper media develop around mobile gaming. That’s kind of a weird question given where we are today, but again that’s largely a matter of perspective. We only think it’s strange because we don’t see it yet.

But a third issue is whether mobile will be the bridge to permit the broadening of games. If I were a woman in games I’d really be asking whether I wanted to build on the older platforms any more given the demons that apparently live there (indeed as a man in games I’m asking the same question). Would I want to bother with all the old platforms and their conservative perspectives, or just aim for a fresh start? Does it really matter what the Steam crowd thinks versus what the iPhone or Android crowd might go for?

As I said at the start, it’s about perspective. As the shambling lich of Gamergate wanders around looking for the means to regenerate and finding none it reveals a hardened quality of the old core that is both unsavory and increasingly intolerant. It’s also smaller than it appears, demanding and expensive. As mobile becomes “the new core”, do “the new games” really need to put up with any of that crap any more?