Still blasting away Halo's Covenant hordes on your Xbox 360, or ripping out guts as God of War's Kratos on your PS3? Your days are numbered — and I'm not talking about how far you're going to make it in these games.
Game developers, it turns out, are abandoning the venerable video-game console even faster than gamers themselves. The Game Developers Conference, which opens next month in San Francisco, recently asked 2,500 developers about their plans for next-generation consoles. The results were, shall we say, not encouraging for the likes of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.
Specifically, the GDC asked developers which platforms they had last developed for, which platforms they were developing for now, and on which platforms they planned their next game. To no big surprise, tablets and phones are increasingly winning over developers: 38 percent wrote their last game for mobile devices, 55 percent moved to mobile for their latest game, and 58 percent plan their next game there.
Compare that to Sony's PS3. Thirteen percent of respondants called themselves current PS3 developers, and just 12.4 percent planned their next game for the PS3. The Xbox 360 only does slightly better: 13.2 percent for now, and 14 percent for the future. (Eleven percent of the devs polled said they're making games for the next-generation PlayStation 4 and the "Xbox 720," or whatever Microsoft ends up calling the 360's successor.)
And don't even think about Nintendo's Wii or dedicated handheld game devices. Just 4.6 percent of developers are actively making a Wii game, although 6.4 percent say they'll do so in the future. A mere 4.2 percent are working PlayStation Vita games, with about 5 percent saying they have future plans. Barely 2.8 percent say they're developing future games for the Nintendo DS.
And Then There's The PC
More than half of the surveyed developers, or 53%, self-identified as "indie" developers — i.e., they're not associated with megacorps like Electronic Arts that are solely devoted to turning out the next blockbuster. Which may help explain one of the survey's more surprising findings, which is that many of these developers are actually once again warming to PCs and Macs.
Those stats don't lie: 34.6 percent of developers say they've developed PC/Mac games in the past, 48 percent are doing so now, and 49 percent plan future games.
Of course, you could reasonably ask what choice they have. It's incredibly difficult to eke out a living selling 99-cent games through Apple's App Store or Google Play. And sales of video-game consoles are in precipitous decline. In 2012, sales of video game consoles, software, and peripherals fell 22 percent to $13.3 billion, according to retail tracker NPD.
By contrast, mobile games are upending the traditional "mobile console" handheld devices such as the Vita and the Nintendo DS, according to a report (PDF) co-authored by IDC and app analyst firm App Annie. Combined game sales on the iOS and Android app stores are now higher than revenues generated by the mobile consoles — even though games on the Vita can be ten to fifty times more expensive. And that's not even counting ad revenue generated by free and nearly free game apps.
Why mobile? Chris Akhavan, senior vice president of partnerships for mobile game monetization services provider Tapjoy, explains that the reach of mobile games — 207 million iOS and Android devices combined, compared to the 70 million PS3s in the market, is the first driver. And mobile hardware is constantly, iteratively improving, while consoles only refresh every seven years or so.
"The second is a lower barrier to entry," Akhavan told me in an email. He went on:
Mobile platforms are much more open than a console, and don’t have the restrictions of a working with a publisher. Console game development comes with a much bigger price: big title console game studios maintain budgets around $80 - $100 million, while most small to mid-size mobile gaming studios have budget closer to $200,000 - $400,000.
However, mobile game development budgets are growing because of the final contributing factor: earnings potential. Supercell reports earnings around $1 million per day for its games, and Gungho’s Puzzles and Dragons game is bringing in around $2 million daily. The monetization potential on mobile is much higher, and coupled with a lower development cost, there’s a huge opportunity to earn significant revenue.
Why Consoles Suck
What's the most telling sign of the demise of the traditional video game? Sequelitis. Each of 2012's top-ten bestselling games — every single one — has been done before: Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Madden NFL 13, Halo 4, even Just Dance 4 and Borderlands 2.
Compare that to the vast array of indie games being developed for the PC, Mac, and tablets. Sure, you've probably never heard of many of those. But for just a dollar or two a pop, you can afford to try them out. Who needs top-tier review sites? A collection of four- and five-star reviews (along with a careful parsing of the review scores, to ensure that the developer is not "paying" for good reviews through in-game currency or other goodies) can fill the bill.
Let's face it: for those with less and less time to game, episodic and casual games fill the bill, especially while riding trains and during "downtime" with no access to a console. Gamers can be online and playing in seconds. One of the most interesting tests will be platforms like the Ouya, which features a traditional console that plays mobile games.
That's not to say that any given mobile game is a guaranteed winner; Mark Fidelman makes the case that most game developers are chasing imaginary profits. Still, how long can it be before the conservative mindset of console game developers drives more and more gamers away from the console and back onto their phones? Sure, for those who have never played a Call of Duty game, the experience can be, well, cinematic. But for those who detest being handheld along from checkpoint to checkpoint, the experience, is well, cinematic. (Ugh.)
And when you do it again, and again, and again... well, maybe it's time to take a break with some Angry Birds.
Lede image courtesy of Flickr user gongus, CC 2.0