We are at the cusp of a generational shift in the living room. The Nintendo Wii U, the sequel to the most popular game console in history, was just released. It was the first in a series of salvos aimed at transforming the TV, the next up is the indy darling console from Ouya, then the new Xbox, then perhaps Apple, and there are rumors of Valve entering the fray as well.
Is it even worth it?
The tablet feels like the future, and it certainly is. With that in mind it’s easy to look at the set top box war as something akin to the war between HD-DVD and Blueray, a kind of annoying sideshow on the way to an all digital media future. Isn’t everyone just going to play games and watch movies on their iphone and ipad?
I don’t buy it.
It’s worth remembering that in games, this has happened before.
Back in the day there were consoles, and they were awesome but getting a little long in the tooth. Then this new, mobile, portable, device came out that changed everything in mobile gaming. Yes, the graphics were worse than a console, but it was in your pocket convenience, and it was multiplayer. And it took off like a ROCKET.
It was the Nintendo DS. Every kid got one, they were transformative in a way that the Gameboy never was. And once they played, they engaged socially in Mario Kart, Pokemon, and other games in places they never could with a console. The average number of minutes of kids playing games went WAY up, and with games like Nintendogs & Brain Age there were a whole group of non gamers (mostly older women) who bought it as well.
But, a funny thing happened. This huge mobile explosion of play, of convenience and disruption that is textbook Innovators Dilemma, it DID NOT cause the console to die. You would think it would make the console suddenly “niche” and just for hardcore users. Somewhat like what the iPhone is doing to the compact camera market, but it didn’t.
In fact, it just expanded the market for consoles. It made more people think of themselves as gamers — it paved the way for a new generation of consoles (like the Wii & Xbox) to become the fastest selling, highest penetration consoles ever.
It’s worth noting that during the last few years TV watching has not gone down. And while retail sales of consoles are down, overall time spent is up. While there may be some replacement play, the much more important trend is that the ”media pie” is getting bigger overall. It is more about expansion of the market than cannibalization.
The tablet is a new world for media, including gaming. It’s amazing. It will likely kill the DS, for sure.
And it will introduce a whole new generation of people to consider themselves gamers, or re-find their gaming past.
And then some subset of those users will buy a console to enrich their experience. It won’t be “powered by their tablet” the same way the DS didn’t power the Wii. Because it’ll be inspired by, but not the same, experience. It’ll be something new, and fresh, and interesting - and it is just as likely to come from incumbents as a new upstart.