The future of video gaming is mobile. That's not my opinion, but seemingly the verdict of the powers that be at Konami. The legendary Japanese developer recently revealed that its "main platform will be mobiles", by which they mean (smart)phones, rather than software for the 3DS (doing fairly well) and Vita (not so much). There's still the epic Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to come before the studio properly moves away from "traditional" games-making, and likely further console titles in the pipeline (surely we'll see at least one more Pro Evo), but nevertheless: a great many Konami admirers did not take the news well.
Here are just some of the comments left on the VICE Gaming Facebook page (which you can certainly like, if you like) after Konami's position became apparent: "Anyone with a brain will drop Konami after MGSV, [it's] pretty much a redundant company in the vidya world"; "I wish nothing but failure, regret and misery on this stupid company"; "Konami is a dying company, [and] this push for mobile is just the desperate grasp before the end"; "It's sad how mobile gaming is causing great publishers and developers to abandon the traditional gaming scene."
Some harsh words from people who were card-carrying fans not so long ago, but is Konami right to move its gaming focus towards the mobile market? It's a massive name in the gaming world, sure, but it's not all about Contra and Castlevania – Konami makes plenty of money in other markets, having been active in the health and fitness sector for some time and developed casino equipment to the tune of serious dividends. It's got shareholders to consider – and with revenue falling during the 2013-14 fiscal year, the simplest fix is surely to combat the greatest costs that can't guarantee significant returns. And the development and distribution of big-budget, (usually) boxed video games, unless you can throw Destiny or Grand Theft Auto money behind a massive marketing campaign, is always a risky business.
Of course, moving into the mobile market is a massive gamble, too. Right now, over 430 new games get added to the App Store every single day. Gaming forms the largest section of apps available through the store, with double the number of available downloads than the next-biggest category, business. Standing out in this always-expanding crowd is, for a great many mobile developers, an absolute nightmare. I've had conversations with people making amazingly innovative titles for mobiles who are rocked by how their work's been lost in the flood of free-to-play behemoths and other, more-perfunctory creations awarded "editor's pick"-style prominence with an arbitrary hand. The Konami brand won't be a free pass to smartphone success, and any games the company makes exclusively for mobiles will have to be more than existing genres given a Metal Gear Solid reskin.
At least, that's the critical thinking – I mean, who in their right mind would pay for something (or not pay for it, initially, and then pump up their monthly bill with microtransactions) that's utterly rancid gameplay wise but "stands out" simply because the avatar you're guiding through the endless runner (or whatever) in question is dolled up like a Belmont? You'd hope nobody, but the truth of the matter is that free-to-play titles offering damn-near-identical experiences are The Big Thing on the mobile platform. And they're having a massive effect on the market, too, with the daily revenue for games like Clash of Clans (over a million dollars*) and Candy Crush Saga (just under a million*) taking the return on mobile games past console equivalents for the first time ever.
According to information that landed in my inbox the other day courtesy of a San Francisco- and Edinburgh-based "analytics and personalisation platform" called deltaDNA – look, it has a website – this year will mark a changing of the guard when it comes to gaming. Out with the old, in with the new – as picked up by Forbes, which reported back in January that mobile games will make in the region of $30.3 billion in 2015, versus console gaming's $24.6 billion. For any company that needs to be profiting from its games arm, these projections can only be attractive. But there's a catch to Konami's "main platform" focus – and that's the fact that console (and PC) gamers aren't going anywhere as mobile revenues climb.
Sales of Sony's PlayStation 4 are running at such a rate that, at the moment, it's out-performing the PlayStation 2, the world's highest-selling console of all time. Quoted by Forbes (in the same article linked to above), video game research firm Newzoo's chief executive Peter Warman points out that "mobile gaming does not replace console or PC gaming". Vincent van Deelen, a market analyst, adds: "Playing games on the TV or PC will not disappear." The App Store might be bigger than Steam when it comes to download numbers, virtual units shifted, but the average spend on an iOS game is significantly less than a single dollar. Apple's games-related revenue, via its commission percentage on sales, is more than Nintendo's, and it makes games, but can you really see Shigeru Miyamoto coming out and publically stating that his main focus for future Mario and Zelda titles will be smartphones?
Of course not – Nintendo might finally be looking at phone opportunities with something slightly better than a sneer, but while its first mobile game will be out before the end of 2015, its rollout will be measured (five games by 2017), with the creative focus remaining fixed on the company's proprietary formats. Video gaming's many and varied forms have easily accepted, and embraced, smartphones and their platform-specific gameplay traits – but as someone who games both at home and on the move regularly, for me the experiences are very different, as Nintendo seem to acknowledge. Which isn't to say both aren't welcomed, just that they each have their places, and I'd never want one without the availability of the other.
With only a few exceptions – the Swedish studio Simogo springs to mind – mobile gaming doesn't do story-rich games especially well, so it's to the bigger-screen titles that I turn to feel fully enveloped by my interactive entertainment. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (our review) is my latest addiction, but in the past I've sunk hundreds of hours in the Mass Effect series, a slew of open-world games from Rockstar (I expect you know the ones), and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls adventures. Hell, I even enjoy linear shooters when the fiction that supports them makes me care about the reasons why I'm gunning down so many NPCs.
But I'm never playing Scrabble on my console (assuming you can, which I assume is the case), only ever on my phone. Super Hexagon is something I only ever turn to when riding a few stops on the Tube, likewise Vlambeer's Ridiculous Fishing, and recent App Store chart-topper Alto's Adventure. These games only really work on mobile, and are rarely connected with for more than ten minutes at a time. They're great games, but small games. They don't cost a lot, and they deliver the satisfaction I expect from that outlay. Each innovates in its own way, to keep you hooked; none really has an "end", unlike the wonderful 80 Days and Monument Valley, exquisitely rare mobile titles that do straddle the line between home experience and travel companion, perfectly playable in either situation, and with a sense of finality come their scripted conclusions.
Fancy a dance? Thump.
Mobile gaming has its own language, one that's easier to understand than console and PC gaming – but that doesn't make it a better means of communicating with the medium in question. The best part of 40 years of home computing culture isn't about to be erased because Game of War's making a million and a half dollars a day* – there are people opening Machine Zone's F2P strategy title every single day that have never played Pong, or Tetris, or Super Mario Bros., or The Sims, or The Secret of Monkey Island, or Speedball 2, or Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto. Not to mention Castlevania, Contra, Metal Gear Solid, Pro Evolution Soccer and Silent Hill.
Nobody is yet saying that Konami is going to abandon its bigger games in exclusive favour of same-franchise, smaller-costs mobile development, but the decision to abandon the already hyped and so eagerly anticipated Silent Hills, which VICE Gaming already lamented, and to sever ties with Metal Gear Solid director Hideo Kojima – albeit after The Phantom Pain has come out, which it does in September – sends out some alarming signals. An emphasis on making smartphone games that turn a tidy profit could well reverse in-the-red revenues, but if Konami completely turned its attention from the console world, that'd not only be damaging to the company's reputation but also, as market analysts have made clear, quite possibly its finances.
The company's way forward has to be with a complementary, cross-platform attitude to games making, and the understanding that there isn't just the one breed of gamer in the world, moving en masse from PlayStations to iPhones. Chances are they're using both, sometimes at the same time – I know I do (I've been known to use walkthroughs, what of it?). To think otherwise, to return to those VICE Gaming commenters, really is sad – for Konami, for consumers, and for gaming culture in its fullest, purest form. Mobile gaming isn't "the future" – it's the present, and anyone hoping to capitalise on its current boom and draw profits in the immediate future is already a couple of years behind the curve.
(* At the time of writing)