the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Importance of the Smartphones’ Ubiquity

The Importance of the Smartphones’ Ubiquity

This entry is part 4 of David’s series on The Future of Gaming. Click for parts 1, 2 or 3.

In our last entry, we covered why exactly the App Store paradigm is one of the chief factors behind the present revolution in gaming, and how the paradigm is certain to be a part of any vision of what the future of gaming will look like. It’s difficult to imagine a system winning that once again limits development to big names, so long as there is a quality assurance system in place (unlike the trend that doomed the Atari in the early 1980s), and most instantiations of the App Store paradigm have something like that available.

We’ve already seen this paradigm working its way into the console gaming industry. The Xbox 360 has its Xbox Live Arcade; the PlayStation 3 and PSP have their PlayStation Network; the Wii has Wii Shop; and the DS has DSiWare. You could even make a case that Steam is an instantiation of the App Store paradigm for PCs, and we know that Apple has created an App Store for its Macs as well. There’s not much question about the rise of that paradigm.

However, that paradigm alone is not responsible for the iPhone’s success; rather, the more important factor behind it is what’s best referred to as its ubiquity. Ubiquity means that quality of being everywhere, of everyone having it. Having a ubiquitous platform on which to develop means a significantly larger audience, both in theory and in practice. You’ll notice that for this article, I’ve switched the title to Smartphones instead of iPhones, and that’s intentional: while the App Store paradigm is something best-observed in iPhones, this quality of ubiquity can be seen in smartphones of all kinds. It start with the most financial thing of all…

Justifiably Higher Device Price

One of the reasons the PlayStation 3 arguably flopped was because of its exorbitantly high device price of $600 upon its first release. Gaming is a hobby, and while the hardcore gamers might drop that kind of dough for the console, it’s not going to reach a large audience that way. Who wants to pay $600 for something that only plays games? But this is where the iPhone differentiates itself from all the other App Store copycats on the consoles. The iPhone does not only play games. It doesn’t even primarily play games. Sure, no one wants to spend $600 on a device that only plays games, but what about on a device that plays games, makes phone calls, surfs the internet, and — for all intents and purposes — is its own portable computer? The fact that it plays games is an added bonus rather than the crux of the device’s purpose, and that is something that the other console manufacturers are not currently even trying to address. They make consoles that play games, whereas Apple (and the other smartphone manufacturers) make devices that serve a multitude of purposes. The iPhone and smartphones have a lot of other things going for them, but those aren’t as significant to the future of gaming. The important thing here is this: in the future of gaming, gaming will exist on devices whose primary purpose probably isn’t even gaming. In other words, the future of gaming is apparently PC gaming… except, not really, since by the end of this series I’ll explain why the future of gaming will subsume both PC and console gaming.

Augmented Reality

In addition to residing on a justifiably more expensive medium given that smartphones exist for far more than just gaming, smartphones are also uniquely equipped to address many of the growing trends in gaming. I’ll be discussing four in these two sections, but the first deserves a section of its own: smartphone gaming is perfectly suited to augmented reality and to real-time gaming. Augmented reality is the more intriguing trend of these two: augmented reality literally means drawing on certain elements from your surroundings. What is better equipped for this than the iPhone? I’m not talking about the 3DS’s camera-based games that plop images onto it video feed: I mean real augmented reality. We’re talking games that know your location from the GPS and can react accordingly. We’re talking about games on devices that are naturally designed to interact with one another in a real environment. We’re talking about a game that knows you, your personal details, your likes and dislikes — though more about that in the next section. Smartphones’ capability for uniquely augmenting reality is a perfect meld of technology and culture. In order for these things to work, the games have to exist on a medium that has the technical capability to access this information: GPS information, personal preferences, interactions with other devices, camera feeds, etc. But Nintendo can make a device that does all these things — what makes smartphones different? Smartphones are different because people actually use them in these ways. They’re ubiquitous. You have them on you at all times, so designers can assume you’ll have them on you at all times. But more about that in the next few sections; these points all blur together.

Personal Connections

The other three unique features smartphones provide are personal, social, and real-time connections. I alluded to personal connections above: personal connections are games that know you and know about you. They can sculpt the gameplay environment to facilitate your skills and preferences, and more importantly, they can infuse more of you into the game environment. No longer are you moving Mario across a screen or Link through a dungeon; whether it’s used or not, smartphones have the capability to really infuse you into the game. Don’t think I’m talking about glorified avatar creation; I’m talking about games that know you’ve gone out of town, games that know when you’re at work, games that know what your favorite shows are and react accordingly. There’s ample opportunity for game design in this realm, and it increases tenfold when you consider the social aspect of things. No longer is playing and beating a game just about the personal accomplishment — now it’s social, it’s share with friends, and oftentimes it’s done in conjunction with friends. It’s a trend many of us laugh at and hate, but it’s the Farmville trend. Farmville exploded in popularity because it’s a way to play games with your actual, real friends over the ubiquitous medium of Facebook. It grew because of its social aspect — and, as part of its design, it spurred a new trend in gaming toward real-time gaming. Real-time games are games that you don’t sit and play for an hour and then stop — these are games that require your attention at various times of the day. What better medium for games like this than a device that is always in your pocket? Make no mistake: gone are the days when you sit and play a game for a set amount of time and the game experience is basically the same for everyone. The trend is toward personal, social, real-time games, and smartphones are perfectly situated to both perpetuate and capitalize on that trend.

Cultural Portability

I alluded to this up in the augmented reality section, but this is perhaps the biggest reason why smartphone gaming is taking off the way it is. It’s an unfortunate truth of today’s society, but gaming just doesn’t look cool. It just doesn’t. Many of us don’t care, but the truth is that a good portion of people just aren’t going to carry a Nintendo DS around with them all the time. They’re not going to pull it out the subway, on a break in their office or in the hall between classes. Some will, sure, but the majority won’t. There’s a stigma attached to dedicated gaming consoles, and no matter how the PSP and Nintendo DS try to market themselves differently, they still haven’t even come close to overcoming it. On top of this stigma, there’s the fact that it’s generally just not worth it to carry your portable game system with you everywhere. I used to have my DS in my backpack all the time, until one day I realized I flat-out never used it outside of my home. Opportunities just don’t present themselves often enough to the general populous to make it worth carrying it around. Smartphones, however, overcome that by not being game consoles in the first place. Phones are ubiquitous in modern culture; everyone has one, everyone carries it with them all the time, and most people use them fairly regularly. Because of this, not only is it naturally worth it to have with you, but it’s also culturally acceptable. Fiddling around on your phone on a break at the office is just that: fiddling around. Moreover, even if it’s obvious you’re playing a game, you’re playing it on your phone: you’re not labeled as the type of person that spends $200 on a portable game system, you’re labeled as the type of person that spends $5 on a game for a device you already had. That’s cultural portability: not only is it literally portable, but it’s culturally accepted to use it portably.

Ubiquity Begets Ubiquity

There’s a dynamic at play in modern technology that basically boils down to “the rich get richer”. The most important thing to have is popularity, and things that get popular become more popular because others want to come and join that userbase. That’s an effect of the Facebook Era — the most important thing for something to have is a lot of people using it in the first place. Lots of systems are designed in such a way that they aren’t useful or engaging until they have a large userbase — but how do you get a large userbase without being useful and engaging in the first place? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, but smartphones answer it perfectly. Because smartphones have become so ubiquitous, they actually become more ubiquitous. A smartphone is useful when you are the only person in the world that has one, but it becomes significantly more useful when everyone else you know has one as well. Similarly, I’m over here, poor, starving graduate student that I am, and I’m still using a flip phone. I’m missing out on far more by not having a smartphone than I would be if no one else had a smartphone, either. That’s ubiquity begetting ubiquity — that’s a device that’s already popular becoming more popular because it’s popular. That’s the most amazing thing for a product to achieve, and smartphones have achieved it. Consoles? Not so much. With a three-way console war battling over a much more narrow demographic than smartphones fight for, consoles can never reach the kind of ubiquity that smartphones have, and thus, smartphones will always have a leg up on the potential when it comes to gaming.

What does this all mean for the future of gaming? The biggest takeaway here might be that the future of gaming isn’t gaming — at least, not dedicated gaming. Dedicated gaming consoles, much to the joy of PC gamers, are a dying breed. That’s a bold statement considering the current climate, but I earnestly believe that in 15 years time, the majority of gaming will not take place on dedicated gaming consoles. It’ll take place on devices we use for everything else in our lives. That’s a step forwards; it’s a win-win. Developers will have more to work with through justifiably more expensive consoles and extra information to use to make an engaging experience, and gamers will win by being able to bring our favorite games with us on the go, in both a literally possible and a socially acceptable way.

I know what you might be thinking, though. You think I’m crazy because a smartphone can never deliver the type of user experience you get from a big TV, surround sound, and a controller in your hand. You might also be thinking that everything I’m saying here ignores other trends, like 3D gaming and motion gaming. And you’d be right. But we’re not done here. All those questions will be answered by the time we’re done. Next, I’ll try to convince you that OnLive really is the console killer — not in its current incarnation and probably not even by that company, but the paradigm it introduces will have a profound effect on gaming.


  1. Superb article, so much so I just had to comment :P Having recently come into possession of a smartphone (about 5 days ago to be precise), I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written about. Especially the cultural acceptance, which actually gets to me because I hate the prevalence of this gaming stigma. I’d carry my bloody Xbox around with me if only I had somewhere to plug it in.

    Your argument is so strong that I find myself concerned. I don’t want these sorts of gaming markets to overtake the consoles, I love my console, I love what it has to offer but sadly, your points are so compelling and tragically true. Very much looking forward to your next article.

    • Thanks! On the bright side, the rest of my articles are going to focus on how smartphones can still deliver the gaming quality of modern consoles — so these markets won’t overtake consoles so much as they’ll subsume them.

  2. I just got an iPhone about a week ago, and instantly I became a convert to the mobile gaming scene. I love that I’m able to pick up and play games in short five minute spurts while I’m on a break at work. And then if I don’t feel like playing anymore, I can instantly pause, quit, and then browse Twitter or something.

    However, I’m not sure that kind of experience could entirely replace a dedicated gaming experience. Maybe this is just me because I grew up with consoles and younger people who grew up with smartphones will feel differently. As much as I love playing Game Dev Story on my phone, sometimes I want to sit with a controller in hand and play something on my nice, big HDTV. They’re two different experiences that are both wholly valid. Perhaps consoles themselves will consolidate somehow where we won’t have multiple gaming consoles, but a single one. However, I don’t see the TV-based gaming experience going away entirely.

    • I use almost your exact same phrasing in the next two weeks’ articles about how mobile gaming can’t replace the big screen, controller, surround sound, etc. — I think you’ll enjoy it!

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