Games and Good Enough

Two months ago I wrote How Apple TV Might Disrupt Microsoft and Sony. Then, about a month later, I went and bought a Wii U. And, a month after that, I bought a 3DS. And now I’m writing another article about gaming, and I think I’ve changed my mind.

Still, it’s always dangerous to write about anything based on little more than your personal experience, so I’ve been trying to get up to speed on what is happening with gaming. And it’s actually pretty darn encouraging. Sony has sold 10 million PS4s, while Microsoft has sold at least 5 million Xbox Ones. Nintendo is still hurting, but Mario Kart 8 has moved 2.82 million copies while the 3DS now has 9 titles that have sold more than 1 million units. Meanwhile, in PC land Nvidia beat expectations largely because of continued growth in demand for their GeForce graphics processors. At the same time, mobile game companies like King are struggling, and the iPad, which so many – including myself – presumed would take a big chunk out of consoles, has seen its sales slow dramatically (last quarter it was down nine percent year-over-year).

So why did I buy not one but two new consoles? And what, if anything, might that have to do with these rather impressive results?

Last fall I wrote what is probably still my favorite piece on this site: What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong. In the piece I took the idea of low-end disruption head-on. Basically, the theory states that in an immature market, the integrated solution has the advantage, but as a market matures, modular solutions become “good-enough” and are able to leverage a price advantage – and, over time, a scale advantage – to take over the market.

My fundamental contention was that this theory primarily applied to business markets where the buyer was not the user and prices and feature lists reigned supreme. In consumer markets, on the other hand, where the buyer and user are the same person, there would always be a significant part of the population that prioritized the user experience only an integrated solution can deliver, making the high end a profitable segment despite higher prices. My prime example was, of course, the continued success of the iPhone in the face of good-enough Android (please do read the whole thing).

And yet, when I wrote How Apple TV Might Disrupt Microsoft and Sony, I basically built my entire argument on the idea of low-end disruption. My thesis was that a general purpose Apple TV would offer good enough gaming that would appeal to a significant part of the population, and, over time, peel away even those at the high end. That’s what made my 3DS purchase in particular so interesting.

John Gruber perfectly articulated why the 3DS and any future Nintendo handheld is doomed in More on Nintendo and Handheld Gaming:

What’s different about the post-iPhone world of mobile computing is that the buying decision is no longer about or, it’s about and. Pre-iPhone, someone interested in a handheld game device would choose between Nintendo’s offering or someone else’s. Nintendo did well in that world, selling more than enough devices to succeed. Today, though, someone deciding to buy a dedicated handheld game device is, more likely than not, deciding whether to buy something to carry in addition to the mobile device they already carry everywhere. This is an entirely new scenario for Nintendo, and as I see it, they are on course to head right over a cliff.

It’s actually worse than Gruber likely realized: the 3DS is a pretty atrocious piece of hardware relative to an iPhone. Because of the silly inclusion of 3D, the effective resolution is only 400×240 on the DS’s main screen, and it is absolutely brutal to look at. This is not a situation where post-PC devices are on pace to deliver superior graphics: they are already years ahead.

And yet, screen quality notwithstanding, I have probably put in more gaming hours on the 3DS in the last two weeks than I have in the previous two years on the iPhone. Because here’s the thing: touch sucks for playing games.1 The experience of using a dedicated device with built-in gaming controls and games designed specifically for said device mean a great deal to this user and buyer. It means enough that, especially when I’m traveling, I will gladly carry an additional device.

Again, as I noted at the top, I very much hesitate to read too much into my own personal experience. But I’m beginning to suspect that consoles may be a bit more resilient than many of us in tech may have first believed. And, by extension, I suspect my critique of low-end disruption may have legs: when users are buyers the user experience matters, immensely. And the user experience of a console is, and likely will remain, far ahead of any sort of touch device when it comes to many (but not all) types of games. Moreover, I now suspect that an Apple TV that supports gaming will be less disruptive than I suggested as well; as long as the controller is optional, as I suspect it would be, the immersive experience of a dedicated console will be optional as well.

That’s not to say the gaming business is going to thrive: in this Nintendo is indeed a cautionary tale. It seems increasingly clear that the Wii’s incredible success was the worst thing that could have happened to the company. What made the Wii such a hit was that it dramatically increased the market for consoles: lots of people who would not have normally been interested in a PS3 or Xbox 360-type device couldn’t resist Wii Sports. The problem, though, is that the Wii market, by virtue of not being people who particularly valued the traditional gaming experience, was the exact same market likely to see touch gaming as good enough. Keep in mind the Wii launched at the end of 2006, just weeks before the iPhone. In retrospect it was the last hurrah of the gaming middle ground, of a piece with the iPod, point-and-shoot cameras, and other dedicated but low-end devices.

What has happened in all of those markets – indeed, what is happening to smartphones as well – is a bifurcation between the high and low ends. Cameras is a particularly good example: DSLR sales have remained strong2 even as the point-and-shoot cateogry has all but disappeared, replaced by good enough smartphone cameras. That’s the exact same pattern we’re seeing in gaming: the PS4 (and to a lesser degree, the Xbox One) are doing much better than expected, while the lower-priced and lower-specced Wii U is hurting. Nintendo’s mistake was not realizing that the Wii’s market was devoured by touch devices; they should have built a console that was top-of-the-line.

There is one more fascinating parallel between Android/iOS and touch gaming/console gaming: even though Android has far greater market share, the best apps are generally found on iOS largely because the most money is there. Similarly, while gaming as a whole was worth $93 billion last year, only $13 billion of that was in mobile, and much of that in free-to-play games like Candy Crush Saga that appeal to very different players than traditional gamers. In other words, it’s not at all a given that publishers will abandon consoles simply because the market share of mobile devices is greater.

In short, I believe there are factors more important than just market share, at least when it comes to smartphones. Why not when it comes to games?

  1. Board games on the iPad being the big exception, at least for me 

  2. They did start to slip last Christmas