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Last time I took a reasonably long train journey, I had a look at the electronic devices which ended up in my bag and was struck by an interesting conclusion. There was, of course, a mobile phone, and a digital music player. In addition, I brought a laptop, a PlayStation Portable, and a digital camera.
The conclusion I reached wasn't that I'm a tremendous gadget nerd, or that I'm a walking magnet for muggers, however; rather, it had to do with the functions of these various devices.
Of the five devices in my rucksack, four of them can play music; three of them can take pictures or video; three of them can access my email or browse the web; two of them can play back high quality video. And games? A grand total of four of them can play pretty good games of some description.
From playing World of Warcraft on my laptop or Grand Theft Auto on my PSP, to Tomb Raider on my mobile phone or Tetris on my iPod, the vast bulk of the devices I chose to bring with me - none of which I'd actually brought with the intention of playing any games - were perfectly capable of providing a high quality gaming experience of some description.
This fact sprang to mind once again this week when a senior figure at leading casual games firm PopCap casually dropped the bombshell that the firm is working with Apple on getting games up and running on the Apple TV platform.
If you haven't encountered this platform, it's an unobtrusive box which is designed to stream high quality content from PCs and Macs to high definition televisions over home networks - far from the first device to do so, but certainly one of the most high profile entries into the market.
It's a system aimed squarely at home users who want a simple solution for downloading and playing movies and TV shows on their living room TVs - and now it has been identified as a target for an Xbox Live Marketplace style service for downloadable games. The comparison is more than valid, since the architect of PopCap's expansion onto platforms including Apple TV will be none other than Greg Canessa, who was involved in the creation of the Xbox Live Arcade service while working for Microsoft.
Now, Apple TV is a totally new platform and its success is far from guaranteed, so I'm by no means suggesting that this move alone is going to shake up the industry - but it is indicative of a new attitude to videogames and their place in the consumer electronics space which has been emerging in recent years.
Put in the simplest terms, videogame hardware has been commoditised - where even five years ago, building a device that supported even simple videogames was a daunting task for a consumer electronics firm, such processing and graphical power is now the rule rather than the exception in modern devices.
Crossing the divide
The rise of casual gaming, which I touched on in last week's editorial, has occurred in parallel with this sea-change in the consumer electronics space - and now, many popular games (including some top games for Xbox Live Arcade) are developed on easily portable, platform independent systems such as Macromedia Flash.
Any device powerful enough to play back high quality video - whether it's an iPod, a Zune, an Apple TV box, a mobile phone, or any one of countless other modern gadgets - is easily powerful enough to play decent interactive games.
This is still the tip of the iceberg, however. Many such devices are currently restricted to 2D games or very simple 3D; however, 3D hardware costs are rapidly plummeting, and consumer demand for attractive, 3D-embellished user interfaces (such as those sported by desktop operating systems like Vista and OSX) will inevitably drive hardware 3D capabilities into even the most unlikely of devices.
Within a surprisingly short space of time, your digital music player will probably be perfectly up to the task of playing a PSone game. The video device under your television will probably rival the PS2, or maybe the Xbox.
The incredible opportunities presented by such a scenario are obvious. When we arrive at a point where device manufacturers simply throw in game playing capabilities by default, much as they do with music playback or image viewers right now, the sheer ubiquity of game capable devices will expand the market vastly.
However, the example of the mobile phone market provides a sobering lesson which is worth considering. Of the countless millions of handsets out there which are capable of downloading and playing games, only a tiny number have ever actually done so - and the oft-touted fact that most mobile phone users have played Snake at some point merely highlights the failure to convert the potential userbase into an actual userbase.
The mobile games industry went wrong in a number of key areas, and actually, a lot of it wasn't the fault of the companies dedicated to mobile gaming - the networks and the handset manufacturers have to carry the can in this area to a large extent.
Games on mobile phones are an utter pain to access, too expensive to be a simple impulse buy, incredibly inconsistent in quality and often radically different experiences on different handsets. In an era when not only mobile phones but countless other devices feature ubiquitous game support, this problem could be amplified to the point where making a profit from such ubiquity is near-impossible.
Or, alternatively, the industry and the technology firms involved in driving forward this revolution could resolve, now, to start building a sensible, limited number of reference specifications - not only for the hardware, but crucially, for the software platforms which drive that hardware.
Companies such as Adobe / Macromedia are obvious players, with Flash being such a key technology for casual games; Java is another major candidate, doubly so since it is already built into so many consumer devices.
Nintendo, Sega and perhaps even Sony stand to make a killing here - by licensing emulation layers for systems such as the SNES, Mega Drive / Genesis, or PlayStation, the potential for making the videogames industry's back catalogue open to a huge new audience could be unlocked. It's not hard to envisage an amazing and hugely lucrative situation where PlayStation and SNES games are sold on services such as iTunes for playing back on iPods and other such devices.
This is, of course, a utopian view - but it's worth highlighting the immense possibilities presented by such a scenario. For years, the industry has lamented the lack of a genuine "long tail" on its products, by comparison with movies and music which continue to sell for decades, and even now the solutions being presented by Xbox Live Arcade, Wii Virtual Console and PlayStation Store are stopgap at best.
The emergence of ubiquitous gaming functionality in consumer devices opens up an opportunity not just for casual game developers to extend their already formidable reach; it also means that the industry at large could finally tap a market which will give it the sort of long tail sales it so desires. The opportunity unquestionably exists; the difficulty, as ever, will lie in grasping it.
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