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When we think of videogames, there's an understandable tendency to think in fairly restricted terms about what constitutes a gaming device. Games consoles and PCs, of course, are videogame platforms, and more recently we've started to think of mobile phones (or smartphones, at least) as games devices.
However, beyond that rather limited sphere there's an extraordinary breadth of variety in the consumer electronics market. The average consumer is likely to possess a selection of gadgets and devices which all offer far more computing power than early videogame consoles did, but which are overlooked by all but a tiny minority of players in the games industry.
Of course, most of those devices aren't suited to playing games, and some of them simply wouldn't make any commercial sense as a target platform. Nobody is looking for a videogame experience on their digital camera (although I certainly wouldn't rule out cameraphones in the same way). Other platforms, however, could potentially open up entirely new markets for videogames.
Consider, as an important example, the television. In recent years, the innards of our televisions have been becoming increasingly advanced, with more and more processing power being strapped to the back of the LCD screen in order to handle multiple streams of high-def video, interactive content and so on.
The next step, arguably, is for the television itself to become capable of running certain types of application - and indeed, recent product demonstrations have shown upcoming LCD TV models running "widgets", small applications which can fetch information from the network according to the viewer's preferences.
For example, a viewer might decide that he wants local news and weather, a graph of his stock portfolio performance (perhaps not advisable in the current climate, admittedly) and the latest updates on his favourite blogs to be available as widgets on his TV. A button press on the remote would bring the latest information up, floating above the present TV broadcast, or whatever else happens to be on screen.
This is basic stuff, but it's an important paradigm shift in terms of what a TV does. No longer a dumb display device, TVs are on the cusp of becoming intelligent screens, capable of handling interactive content without the assistance of an external box - and where the words "interactive content" are found, the word "videogames" can't be too far behind.
Of course, a handful of companies have been working on TV games for years, courtesy of the various satellite and cable boxes which sport quite limited game-playing capabilities. These pioneers, however, could merely be precursors to a far larger movement. If, as the TV companies seem to be hinting, a standard format for "widgets" can be hammered out between them, we could soon find ourselves at a point where every new TV set sold is capable of downloading and running videogames.
These won't be videogames in the sense that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 play them, of course. Intelligent television devices will be thin clients, heavily reliant on the network for their content. At best, we're probably talking about TVs which are capable of executing some form of scripted content like Macromedia's Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight - perhaps a restricted form of Java, at a push. Rich, graphically intensive games will remain the domain of dedicated console devices.
However, if the past three or four years have taught the videogames industry anything, it's that not every consumer necessarily wants or needs their entertainment to look like Gears of War or Killzone 2. The Wii and the DS, and latterly the iPhone, have shown that low-tech "disruptive" devices can make significant strides in the market, challenging game creators to rethink their perception of how games work in order to wring great experiences from systems whose abilities are far from cutting edge.
There will always be a market for dedicated games hardware, because there will always be a large number of people who want that bleeding edge experience. However, the vision of the future afforded by the movement to intelligent TV technologies is an intriguing prospect for the rest of the world, the demographics whose interests and desires simply aren't served by expensive, monolithic games consoles.
In the usage scenario manufacturers are now beginning to outline, the Menu button on your television remote doesn't just summon up options for screen adjustment or input sources. Instead, it brings up an attractive interface which summarises the wide range of content available to you. On one pane of the menu, your digital terrestrial or satellite channels appear; on another, a host of online video providers whose content you can stream on demand - either for free or through a rental system - while a further panel lists your local network devices and allows you to stream music or video from your PC. Elsewhere, you'll find widgets that you can download and install, providing functionality from social networking to stock tracking and weather.
Somewhere in this, I have no doubt, there'll be a pane labelled "Games". For rent, to purchase or acquired through a subscription - perhaps even rolled into the subscription model of cable companies, just as movie channels are today. For many consumers, perhaps even most of them, this panel will provide everything they want in terms of home interactive media. Classic videogames (probably right up to the PS2 era, in fact, since PS2-quality graphics can easily be emulated in software by modern CPUs), social and casual games, brain trainers and puzzles, licensed tie-ins with TV shows available elsewhere on the system - all of these and more, being pushed out to a potential audience that will dwarf today's console-owning demographic.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this potential future is that the technology to make it happen already exists. The chipsets, the network structures and even the software needed to power this change is out there, today. In theory, TV sets enabled for this kind of usage could start shipping this year.
The barriers which exist to this vision being realised are not technological, they are commercial. There's some discomfort in the cable business, for example, over customers moving to online, on-demand services for video content. Some online content gatekeepers like Apple and Microsoft haven't yet opened up access to their online video stores to third-party hardware. The TV manufacturers themselves, meanwhile, are some way from striking any kind of deal on the interoperability of widgets or on-set applications - a factor which will be crucial if this market is to take off properly.
I'm confident, however, that those commercial barriers will fall. The move from dumb to intelligent TVs is simply too attractive a proposition - for consumers and content companies alike - to be left by the wayside. Within the next decade, your new television won't just be a thin, high-contrast slab of display technology. Permanently hooked into your high-speed internet line, it will be a media streaming device, a content aggregator, an application platform - and it may also be the world's most popular gaming device.
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