Mobile gaming and Sabre Tooth Tigers

I love the fact that Sabre toothed cats existed several times in history. It’s a grim reminder that evolution can over-evolve to the point of extinction. Turns out that the iconic Large canine gene that bread through successful adults kept going to the point where the animal could no longer open its mouth far enough to feed itself, and perished. And then, much later in history, it happened all over again (twice at least).

Today, one of the more dominant genes in the gaming console is almost certainly its video graphics capability. Graphic capability started to become a measurement of a platforms prowess back in the 8-bit days with Spectrum and Commodore fanboys battling it out – Ridiculous, I know. This still continues today at even more ridiculous levels as hoards of game-fans nit-pick between insignificant differences in polygon pushing and refresh rates that they probably wouldn’t even have noticed if someone hadn’t given them the numbers.

But like the fateful fang, this technical push for bigger teeth has certainly come at a cost. With nowhere to hide on HD screens, the expectation of visual excellence has all but consumed the customer. A demanding, texture-thirsty mob, ironically created by the pixel-pushers themselves.

Naturally, with more polygons come higher production costs and now it takes teams of hundreds of professionals to make a game. Developers, Artists, musicians, motion-capture specialists, writers and actors… cultural advisors… the list goes on.

While this isn’t such an issue when you’re a behemoth publisher pushing triple-A franchises such as Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed, but if you’re a passionate games maker who wants to do something new and creative, the risk of investment is just way too high.

This year has witnessed many major players in game production move from the big-box console to the mobile platform, and while the touch interface might be of some interest to them, there’s no doubt that the reduced cost of production & publication and sheer market size, simply offer more reasonable chances of return.

There is already talk of this generation of consoles (as we know them) being the last. I’m somewhat cynical… the push into the living room by what till now has been a mobile platform, has already begun. Frighteningly the battle for better graphics on mobile is also already raging and I can see it all happening again. Albeit with more open platforms, in-built multi-device licence support and price models that can’t pretend to hold on to the old justifications of manufacture and distribution.

There is going to be a sweet spot somewhere between the qualitative expectation and what customers are willing to spend on a game. Cost will be the natural predator of discovery, and will determine the evolution of successful products, and ultimately their fate or extinction. Hopefully we will all lose this misguided obsession with graphics and pay attention to what’s really important in gaming.

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