In 1925, John Logie Baird wanted to convince the public that his latest invention would be a great success. Unfortunately, when he arrived at the London offices of the Daily Express, his sales pitch was quickly dismissed. “For God’s sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who’s down there,” a news editor reportedly told staff. “He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless.”
This illustrates our inability to predict the appeal of a medium, and particularly the problem of making a judgment without hands-on experience. “Seeing by wireless” sounds impossible — until someone shows you a television set.
And that is why anyone surprised by the continued success of console games, with a revival of market share and analysts forecasting a “golden era” — long after smartphones were supposed to have stolen their business — should try playing a few. Appreciating the difference between the experiences makes it easier to see how they can happily co-exist.
Of course, we should not underplay the explosive rise of mobile gaming. A decade ago, playing a game on the go meant buying a dedicated gadget such as the Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable. Now commuters tap away on their phones at Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, while answering emails and checking the weather on the same device.
This year, for the first time, mobile games sales are predicted to be higher than those on consoles and PCs. But that is down to the creation of a vast new market, not the cannibalisation of an old one. Many of those playing games on their commute go home and switch on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
The two genres are quite distinct. Mobile games are friendlier — not least because their revenue model depends on players sticking with them. They are often free to download, making money from advertising or in-app purchases. They often tend to focus on repetitive puzzles or slow-building strategies, which lend themselves to small pockets of time and imprecise, stabby fingers.
Console games, however, need to justify the purchase of the machine itself, at about £250, and of the game, at £30. So they tend to be epic — sweeping plots, gorgeous graphics, storylines that unfold over many hours. (I have personally saved humanity at least a dozen times, and each time it looked beautiful.) They often deal with war or its peacetime substitute, sport. And they demand precision and dedication, making them almost impenetrable to anyone who did not start playing as a teen.
This brings us back to Baird and his great invention. Television did not kill the movie industry; we did not all decide there was no point going out when we could watch what we wanted at home. Instead, the mediums bifurcated: each focused on content suited to its form. Films, like console games, can do spectacle in a way smaller screens cannot. Captain America is a very different experience from Mad Men. So is Grand Theft Auto from Fruit Ninja.
That also means films and console games are open to the same criticism: their high production values are a barrier to innovation because so few companies can invest the tens of millions it takes to make them. Hollywood is dominated by the Big Six studios, themselves owned by conglomerates, and the top-grossing films of last year — Star Wars Episode VII, Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron — are all sequels. In games, the 2015 US bestseller list was topped by Call of Duty: Black Ops III (a sequel to a spin-off, no less). Minecraft was the only original title in the top 10.
Even as the console world celebrates confounding its doubters, it should reflect on this. Hollywood studios try to encourage smaller, independent films but the games industry has lagged behind. Expanding the middle of the market, the space between space operas and addictive puzzlers, should be its next big challenge. Where is the Woody Allen of console titles?
The writer is deputy editor of the New Statesman
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