Since the 1980s, game makers have used a “rule the livingroom” strategy that uses dedicated gaming machines that makers hope will ensnare the interest of the whole family. The battle over market share between competitors like Sega and Nintendo dominated the 16-bit era of gaming.  Marketers attempted to woo consumers with an ever-expanding array of gaming experiences. But hard-wired systems still left something to be desired. By the 2000s, advanced console systems like Xbox, Nintendo Wii, and PlayStation inspired users to off the couch and into the action of the gaming world. But times change, and as consoles have increased in functionality, they are being used more often for non-gaming purposes, such as streaming videos. The arrival of smartphones and tablets freed gaming from the living room and, from the looks of things, it has no intention of going back.

BusinessWeek compared February 2013 video console game sales with those of February 2012 and found: “Sales of games for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 dipped by 15 percent, while Sony’s PlayStation 3 saw game sales fall 24 percent, and Nintendo’s Wii and Wii U games toppled 43 percent.”

Making the Leap

Thus far, the race to adapt gaming from console to mobile platforms has favored the smaller, more agile development teams. Veteran companies such as Nintendo are struggling to reposition themselves to appeal to smartphone and tablet users, while Sony has released its own mobile gaming device (the PlayStation Vita), which has met with dismal sales in Japan.

For those developers willing to make the leap from console to mobile, there are several challenges to overcome. First is the gaming experience itself. One good example is Need for Speed: Most Wanted—a console game whose mobile app version has scored consistently among the most popular Android games. Mobile apps are frequently criticized by console loyalists for not having the depth and power of gaming experience provided by their console counterparts. But as graphics and features improve, the gap is narrowing. NVIDIA predicted that, by 2014, mobile gaming technology would out-rank gaming consoles. 

Second is the revenue model. Some classic games—like PacMan and Tetris—that made the leap to successful apps date all the way back to the arcade days. Others—such as Madden NFL and Rock Band—are more recent console-to-mobile converts. Since we’re no longer talking about a one-time console or game cartridge purchase, games will have to draw revenue from sources such as premium (or “freemium”) purchases, virtual item sales, and in-app advertisements. Revenue generators like virtual item sales are more easily adapted to some games than to others. What might work well for Need for Speed might be far more challenging for Tetris. There has been some reluctance among developers to adapt console games to mobile apps, as some have failed. 

The current trend seems to favor lean development teams working to create engaging mobile apps that can sustain themselves through in-game virtual item sales without incurring high development costs. Whether a console game can succeed as an app may depend as much on its ability to adapt to this model as on its ability to compete with the mobile gaming experience.