Game Developers Conference Highlights Shift to Mobile

Popularity of Mobile Platforms Coming at the Expense of Consoles

The Game Developers Conference took place in San Francisco at the end of March. The conference is the world’s largest professional game industry event, with big names such as Facebook, Microsoft and Sony all involved. It bills itself as the primary forum for those involved in the development of interactive games to exchange ideas and shape the future of the industry. The five-day event underlined my belief that this is a time of transition for the video game industry.

After last year’s launch of Nintendo’s Wii U, the impending arrivals of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and the Xbox 720 from Microsoft mean the next generation of gaming consoles are almost here. But anticipation of a new console today is nowhere near what it was several years ago. Most attendees at the conference were “indies”: small-scale or individual developers focussed on innovation and relying on digital distribution. For me, their presence at the conference is a sign that interest in developing for consoles is in decline. The chart below, which shows which platforms developers at the show intend to work on next, seems to bear this out.


The high number of indie developers can partly be explained by the low barriers to entry for the platforms they’re targeting, especially smartphones and tablets. Compared with the restrictions imposed on console game developers, indies are effectively given free rein when creating games for mobile devices. The sheer scale and reach of Android and iOS have become big draws, creating a “virtuous circle” in which the size of the opportunity attracts developers and the huge number of games attracts even more users to a platform.

Additionally, the low entry barriers and huge audience have made mobile something of a testing ground for new games: if something works on mobile, then it’s probably worth further investment in developing for a console. The most successful games will appear on consoles, but as the average gamer spends more time on their phone developers will concentrate their efforts in this area.

Some of the sessions at this year’s Game Developers Conference further illustrated the changes underway in the industry. They ranged from summits about free-to-play games, cloud technology for mobile and social games, as well as panels discussing monetary strategies for mobile gaming.

Microsoft has still to disclose a date for its new Xbox console. It gave a presentation on how to create games for Windows smartphones and also revealed new and improved second-screen experiences for Xbox SmartGlass, its companion app that connects mobile devices to Xbox 360 consoles.

Nintendo conducted a session outlining easier ways for developers to make apps for the Wii U, the touch-screen controller system that started off the next wave of consoles. The launch of the Wii U in 2012, however, failed to generate the same buzz as its predecessor. In my view, this is another sign of the transition to mobile platforms by developers and gamers.

My impression of this year’s Game Developers Conference is supported by the findings of our own research. App VU Global reveals that games are the most downloaded category of applications on smartphones and tablets. We can also tell from the operational performance of publishing giant EA, which is currently struggling in the packaged goods sector (that is, games delivered on physical media) and increasing its focus in the digital space in response.

This isn’t to say that I think consoles are dead, or will be any time soon. As manufacturers integrate features like connected home functions and improve social networking capabilities, these features will become a bigger part of the justification for buying a console. And there’ll be keen gamers anticipating the next FIFA or Call of Duty title on a PlayStation or Xbox for some time. However, consoles are no longer the force in the gaming world they once were, thanks to the importance of smartphones in people’s lives today.