Approach #3: Solve the Touchscreen Problem in Existing Mobile Devices
If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything else looks like a nail -- and if you manufacture hammers, you probably want everyone else to see nails everywhere, too. It's no surprise that the hardware companies mentioned above are trying to solve the problem of Same Game, Different Device with new, expensive tech (it's their job), but really, there's an easier fix for this: Hardware controls for smartphones and tablets.
Instead of trying to enable consumers to play the same games on all their devices, it would be much more feasible to simply offer them the necessary controls to have a home console-quality experience on-the-go instead, and the limiting factor here is mostly the clumsiness of the touchscreen when it comes to staple core game genres like first person shooters.
It's no secret that there are plenty of games out there for iOS and Android that are unsatisfactory were designed with a gamepad in mind, and in my experience, even the best virtual gamepad simply doesn't cut it.
To be sure, some game devs are doing a great job building games that use the touchscreen in ways that feel splendidly tuned and natural, but until we all live in places with cloud servers and great bandwidth everywhere, or can afford to shell out for a highly-specialized gadget like the Edge or Shield, why not give the people what they want and let us hook up wireless controllers to the smartphones and tablets we already own? Well, that's basically what input device manufacturers Mad Catz, SteelSeries, and Moga (among others) are trying to do.
Mad Catz appears to be the most ambitious of the lot: Shortly before CES 2013, Mad Catz announced the GameSmart Initiative, which is its attempt to champion the development of an open cross-platform Bluetooth controller standard in order to make it easier for peripheral manufacturers to make mobile accessories, developers to support them in their games, and consumers to buy both said accessories and games without worrying about whether X game would support Y controller or not.
Mad Catz senior VP of new product development Andrew Young explains: "We're trying to evangelize a worldwide market standard, a global approach, not just a proprietary MadCatz approach... People have been trying to do Bluetooth, but they've been doing it more proprietary and requiring drivers on different platforms, and we sat back and watched this for about 18 months.
"What we're trying to do is to standardize it, make it as platform-agnostic as possible, so that if a consumer has a MadCatz peripheral they can use it with as many devices as possible. A big part of that, obviously, is Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low-Energy. We want to end up in a situation where most developers should be using the HID over GATT standard protocol, like how most PC developers develop over HID."
Meanwhile, both SteelSeries and Moga have taken a more traditional approach to developing mobile controls; the SteelSeries Free and Moga Pro are both Bluetooth-based game controllers that depend on game developers to specifically include support in their games.
On the even more economical end, SteelSeries announced its Free Touchscreen Gaming Controls in late December -- a $20 set of three buttons and an analog stick that attach to your touchscreen device by suction cups made of conductive rubber; you'd place them on top of a game's touchscreen gamepad overlay to translate your inputs into touch. It certainly sounds somewhat wacky, but it's an interesting attempt to circumvent the lack-of-proper-standards problem with clever hardware design.
None of the above peripherals might be quite the sexy, futuristic vision of Games In The Future that we hope to see at CES every year, but they might be good enough for 2013, especially if you're perfectly happy with your smartphone or tablet except for when it comes to core-oriented titles that demand to be played with a proper gamepad. (I, for one, would love to have a wireless gamepad for my iPad that Just Works.)
Testing the Next Console Generation
While hardware giants like Nvidia and Razer are making ambitious plans for the future by showing neat tech now, the longer it takes for those plans to come to fruition, the more likely that someone else -- maybe Apple, maybe Microsoft, maybe one of their respective competitors -- will disrupt them with something newer still.
But it's clear that, however their methods may differ, each of these hardware manufacturers has identified the same opening in the market -- the Same Game (or game experience), Different Device problem -- and how well or how poorly Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo tackle that issue might just determine whether their dedicated game consoles return to the forefront of the industry or fade a little bit further to the background.