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GDC 2012: Ngmoco's Ben Cousins - the death of consoles is already under way
GDC 2012: Ngmoco's Ben Cousins - the death of consoles is already under way
March 7, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

March 7, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, GDC, Business/Marketing

Pointing out that the entry of bigger players into the console space killed arcades, and that TV killed cinema attendance, Ben Cousins painted a bleak picture of the future of consoles.

Cousins formerly worked at EA and DICE on games like Battlefield Heroes, and prior to that Sony. He now heads Ngmoco's new Stockholm, Sweden studio.

Though the talk was about the "death" of consoles, Cousins did clarify: "By 'die', I mean talk about something that has significantly smaller market share with no sign of return."

This happens when "customers move to a new solution" or "a new product comes into your category and massively expands the overall market." He sees both happening as mobile devices -- tablets and smartphones -- disrupt consoles.

What Happened to the Movies?

While he had plenty of examples of disruptions, one of the most telling was this.

People come to him, he says, and say "cinema wasn't killed by TV." But Cousins points out that it was -- according to one important metric.

After the widespread introduction of television in the U.S. in the 1950s, cinema attendance shrank to one-sixth what it was prior to World War II. There was also a "total and utter collapse" of attendance in the UK, says Cousins.

While movies were still hugely successful, theaters were decimated. "Thousands of them were closed down," he says. But "the content people did okay" by adapting -- bringing movies to TV and then to home video.

"They moved their content to the lower-res, free-to-play TV channels," he says. "Games content developers need to do the same. They need to move their content to these low-resolution platforms."

The Arcade to Console Transition

Cousins pointed out that there was a tipping point in 1998 where arcades were overtaken by consoles -- and in fact, the console business is, as of today, 17 times the size of the arcade business.

This, he said, was a blend of console technology increasing dramatically (the Sega Dreamcast, which was on par with arcades at the time, was introduced in 1998 in Japan) and bigger companies like Sony and Microsoft training their eyes on the console space, bringing increased marketing clout and mainstream interest to the space.

Now, with the biggest company in the world -- Apple -- having jumped into games, the tide will turn again. Apple, Google, and Facebook have a combined market capitalization of $793 billion, versus $306 billion for the combined market cap of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo.

"I believe that mobile devices and mobile platforms are the disruptive technologies that are going to cut a slice through the Western market," says Cousins. He points to Japan as the "future" of the space, where DeNA and GREE -- the two major operators -- now, combined, outperform the entire console software space in terms of revenue.

Another sign, he says, is the fact that THQ's uDraw was a complete disaster -- the "invisible force", he says, which caused that is that the kids game market is being decimated by the shift to mobile games.

And that shift is coming -- right now mobile games might be too underpowered for console gamers, but "chips are getting cheaper and low power enough," while "console gamers spend more and more of their time on mobile devices." Things, he says, will soon change.

Consoles had smaller screens and worse controls than arcades in the 1990s, but this ceased to matter as production values got better and the bigger companies came into the fray.

Mobile games are "cheaper and more convenient, but these advantages now really matter," he said, in much the same way.

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Robert Boyd
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THQ's uDraw is a poor example. It was a huge success on the Wii but THQ let that success go to their heads and so spent a ton of money on a delayed port to the 360 & PS3. The delayed port was the disaster, not the original Wii release.

Although I don't necessarily disagree with his hypothesis, there is another interesting historical parallel we could draw - the video game crash of 1983 with its glut of hardware and tons of low quality games.

Andrew Chen
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An excellent point.
I also fault the logic behind this statement:
"...the tide will turn again. Apple, Google, and Facebook have a combined market capitalization of $793 billion, versus $306 billion for the combined market cap of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo."
Needless to say, but market cap does not measure disruptive potential or ensure lasting impact...not to mention the figure literally changes every (trading) day.
Cousin's main point, however, could very likely come true...

Glen Cooney
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Fortunately, I don't think this will have a huge impact on game development in the long run, as internet connectivity improves and platform-neutral services like OnLive take off. I can already play Dawn of War 2 on my Atrix or a Tablet if I wanted to (not as easily as on a PC, obviously but it's nice to see such a thing become possible). Soon enough the beefiness of your hardware will become a non-issue.

Jakub Majewski
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But... TV did not kill cinema, no matter what the statistics say. Cinema was weakened, for a time, but quickly adapted to the situation and recovered.

Post-TV cinema is different, of course - there are less movies being shown, the movies are markedly more "mainstream", and a huge proportion of them are so-called blockbusters. And cinema itself developed new technologies to enhance the experience - widescreen, stereo sound, surround sound, bigger and bigger screens, more comfortable chairs, 3D films, et cetera. TV became commonplace, but cinema became special place.

Looking at that analogy, I don't see how mobile platforms can kill consoles. Mobile platforms, flash games, etc., they can become commonplace - but consoles will remain that special place for the blockbuster game.

OnLive, GaiKai and similar technologies, on the other hand - that's a whole different kettle of fish. Those, I imagine, will indeed kill traditional consoles. But this will be more of a generational change - we'll still be using consoles, it's just that they'll be cheaper, lighter machines that effectively function as signal receivers. That, to me, seems more like what happened when CD-ROMs were introduced - it killed the traditional cartridge-based console, but the console itself remained.

Harlan Sumgui
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did you read the article?

Jakub Majewski
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Yes, I did - that's why I specifically explained what happened to cinema *after* that initial slump that Ben Cousins mentioned.

Lance Hildebrand
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If you think cinema rebounded then you should check out asymco's analysis of Hollywood (he does it as a hobby compared to his mobile analysis).

Hollywood by the numbers:

While he does not really write much about TV, he mentions that cinema makes up less then 20% of a movie's revenue. That it's performance in theaters is only a "signal" to the market.

Joseph Garrahan
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I love it when people speak as if there was no middle ground. Not every company needs to take over the whole world to be successful. And truth is, the tablets and other devices are not bought mainly for games.

Joe Rielly
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You think its coincidence that every proclaimer of the "death of consoles" is now starting up a new mobile or social gaming company.

Scott Macmillan
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If they were proclaiming the death of consoles and starting up console companies, they'd be idiots.

Joe Rielly
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Let me rephrase. What else would someone say when leaving one firm to join another firm that they deem as competition.

On a side note, some enterprising individual needs to design a t-shirt with the caption "PC Gaming, Dieing Since 1985"

Bob Johnson
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Bs. The comparison to movies doesn't work.

Your tv can play any movie.

But your iPhone can't play any 360 game.........

even if you commission a developer to port the game in its entirety to the iPhone.

The iPhone doesn't have nearly enough processing power.

So don't drink the kool-aid.

Arnaud Clermonté
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Processing power is not that relevant anymore.
The proportion of games that can only run on a 360 is getting smaller and smaller.
We're getting to a point where all platforms can play all kinds of games, the only difference will be the graphics quality and the fancy shiny visual effects.
And considering the success of Farmville, there's a lot of people who don't care about graphics quality!

Eric Pobirs
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This is all a load of codswallop. The market is becoming more diverse. Omigosh, what a reveation. But the death of consoles? Please. The cinema does $Billions in net revenue every year. It isn't the only game in town as it once was before wide adoption of TV but it turned out that expanded the market for content rather than reduced it. The studios took until the 80s and the advents of VHS tape rentals and sellthrough to really wrap their heads around it.

So it wasn't the best thing for theater owners. Yet vast numbers of new movie screens have been put in operation since TV entered the market. When 'Jaws' was first released, the small town near Los Angeles where I grew up had all of two screens and a drive-in. That was it for a thirty mile radius. Less than a decade later there over twenty theater screens in the same area. This despite the advent of the VCR, video stores, larger TVs, video games, etc.So excuse me if I have a hard time appreciating the lament of the theater business.

Cousins is touting nonsense. "By 'die', I mean talk about something that has significantly smaller market share with no sign of return." Or other words, not die at all. Rather, the market has become far better for most of those involved with only a minority inseparably tied to an outdated business model suffering. Buggy whip makers, it sucks to be you.

Consider this:
(Those figures correspond to the NATO [National Association of Theater Owners] database but provide a better chronological range than I could get from the NATO site.)

Looking at this page, the number of movie screen operating has doubled since 1950. There are fewer theaters because the business has become dominated by multiplexes but the number of business transactions has not been impaired. Note also the population figures. That doubled also in the same time frame. Theatres didn't die off. They consolidated.

So, in fact, the number of movie screen operating in the US has remained fairly constant in ratio to the population despite the myriad array of competing entertainment venues. There was a change in the ratio for a while there in the 80s but after home video with rental, sellthrough, and hundreds of cable channels become normal, the number of theatre screens expanded greatly. They upped their game. Businesses do that if they are to survive.

Lets have some objective reality here. Is the experience delivered by cell phone ever going to match that of console connected to a big TV screen with surround sound speakers around the room? No. And it isn't a matter of whether one is better than the other. They're different experiences enabling different products. I'm more likely to play a puzzle game like Tetris on a mobile device these days but something like Skyrim is going to continue to be a console/PC thing for a very long time to come.

Eric Pobirs
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Cousins completely misses the target on the uDraw fiasco. The product was very successful on the Wii but failed miserably on the Xbox and PS3. Why?

For the same reason the Wii did so much business in non-traditional console markets. A large portion of the Wii audience was seeing this sort of thing for the first time. Recall Nintendo pushing the image of elderly people playing Wii as their first ever video gaming experience. The people who made the uDraw a hit on Wii didn't have a Koala Pad on their Apple, Atari, or Commodore 8-bit computer almost thirty years ago. They never saw Mario Paint.

The Xbox 360 and PS3 audiences are rather more aware of such things. A 30-year-old console owner who wants a drawing pad likely already has one on his PC. Why would he bother with a toy version unless there were some really great software exclusive to it? Pictionary don't cut it, folks.

So, THQ made a huge miscalculation because they failed to appreciate a qualitativ difference in the Wii demographic compared to the other consoles. Too bad, so sad. Meanwhile, the consoles have moved millions of units of Skyrim, the latest Madden, Modern Battlefield 19, etc.

A mobile device, by definition, is never going to displace something designed to make full use of your home entertainment system. It will compete for consumer's time but never eradicate the dedicated box that doesn't need to incorporate battery life concerns and other limitations inherent to a mobile device. Yes, the chips keep getting better but the same tech is used for the consoles, too.

Mikhail Mukin
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mobiles "+ and -" (for players)

+play anywhere (outside your house etc)
+cheaper games
+a lot of "smaller" games, a lot more diversity/choice
+ability to use touch control, camera, accelerometers, geo location etc

-visual quality similar to "previous generation" of consoles (and likely to stay this way)
-network lag
-some types of games hard to play with "virtual gamepad" (or a built in small one)
-small screen

There are types of games that can and types that can not work nicely for those.

Will it kill consoles? Probably no. Unlike the case with movies, console (and PCs) do provide several crucial advantages (quality, smaller lag, controls, big screen/good audio - and also things like Kinect).

Will it reduce console market? I feel like it already did. The million seller hits from big publishers will remain, but "50000 - 300000" sellers (and companies making them) are disappearing. I would say we did not need that many of them anyway... Those remaining have to work with even higher efficiency (yeah... kind of sucks for us developers...) and use XBLA/PSN...

Joshua Dallman
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16 button controllers, controller cords, HD cord, power cord, collection of discs, collection of boxes and manuals, boot up sequences, game loading time, disc scratches, laser dirt, red ring of death, firmware updates, memory card save management, console setup and settings, LAN cable, peripherals storage, remote control, TV settings to play, obsoletion of hardware, clunky sign up to online services...

...or just tap your iPad button, unlock the screen, tap an icon and play.

The death of consoles has been underway for years now (witness iPod Touch and iPhone taking market share from Nintendo DS). Good riddance! Let the hardcore keep their cherished boxes while the rest of us take gaming to the mainstream in an unprecedented mass-market cultural way.

Bob Johnson
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You are comparing Angry Birds to Battlefield 3.

That is why this whole console die out thing makes no sense.

Joshua Dallman
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Also witness "Draw Something" at top of iOS grossing charts.

Draw Something > uDraw because:

- Hardware friction: It's a game on top a platform everyone already has; instead of a game on top a platform nobody has and must be purchased (the uDraw GameTablet)

- Software friction: Draw Something can be effortlessly downloaded and tried out for free; uDraw must be manually played on tethered console which also has the hardware and must be purchased to play

- Cost: Draw Something is free, uDraw is $70 (plus games for about $40)

- Monetization: Draw Something can monetize both free and paying users through a combination of ads and microtransactions; uDraw requires a steep up-front investment

- Social: Draw Something leverages the modern asynchronous social gameplay; uDraw is solitary play

- Casual: Draw Something requires low art skill and minimal session time; uDraw requires more interest in art skill and expanded session times

- Retention: Draw Something's procedural content and social opponents make for constantly changing gameplay for excellent retention; uDraw content can be enjoyed and burned through quickly and not returned to

Bob Johnson
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Here you actually make some sense. An iPad is made for this type of software.

The 360 is made for AAA games. GAmes that won't run on an iPad due to lack of processing power.

Dave Lynam
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Processing power isn't going to be a problem... that is the point. Interface is becoming the only problem.

Justin Speer
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Speaking of platform transitions seems misleading here. "Arcade to console" is not as much about games moving to new hardware as the games moving to a new location, which is arcade to home.

It's the television screen that made this first change possible... and in fact in Japan they've always had "tv games" rather than "console games". Sure, I can watch video on my mobile phone not just at home (I will however need to plug it in eventually), but even if everyone had free unlimited data, would it make sense if people start throwing away their televisions?

The "mobile vs consoles" fight I think is a figment of corporate market-chasing imagination . If consoles die, which seems possible if not inevitable, they'll probably be replaced by another delivery method that puts cutting edge tech on your best available screen. Or pipes it directly into your brain, if they ever get there...

And, Joshua, the whole "good riddance" thing struck me as a little bit offensive. I'm probably going to go home later, sit on the couch, turn on the television and play some Magic the Gathering cooperatively with my wife on our Xbox... and this sounds like a mad zealot telling me to go ahead and cling to my cherished little wonder-box while the mass-market mobile/social cultural revolution passes me by. Sure, I'm not putting my money and attention into your area of passionate interest, but why you gotta be like that?

[User Banned]
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Harry Fields
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That makes two of us it'll be passing by. Not everyone adheres to the iPAD Social flick game vision of the future.

Joe McGinn
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Very good article. Young people especially are increasingly buying iPhones and iPads instead of laptops and game consoles. And this is only going to accelerate with the next generation, many of whom are using iPhones literally while still in the stroller.

Dave Lynam
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At least in the examples he gave here the technology that disrupted was able to provide the same or "near enough" the same experience to the consumer. TV and Movies give a passive experience and the difference in visual quality didn't detract from the story, which was the users 'interface'. So the pay off didn't effect what the user wanted out of the product. This wont be the case with mobile devices not because of processing power, but because of interface. I think he believes that what users want out of games can be achieved through things like clans, but that is a grossly simplified view of gaming imo. You cannot get the same experience out of a mobile device, you can't control a character in a 3D space with a touch screen, you can't have twitch mechanics with a touch screen.

If you look at # of gamers and include those who owned a wii then look where the gamers are then it supports his claim... but the explosion of wii users were a different demographic stolen from browser games and online puzzle games and board games. They were family and children gamers... but you cannot get an experience like Minecraft on a mobile without some sort of controller. At the point where you have a controller attached to a mobile phone, and can cast that image to a tv screen you've got a console...