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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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