Six years ago, the big three console makers, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, ruled the video gaming world for kids and adults. A year earlier, Nintendo launched its groundbreaking Wii system and Microsoft introduced its second-gen Xbox 360. In 2006, the Sony PlayStation 3 arrived. But just two years later, mobile gaming changed everything with the entrance of the Apple App Store.
Since then, the big three have been forced to adapt, offering more comprehensive digital downloads, new handheld iterations (Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita), and advanced motion and voice-controlled hardware (Microsoft Kinect).
Currently, the five-to-seven-year sales cycle for new consoles is nearing its end, and despite the new innovations, sales of casual and social mobile games continue to eat into console profits. In July, US retail sales of video games declined for an eighth-consecutive month, leaving console makers in a tough spot. So, with skyrocketing sales of apps and the rise of mobile gaming among consumers in general—and kids in particular—creating a much more competitive landscape, the big three have been pushed to prove that the living room is still the ideal place for gaming. Their solution? Engage consumers with new second-screen experiences.
It’s a timely move considering the fact that multi-tasking, tech-savvy children are increasingly using more gadgets at home, and mobile devices on the go, at younger ages. According to nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, roughly 40% of US two- to four-year-olds, and more than half of kids ages five to eight, are using smartphones, video iPods, iPads or similar devices.
The good news for console makers is even though a wider variety of TV, movie and gaming content can now be streamed across multiple platforms for people on the go, there’s proof that the living room remains an important social gathering place for families to watch TV and use consoles.
According to results from Eurodata TV’s recent International Kids’ TV Trend Report, children in the US logged three hours and 39 minutes a day in front of the boob tube in 2011, and the Entertainment Software Association notes that 49% of all American homes now have a video game console. Moreover, many mobile gamers actually prefer the living room. A new PopCap Games survey of US and UK mobile gamers revealed that the living room is the location of choice to play mobile games, not on a bus or a train as one might suspect. And notably, 48% of US teens also spend their time using consoles in a social environment, such as a living or family room (Nielsen).
In addition, research shows that delving into second-screen home gaming may be a natural progression for console makers. A late-2011 Nielsen survey of connected-device owners in the US, UK, Germany and Italy found that 88% of tablet owners and 86% of smartphone owners said they used their device while watching TV at least once during a 30-day period. The same study also revealed that 45% of Americans use their mobile devices while watching TV on a daily basis.
In fact, if this year’s edition of E3 was any indication, the big three console manufacturers have placed a laser-like focus on ensuring second-screen engagement stays firmly in the living room. They unveiled innovative new products and enhancements that tap into the reality of the connected living room, offering multiple-screen experiences and more integrated social and mobile gaming options.
The social factor
“The biggest trend we are seeing right now is the multiple-screen trend and the Starship Enterprise kind of entertainment control in your living room,” says Martin Rae, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences in California.
“Gaming is right at the heart of it. People want their video games to be social, and they love to interact and control outcomes.”
Since Nintendo showed the world a sneak-peek of its second-screen experience—the high-definition Wii U and touchscreen GamePad—at E3 in 2011, and unveiled a more detailed preview at this year’s event with more than 20 new games and demos, the industry and fans have been buzzing about the device’s imminent official launch.
Being the first out of the gate to launch a new system, the pressure for Nintendo to deliver is huge, especially considering the company’s recent US$220 million net sales loss in Q1 2012.
The Wii U offers a new home gaming experience with the addition of a 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen GamePad controller that allows users to connect to the new console wirelessly and move content from the device to the TV.
Along with the touchscreen, other GamePad features include dual analog sticks, triggers, motion control, rumble features, a front-facing camera for video chatting, a stylus, and infrared TV remote capabilities. It supports Wii accessories such as the nunchuk, classic controller and the Wii balance board. Additionally, up to two GamePads can connect to a Wii U console simultaneously, which allows for multi-player functionality. The console also supports up to four Wii remote (or Wii Remote Plus) controllers or Wii U Pro controllers.
On the touchscreen side, the GamePad enables easy access to maps and menus, provides different gaming perspectives, and can be used as a standalone device for web browsing, playing select games or watching videos.(Nintendo is working on deals with Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and YouTube.) Users can also easily transfer games they were playing on their TVs over to the GamePad, if someone else wants to watch a show, and the system is backwards-compatible with the Wii.
“The GamePad second-screen experience is what we call asymmetric gameplay,” says Matt Ryan, communications manager for Nintendo Canada. “For kids, it’s a new way to play that offers different perspectives and gives them different responsibilities within games, therefore making it more social and fun,” he contends.
“If you’re playing a multi-player game, up to four players using Wii remotes can have a specific experience looking at the TV screen while an additional person plays the same game on the GamePad, but has a completely different experience not looking at the TV.”
One new title, Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, showcases this experience particularly well. The game is expected to be included as a mini-game within NintendoLand, which will serve as introductory software for the Wii U, much like Wii Sports did for the Wii. In the game, four players using Wii controllers act as ghost hunters trying to find a fifth player, a ghost [the GamePad user) that can make itself invisible. What makes the game’s second-screen experience unique is that the GamePad player can see the ghost hunters, but the hunters also have the ability to gang up on the ghost by locating light flashes that temporarily disable the fifth player’s invisibility.
“The Wii U’s second-screen experience offers something you can’t get anywhere else, and being able to take turns playing as the GamePad user will make it more fun for families. We expect the living room to be very loud,” adds Ryan.
In Super Mario Brothers U, another new game launching this holiday season featuring co-op play, in which the GamePad user can help other players get through levels by tapping the screen to create platforms. More cooperative play can also be had in NintendoLand’s Legends of Zelda Battle Quest.
“For this game, players watching the TV screen can use Wii remotes as swords and work cooperatively to get through puzzles and complete levels,” explains Ryan.
“An additional player, who only views the GamePad, can hop in with a bow and arrow and use motion control to actually protect the other players because the person with the bow is positioned behind them in the game.”
To attract a larger audience, select Wii U games will be available as digital downloads through Nintendo’s eShop or for purchase as packaged software at retail outlets. Nintendo is even branching out to please more hardcore gamers with its upcoming first-person shooter title, Zombie U, from third-party developer Ubisoft. In this much-hyped game, players use the GamePad’s second screen to grab items, scan maps, switch weapons and find things in the main character’s backpack. The catch is that the game on the TV screen never pauses, meaning friends who are watching in the living room may need to jump in and help by alerting a player when zombies are near.
Another more kid-friendly third-party title that leverages the second screen is Batman Arkham City Armored Edition from WB Games’ Montreal, Canada-based studio. In this outing, when Batman looks at his wrist on the TV screen, his wrist-mounted Bat computer pops up on the GamePad’s screen and can be used for selecting gadgets, upgrading gear and tracking evidence.
Warren Buckleitner, editor of New Jersey’s Children’s Technology Review, says fun games that allow a certain level of social interaction are what Nintendo does best.
“Nintendo has been famous at mining the affordance of the media, meaning when it develops a new technology, it doesn’t just make it work by itself, it integrates the technology with other components,” he says.
“Nintendo also has the ability to create products that kids really want.”
But with so many bells and whistles surrounding the Wii U’s new gaming hardware, could second-screen experiences in general be too much to manage at first? Rae believes there will be pitfalls and opportunities.
“I think multiple screens in some ways will be extraordinarily distracting and create clutter, but when people do it right, it’s going to be really cool,” he says.
“I think the Wii U is intuitively trying to get there. Some people say you only need analog sticks, but I think you just need to create great content and the kids will figure it out. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly kids pick things up when it comes to gaming and new technology. It’s second nature to them.”
One key feature of the Wii U that taps into social networking is Miiverse. While scant details have been revealed, it is a new proprietary social network that lets players use their personalized Mii characters to share information with friends, post game challenges and messages, and discover new content.
Over at Microsoft and Sony, whose next consoles have yet to materialize, creating easier, more social and mobile experiences for users is also taking center stage.
While retail sales of video games have suffered, Microsoft continues to lead the way in console sales. According to NPD, the Xbox 360 was the top-selling console in June in the US for a remarkable 18th-consecutive month. Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division’s revenue also grew by 20% for the fourth quarter of 2012 and by 8% for the full year.
In efforts to enhance the Xbox gaming and entertainment experience, Microsoft introduced its own type of second-screen experience—SmartGlass—at E3.
Essentially, it’s a free downloadable app for Xbox that people can use on their phones and tablets that allows them to control what is seen on the TV.
Scheduled for a holiday release, it will first be available for Windows phones or tablets, then across other platforms including iOS and Android devices. The fact that it won’t be device-specific sets it apart from the Wii U, but some features are similar.
For example, if a user starts watching a movie on a tablet, but wants to finish it on a TV, the app allows for a seamless content transfer to the Xbox 360 with a simple touch. Users can pick up right where they left off and, according to Microsoft Xbox Live senior product manager Lisa Worthington, the company is looking at ways to reverse the process and enable people to take content (movies, TV, music and games) from the Xbox to their mobile devices.
“Not only does SmartGlass give people the ability to move media and control it, but it also includes an interactive layer where the second screen actually acknowledges what’s happening on the Xbox,” Worthington explains.
While no kids content has been announced with this feature yet, Microsoft’s work with HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones showcases the functionality. When the series is playing on TV, an interactive map will automatically pop up on the viewer’s second-screen tablet or phone and offer a more immersive experience. Additional in-depth information, such as behind-the-scenes footage, actor bios and trivia, will also be included in the second-screen experience for select programming. Considering Netflix Just For Kids was added to Xbox in August and a June Nickelodeon deal will see more kids content added to the system, Microsoft’s plan for enhancing the connected living room for kids and families is charging ahead.
The app also leverages Microsoft Kinect’s voice controls, lets users pick plays via mobile device for Madden NFL 13, and can turn second screens into keyboards for web browsing on the Xbox.
“If you look at the industry, the second-screen experience is something everyone is interested in, from content providers to TV and phone manufacturers, and the technology is taking off even faster than we imagined,” says Worthington.
“We’re learning how to make the technology meaningful for users, so they don’t have to do a lot of work that might distract them from what they’re watching.”
For Rae, Microsoft’s take on the connected living room seems to be moving in the right direction.
“If you can watch your favorite football team through Xbox 360 and check stats and other additional information on a small tablet at the same time, that’s going to be really fun,” he says.
Offering fun, new gaming experiences is also part of Sony PlayStation’s philosophy and it used E3 to showcase its new cross-play functionality for the portable PS Vita handheld device and the PS3 console.
Not unlike SmartGlass, Sony’s cross play for select Vita and PS3 games (like the upcoming PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale) will allow users to save a game on one Sony device and pick up where they left off on another. In addition, the new mechanism enables players to compete against each other in real time, regardless of the Sony console they use.
Sony also expects to launch new downloadable content this holiday season for both Vita and PS3. A cross-play controller will be available first for the kid-friendly Little Big Planet 2 for PS3. The content allows users to play and share games using the PS3 and the Vita together. In essence, the Vita becomes an enhanced PS3 controller and will even let players design levels in the Little Big Planet world using the Vita’s touchscreen.
“The technology is becoming much more exciting and it’s up to us to make sure cross play works for games,” says Matt Levitan, director of marketing for PlayStation Canada.
“We are also looking at some second-screen applications that might be more content related than game related, like possibly being able to view flashbacks on your phone or Vita for a very narrative-driven game. Adding new content that complements a story, as opposed to just pumping out games for the sake of releasing them, is the better way to go for our customers.”
While cross play adds new dimensions to the Sony gaming experience, perhaps the most innovative concept Sony announced at E3 was Wonderbook—interactive technology that utilizes augmented reality and the PlayStation Move to bring books to life. Launching in time for the holidays, the J.K. Rowling-inspired Book of Spells is Wonderbook’s first title and it could breathe new life into Sony’s kids and family portfolio.
For the kids
Whether combining interactive books or mobile devices with more immersive screen experiences, console makers are out to prove that second-screen gaming has a legitimate future.
Time will ultimately tell if the second-screen experience catches on for good, but one thing is certain, kids will play a major role in determining its future.
“Kids are absolutely defining control and play mechanisms, and how we consume entertainment,” says Rae.
Buckleitner concurs. “The lesson in the kids space is that developers should be more in tune than ever to play patterns to really know how kids think.”