The other day I got a panicky call from my friend Andy. His mother was holiday shopping for his two elementary school daughters, and he needed to tell her what video game system to buy.
Andy was considering the Nintendo Wii, but worried about the hassle of hooking it up to his TV, and how much time they’d really spend as a family on the system. The other option on his mind: a Nintendo DS. As the world’s most popular handheld system, the DS seemed like an obvious choice – except for the fact that his kids were more interested in playing Angry Birds on his wife’s iPhone. What to do?
If you want to know where the future of gaming is heading, it's worth paying attention to what I'll call the Andy Conundrum. The pragmatic concerns of casual gamers are now having more impact than even the highest-tech innovations of this $40 billion industry.
Consider Andy's first sticking point: the hassle. Fact is, the Wii isn’t much of a hassle at all to set up, right? But for a lot of people, just the idea of plugging hardware into a TV is hassle enough. There’s something decidedly 2009 about the whole prospect. With every day, we’re becoming less patient with cables and cords and instruction manuals. The age of Plug 'n Play is being replace by the age of simply Play. And we also don’t want a lot of stuff cluttering our rooms. Argue as much as you want with Andy, but these objections are real to him, and they’re the reason that – no matter how much I recommend the Wii – he won’t buy.
Next up: the DS. I extolled the virtues of the Nintendo 3DS, the new 3D handheld coming from Nintendo in March. As I blogged here this summer, I played the 3DS and it was compelling: a true, 3D experience delivered without kludgy glasses. Even better, the 3DS doesn’t try too hard. Compared to the explosive eye candy being shown by Sony on the Playstation 3, the 3DS games are dazzling in their simplicity. The future of 3D games have one imperative: less is more.
Andy was interested, but I could hear some hesitancy in his voice. Then I realized what he, and I, were missing. He already told me the answer. His kids loved playing games on their mom’s phone. We all know that kids love their parents’ phone. I’m sure much of their interest isn’t about the hardware or software at all. It’s just about the incredible thrill kids feel when they’re playing with something grown-up. Kids see us on our phones all the time and they want one too. In Andy's house (and others) the kids want a phone more than DS. SoI told Andy that he could get the kids an iPod Touch. Andy thanked me, said he’d think about it, and that was that.
Then the phone rang a few minutes later. Andy had run the math, and realized that though iPod Touch was a tad more expensive, the games were way cheaper – say, 99 cents for Angry Birds versus $30 for a DS game. In no time, the Touch would cost him less than the other systems. He was sold. The Touch it would be it.
Now, this isn’t to say the Touch is a better game platform than the DS or Wii or Xbox or Playstation either. But for casual and young players – which represents a larger part of the population than core gamers – Touch/app games are tough to beat: cheap, accessible, and no unruly wires. Extrapolate the Andy Conundrum across the world, and that marks a seismic shift in the gaming landscape. In the battle of Mario vs. Angry Birds, the Birds win.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.