Console vs. PC redux: how mobile gaming will reshape the industry (again)

They're a growing threat, these simple games with their simple designs, simple controls, and simple graphics. They don't offer the full, premium experience that the real gamers want. They aren't hardcore enough. They aren't serious enough. They're just too... casual.

In the '90s these were all complaints used to describe the strengthening console menace. Back then, a younger me squandered his meager income at the local Babbage's or Electronics Boutique, stores full of PC games in cardboard boxes -- console titles relegated to a few little shelves. It wouldn't take long for those consoles to take over those stores and, along the way, the entire industry. Between just 1998 and 2006 console software sales more than doubled, from $2.5 billion to $6.7 billion, while PC game sales dropped from $1.8 billion to $970 million. Even the FPS, once exclusive domain of the PC, is now a console enterprise, with Call of Duty: Black Ops launching on 4.9 million sales on the Xbox 360 and PS3. The PC version, meanwhile, sold less than 400,000 copies (the NPD lumped them in with sales of the Nintendo DS and Wii versions).

Who cares about ancient history? If you're a gamer you should, because it's happening again. This time, though, its console gamers lobbing the same lamentations at Angry Bird players, Words With Friends addicts, and ever-sneaky Fruit Ninjas. As smartphones and tablets get more powerful, the dedicated gaming machine looks more and more quaint. Where once software supported hardware in one big, happy family, it's all becoming rather more... disjointed. For a gamer like me, that's a little troubling. If app gaming does for consoles what those consoles did to the PC scene a decade ago, a lot of big game studios are going to be in trouble, and a lot of gamers are going to be pining for the good 'ol days.

It's hard to tell at what point mobile gaming became a serious threat to the console scene, but surely nobody at Nintendo lost any sleep when Snake crawled its way into the hearts of many a Nokia user back in the late '90s. Then, just a few years later, Steve Jobs started comparing iPod sales to those of dedicated gaming machines. I initially thought the very notion was preposterous; that an iPod didn't hold a candle to the DS and PSP I took with me on every flight. In the ensuing months, however, I've changed my tune.

In recent years we haven't exactly seen a lot of innovation on the console gaming front. Sure, there was a giant rush to jump on the motion gaming bandwagon -- Microsoft with the Kinect and Sony with the Move, even Nintendo sauntering back in with the MotionPlus -- but none of those technologies have delivered the new gameplay experiences that even grizzled veterans like myself secretly hoped they might. Nor have they succeeded in whetting my appetite for something truly new. As someone whose youth was punctuated by a three-year console cycle, booting up the same 'ol hardware almost six years later feels wrong.

On the portable gaming front things are moving -- but slowly. Over the past seven or so years Nintendo and Sony have both been slowly refining their portable systems of choice, but not even Nintendo's glasses-free 3D technology really qualifies as something particularly innovative. It is, after all, just another graphics technique, no more important than texture mapping or anti-aliasing, things that revolutionized the way our games look, but not how they play.

With nothing really changing it's mighty easy for the others to catch up, and of course those others are the smartphones, the iPods, and the tablets. They aren't there yet -- the Samsung Galaxy S II has a dual-core processor running at 1GHz while the Xbox 360 has 3.2Ghz spread over three cores -- but mobile devices are gaining ground quick. And, with services like OnLive, one could say that hardware no longer matters.

Regardless, hardware is losing its importance. Going back to the PC vs. console war, the consoles never had the upper-hand, or if they did it wasn't for long. Whenever I'd be wowed by a new system at E3, NVIDIA or ATI or somebody else would come along with a fresh slab of PCI, AGP, or PCIe and blow my mind. That single card would inevitably cost more than an entire gaming console (and require a new power supply and cooling rig to go along with it), but the PC's place as the pinnacle of graphics perfection has never been in doubt -- if you had the money.

Yet still the consoles drank the PC gaming scene's milkshake, and better graphics here aren't going to save dedicated systems from what looks to be impending mobile doom. And it will mean doom for many. The industry has been propped up to massive heights by huge sales of $60 blockbuster games, titles carefully honed by hundreds of pairs of hands brought together at massive development studios. Meanwhile, the most popular mobile downloads cost $9.99 or less, way less, and it remains to be seen whether mobile gamers would ever dream of spending six times that on a single game, even a proper release like Gears of War. Those publishers that focus exclusively on "big" releases are going to have a hard time adapting.

While we'll surely get one more generation of great dedicated gaming hardware from the big three, I have my fears that it will be the last. Sony sees the writing on the wall, with its (currently half-assed) PlayStation Suite program for devices, and Microsoft is testing the waters with Xbox Live integration on Windows Phone. It's only a matter of time before everybody's following suit -- or getting left behind. But don't worry, console gamers, because it's not all bad news. We're actually on the verge of some very interesting changes which, believe it or not, could work out for the best. Think about it: all modern phones have Bluetooth, so connecting external gaming controllers is easy -- even a keyboard and mouse. HDMI output is now more-or-less standard, and hopefully WHDI ubiquity isn't far off.

We'll soon live in a world where you can get your Angry Birds fix on the train and then, when you get home, drop your phone into a charging stand, drop yourself onto the couch, and enjoy Drake's next big adventure in 1080p with a real controller in your hands. Significant other want to watch TV? Just keep playing on the smaller screen -- similar to what Nintendo is talking up with its Wii U, but minus the throwback console middleman.

Assuming this comes to pass, and I think it will, home gaming will never quite be the same. As someone who still gets excited about the next big console, ripping open exotic new games in curiously colored boxes, getting a whiff of the freshly printed manual inside, I don't think activating a new smartphone and downloading a launch title will ever deliver the same thrill. But, the first time I get to play a little Halo or Uncharted or Modern Warfare from coach class at 30,000 feet, and do so with full graphics and gameplay, I think I'll probably get over it.