The Future of Handset Gaming May Well Be Sensation

by: Paolo Gorgo

Tablet devices and smartphones could soon represent the replacement for consoles as the most attractive platform for the gaming sector.

This is at least the opinion of several insiders in the multibillion industry – here is a quote from Heiko Hubertz, chief executive and founder of online gaming firm Bigpoint, taken from his recent interview with Reuters:

It could well be that tablet PCs will be more important for the gaming industry than the consoles.

Hubertz said thanks to tablets' increasing computing power they could replace consoles for home use, not only for on-the-go gaming.

U.S.-based ABI Research estimates that the online gaming industry's sales will grow to more than $20 billion in 2012, challenging traditional makers of video games.

Spending on console-game discs is projected to drop 6% a year, while online games are expected to enjoy a 23% growth rate, and mobile games should increase 19% a year.

Tablets and smartphones sales are forecasted to be a few hundred millions units per year worldwide – numbers that can not be ignored by the gaming industry.

Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) recently demonstrated its tablet quad-core chip called Kal-El and what it can do to enhance gaming effects.

Gameloft's U.S. sales and marketing director Baudouin Corman was also reported as saying: Our sales on Android are really taking off strongly. While there were no numbers attached to his comments, his words may mean that an inflection point has already been reached. Glu Mobile recently told analysts it was generating around 10% of its revenue from its Android games.

Gaming is already part of our handset use, as Zokem Mobile Life research reports in its latest market research:

In the U.S. almost 60% of smartphone users played games on their mobiles on a monthly basis.

"Gaming has already the same penetration among smartphone users as, for example, weather and utility services, both of which are usually considered as daily commodities. By looking at the actual time spent with different phone features, we see that gaming is actually doing even better when measured with actual face time," says Dr. Sampsa Jaatinen, head of analytics at Zokem.

Gaming ranks at the 6th place on overall active usage time, right after browsing, social media, and personal information management apps (PIM), gaming capturing on average 6% of the monthly face time over all smartphone users.

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(Click to enlarge)

As GigaOm's Kevin Tofel summarized in his article "Sorry, Mario: Smartphones Are the Hot New Game":

The growing role of smartphones as game platforms certainly touched a nerve; many readers felt the two markets were completely different. Based on Zokem's research, Sony's (NYSE:SNE) addition of PSP games and controls to the Xperia Play Android phone, and the inclusion of Xbox Live games on Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone 7 platform, I think there's more overlap here than people realize. Is it "game over" for dedicated mobile entertainment devices?

On Thursday, the Guardian published a very interesting article on the subject, "Touchscreens, smartphones and the haptic future of games":

The arrival of touchscreen technology must be one of the most intuitive computer interface transitions in history. From the Nintendo DS to the iPad (NASDAQ:AAPL), people have just got it. Physically manipulating onscreen items with our fingers is natural. It delivers users from the tyranny of abstract button operations.

But it's telling that games developers took a while to adapt to this new era. For 40 years, interactive entertainment was about joysticks; design was governed by switches and buttons. Consequently, when touchscreen smartphones and tablets started to arrive, the initial instinct for many studios was to transplant those legacy systems onto the new devices – hence virtual joypads.

Virtual joypads are, to put it bluntly, horrible. Dividing off whole chunks of the screen space to act as thumb pads and buttons makes no sense on a small display, and the system lacks any remnants of solid, haptic feedback.

Immersion Corporation (NASDAQ:IMMR) is the worldwide leader in haptic technology, and its TouchSense tactile feedback comes pre-installed into most smartphones, as the company already has some of the largest handsets producers, like Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) and LG (OTC:LGCIF), as customers.

Immersion's MOTIV Development Platform automates haptic integration into the Android OS and allows both OEMs and application developers to create differentiated and engaging user experiences with high quality tactile feedback, quickly and easily.

Haptify is Immersion's autonomous start-up company focused on promoting the implementation of haptic feedback technology to smartphone and tablet applications.

In April 2011, the company released its first fully haptic game, Enzo's Pinball, available on the Android Marketplace for $1.49. A free, ad-subsidized lite version of the same game has also been announced last week. The game has been studied since the beginning with haptics in mind, and is mainly meant to be a tool to show other gaming producers how haptic feedback can enhance customers' experience. Immersion's target is to make its technology as used as possible in gaming, as it collect a 5% royalty on each game using its IP.

In a relatively short period of time, Immersion has been able to announce several new games, developed by different companies, making use of haptics:

  • Antigen by Battery Powered Games — an attack-oriented puzzle game

  • aTilt 3D Labyrinth and aTilt 3D Labyrinth Free by FridgeCat Software — a labyrinth-style maze game

  • Beats, Advanced Rhythm by Keripo — advanced music-based rhythm game for Android

  • Deadly Chambers, Deadly Chambers HD and Deadly Chambers Free by Battery Powered Games — an over-the-shoulder shooter

  • DiceShaker D&D, DiceShaker 3D and DiceShaker 3D Free by Pallosalama — dice roller applications with beautiful graphics and advanced physics engine

  • Galataxi and Galataxi Lite by Measured Software — a space taxi adventure

  • Hextacy and Hextacy Lite by Magnus Lorentzon - a hex-based color matching puzzle game

  • Solo & Solo Lite by Coding Caveman — Android's most popular virtual guitars

As Keith Stuart said in his closing remarks of the Guardian's article, touch and haptics may be finally gaining a much deserved attention in the gaming industry:

Touch is central to the human experience, it's how we discover the world as babies; it is a control system that we don't have to continually re-learn. While motion controllers like Kinect and Wii offer a glimpse at physical interfaces, I think touchscreens hint at a more precise yet malleable future for game interactions. A sensory input that current games only exploit on a very basic level, could well be the guiding force going forward.

We've been told that the future of entertainment is motion control, or 3D, or both; but maybe not. The future may well be sensation.

Disclosure: I am long IMMR.