At a SXSW Interactive panel titled "The Mobile 2nd Screen in Video Games & Beyond," executives from Samsung and Ubisoft presented a necessary establishing question: What, exactly, is the first screen?
Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have all touched on the concept — some more heavily than others — with their current and next-gen platforms. Microsoft has placed a heavy emphasis on SmartGlass, its companion application which supports its media applications and a handful of games. Nintendo's Wii U utilizes a second screen as its primary controller; although the device doesn't function away from the console with which it is paired.
Sony has arguably leaned the heaviest into the concept, having promised further implementation of Remote Play functionality between the PS Vita and PlayStation 4. Moreover, it announced a PlayStation App during its PS4 reveal event which would accompany the new console, allowing users to, according to a Sony press release, "see maps on their second screens when playing an adventure game, purchase PS4 games while away from home and download it directly to the console at home, or remotely watch other gamers playing on their devices."
Ubisoft senior director of strategic marketing Steve Carlin and Samsung Telecommunications general manager Neil Sharma said during the panel that console manufacturers and the gaming industry as a whole underestimates what phones and tablets can mean to living room gamers.
"When I look at it from the mobile industry, I would posit that the gaming industry calls the mobile platform 'second screen,'" Sharma said. "I would posit that it is the first screen. I would also posit that it's an inflection point that if it's not looked at carefully, the gaming industry's going to move by and miss it, and there are going to be companies that go out of business."
"...if it's not looked at carefully, the gaming industry's going to move by and miss it, and there are going to be companies that go out of business."
Smartphones and tablets are powerful enough to stand their ground against consoles, Sharma argued. They've got hardware that can support games gamers would consider hardcore while being accessible enough to casual gamers. They already have the technology built in to communicate with one another seamlessly, making them easier to move from your TV to your pocket.
Most importantly — especially considering the length of the current console generation — they're far more agile than consoles, allowing them to incorporate technology like NFC without having to wait several years for a hardware refresh.
"That's the state of that industry," Sharma told Polygon in an interview preceding the panel. "Outpace, out-innovate. We have so much technology on tablets and smartphones today; doesn't matter which company it is, it's just, that's the level of innovation. Right? Quad-core processor? It's in all of them. Two years ago, it's, 'quad-core processor? Are you kidding me?'"
Before joining Samsung, Sharma was a business development manager for Microsoft, where he worked to try and make Windows Media Player the dominant streaming media solution. It was a vicious battle between Microsoft's product and other big players of the field, who wrestled over quality improvements and deals with content producers who would stream their products on their respective services. It was a battle ultimately not won by quality, but by social integration and community; a battle won by YouTube.
Sharma said he worries that the gaming industry is falling into a similar pattern.
"When you use the word quality, you've actually plateaued," Sharma said. "You've come to an area where you can't bounce further. It's a good touchpoint to say, 'What else is going on out there?' I feel it as I walk around the gaming industry, I hear that a lot, 'Look at the graphics! Look at the quality!' I say, 'Okay, I've been through this in my lifetime. I've got to step back.'
"Think about what happened in the days of Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis."
"Think about what happened in the days of Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis," Sharma said. "History kind of tells itself there. Sega was the game. 78 percent of most living rooms that had gaming, Sega was it. Then Nintendo decides, 'You know what, we're going to do something a little bit different. We're going to create something handheld. And all the writers, all the journos, I remember it was very, very polarizing. A majority of them said, 'I'll take my Sega Genesis, thank you.' What survived, who survived?"
Sharma's arguments echo the theme of the gaming industry's presence at CES earlier this year. Several independent companies are developing solutions for big-screen gaming on a phone or tablet; companies which Sharma argues aren't "just scratching at the surface." Communication between those devices is getting more powerful, more complex, he says. Samsung's own Smart TVs will "get a bit smarter," potentially offering mobile devices a direct line into stationary displays.
"The platforms are there," Sharma said. "What you're talking about is disruption. It just takes one type of outlier to disrupt the industry enough for the mass to come in."
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