Is Mobile Gaming Killing PC and Console Gaming?

by Fred “HeinKill” Williams

 

Introduction

In a time where EA Games announced a 45m USD loss for the last quarter of 2012, SimHQers got embroiled in a discussion of whether mobile gaming is killing the PC and console game segment. You can follow the debate here.

The discussion provoked me to review my own game spending habits, and here I looked back over credit card records for the last year, and included the purchases I have made for my two children.

It was an interesting exercise.

I had spent 270 USD on PC games for myself and console games for my children, but what surprised me was that I had also spent 200 USD on iOS and Android games in the same period.

From this survey of 1, I could see that mobile gaming was indeed diverting my personal entertainment spend away from PC and console gaming.

I think the reason is simple: as processor, resolution and graphic power on mobile devices improves, and the tablet user base broadens, mobile gaming is moving beyond the limits of the the smaller screen of a smart phone, and enabling developers to release more immersive, strategic titles which are either ports of PC and console titles, or would be equally at home on them.

To explore these thoughts further I decided to contact strategy game developers Slitherine Ltd (Battlefield Academy,Field of GloryPanzer Corps) and spoke with Iain McNeil, Development Director and JD McNeil, Chairman of the Slitherine Group.

But let me tell you up front the main takeaway I got from my discussion with these developers: their iOS games are outselling their PC titles at the rate of 5 to 1.

Battle Academy from Slitherine.

Battle Academy from Slitherine. One of the new style of deeper strategy titles available for iOS and ideal for the tablet platform.

“HeinKill”: For the iPad there are squad level war games, FPS games, RISK style global domination games but until recently not many of the more complex strategy game / board game ports. Considering market dynamics (not technical barriers) why do you think this is?

JD: As you point out, market dynamics have been allowed to run out of control. Sure there are some mass market games that will sell gazillions of units, the Angry Birds phenomena, and rightly so, it’s a great game. The issue is that from the outset Angry Birds is targeted at a much wider mass market audience. So the economics are different.

Suffice to say that around a USD 1.99 price point the majority of the games out there fail to make a return, or at best take many months to recover their costs and in the meantime the developers starve. Our audience is totally different, they want a deeper gaming experience and leaving aside the obvious lack of memory issues on the tablets, we aim to allow them to scratch that itch. However this comes at a price and to create a quality product of this type is not cheap. Nor is it likely it will instantly reach an audience outside of the strategy games audience. Success here is a slower burn. Sales on our flagship tablet platform titles just keep going and going, the customer reviews and ratings are outstanding and speak for themselves. This is our own little phenomena and it has established that there is a craving for this sort of product. The problem is that until now no one has tested the market and sadly the tablet platforms have been allowed to create a view that ALL games must sell at 1.99 or thereabouts.

The economic truth is quite different and thankfully there are plenty of gamers out there who realize that if we are to go on creating this sort of product we have to charge a realistic price. These games can take a year or more in the creation so the math speaks for itself.

GLWG on the iPad.

GLWG on the iPad. It is indeed a Great Little War Game…

“HeinKill”: The iPad itself seems to me to be perfectly adapted to use for these titles – as they are not GPU intensive and unlike Windows and Android you have relatively standard technology platform to develop for. Are there specific technical challenges with the hardware in the iPhone/Pod/Pad platforms? I have also heard devs say the constant updates to iOS are a challenge.

JD: You are spot on here, there are significant technical challenges. In some ways our games make things easier and in others it’s much harder. Many of our games are turned based or 2D so we don’t need to have a 3D environment at a high frame rate. The turns allow the AI time to do its processing, not possible in a real time game. However the biggest issue we’ve been battling with is memory management. Almost every time you see a crash on a tablet, especially iOS devices, it’s related to running out of memory, so we had to do a huge amount of work to make sure our games fit into memory. We think we now have some of the most stable games on the platform.

Another issue we have to battle with is screen space. Our games have a lot of information to show and this can only be properly done on the larger screen space of a tablet. So we reckon that most of our games would be unsuitable for the iPhone. Technically we could make games like Battle Academy run on an iPhone but we feel that the play experience will be so diminished by the size of the display that we decided not to do this.

Regarding the IOS updates, these can be a real pain, Apple sometimes add a new feature in one SDK and deprecate it in the next and any code using this just fails and crashes. This can be pretty frustrating and forces you to get an update out fast. It’s a continual process and has significant costs associated with it, but this is what it takes to carve out a place on the platform and so far it’s working well for us, but it’s not without its challenges.

“HeinKill”: What does your research tell you about the typical iPad user and the market for more in-depth strategy games? When I sit in airport lounges and airplanes (which I do a lot) every businessperson has an iPad or tablet and I can imagine this segment falls nicely into the target audience for deeper strategy/sims games for the historical-military interested. Do you feel there is a sizable market for these titles in the mobile gaming environment?

JD: Reliable and useful information on tablet users is very hard to come by, so we tend to use our own data to understand our market. What I can say is that our typical audience is largely composed of adult males, drawn from socio economic groups A to C, aged 30 to 65, well educated, and with above average earnings.

This audience is savvy, discerning and knows exactly what it wants from our games and they are unforgiving, if our research comes up with unrealistic outcomes. For them time is more of an issue than cost, they don’t want to waste their valuable free time on an inferior game, but if they like the game, price is much less of an issue.

Is there a market? Well I can tell you that we are outselling PC versions of our games on iOS at a factor exceeding 5:1, even at higher prices than the average app.

“HeinKill”: You have an iPad version of Panzer Corps in development. Can you say anything yet about what your goal or ambitions are for the iPad version of Panzer Corps? Will it need to be “Panzer Corps Lite” to fit the iPad?

Iain: We are fundamentally opposed to cut down or Lite versions of games in the sense that they are often mediocre versions of the full game, reduced or lacking in features. We believe that you either take a great game and convert it with all of its features, or you make a new game with a feature set that suits the platform. For this reason most of our games are likely to be iPad only as the tablets generally have a better processor and have the all important screen space necessary for our sort of product. Panzer Corps on iOS will be a fully featured game, as the PC version is.

A screenshot from the PC version of Panzer Corps.

A screenshot from the PC version of Panzer Corps, currently in production for iPad.


I can tell you that we are outselling PC versions of our games on IOS at a factor exceeding 5:1, even at higher prices than the average app.” – JD McNeil, Chairman of the Slitherine Group


Every scenario, unit and battle will be in the game. The plan is to have all the content that is available on PC available on iOS on day 1, so the entire Grand Campaign will be available. The only exception might be the stand alone Afrika Korps.

It is also possible there will be new features added in iOS versions, but we would almost certainly bolt these back into the PC version. The only thing we don’t plan to support is the editor – there is no way to handle the map editor on the iPad right now, but other than that we expect everything to be in there. If we hit a technical hurdle we may have to change the plan, but we hope not.

Another reason we want to keep the iOS and PC versions the same is that it allows us to offer cross platform multiplayer. With Battle Academy you can play PC, Mac or iOS against each other. You can even play your first turn at home on your Mac, play another turn on your iPad on the train and sneak in a turn over lunch at work on your PC. The server passes the game files around and all you do is just play. The multiplayer system has been a huge success and is already in the PC version of Panzer Corps and we plan to allow PC to play against iOS. The versions need to stay compatible for multiplayer. Our aim is to create a community of strategy game players that spans platforms. It doesn’t matter how or where you play, the experience will be very similar.

“HeinKill”: Thanks for your time gentlemen.

Below are the highlights of what I used my hard earned cash on during the last year, in the mobile game space.

Flight and Combat Flight Sims

Yes, you do have a small selection of flight sims for iPad. Some are simple “time wasters”, and others are deeper attempts to bring flight simming to the iOS platform. I recommend:

X-Plane for iPad by Laminar Research, v 9.7.70, price 9.99 USD 
This is as close to a true flight sim as you can get for the iPad.

X-Plane for iPad by Laminar Research, v 9.7.70, price USD 9.99

Dozens of flyable aircraft are available in X-Plane for iPad.

Flyable aircraft / copters / gliders / spacecraft / drones

Cessna 172 sea, CL-415, Grumman Goose, Piper Cub, Seabee, Cirrus SJ50, P180 Avanti, Malibu, KingAir, Eclipse500, B777, B747, A380, B787, B737, MD88, A320, B757, Concorde, R22-Beta /Jetranger, Blackhawk, SeaKing, S76C, Cobra, Chinook, R44, / F22, SR71, B-1, B-2, X-15, B-52, XB-70, C-130, P-51, F-4U, F4, F-15, F-86, A6M Zero, Mig 21, F-14D, U2, F-16A, JA-37, P-38, P-40E, F-18F, GB / SH Cirrus, ASK21, SZD45 Ogar / Orbiter (Shuttle), RQ1 Predator.

Game Modes

Free flight, 1-1 fighter combat against either AI or human on same wifi.

Dogfighting in an F4U against a Japanese Zero over the Grand Canyon.

Dogfighting in an F4U against a Japanese Zero over the Grand Canyon.
The graphics are very CFS3, but the flight experience is fluid and fun.

Maps

Grand Canyon, Utah, Canyons, So-Cal, Desert Sky, New York, Chicago, Sea Tac WA, Juneau Alaska, Kathmandu, Boswell Bay, Anchorage Alaska, Edwards AFB, Cocoa Beach, FL, San Fran, Big Bear CA, Catalina CA, Miami, Hawaii, Innsbruck Austria.

Other Features

Weather and time options, systems failure options, replays and recordings, 3 external, 1 cockpit and 1 HUD view, carrier takeoffs and landings.

Good

Crazy range of aircraft all with simple but differentiated flight models, ability to fly and fight in combat aircraft, wide variety of landscapes to zoom around, training mode in Cessna.

Could be Better

iPad accelerometer based controls take a lot of getting used to, virtual thumb joysticks a la FIFA 13 would be better. Options are difficult to access in flight. Graphically, even the ‘middle of day’ is quite dark. App does hang if several other apps are open.

Also Check

Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders – more of a console port, Magnum gives it a thumbs up, so it must be good!

Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders

Strategy (Fantasy)

Battle for Wesnoth HD: the Dark Hordes, v1.6.3 by David White, price USD 9.99

It’s an oldie, but a heck of a goodie. A turn based strategy RPG game ported from an open source PC game, it features hundreds of campaigns, missions, unit types and challenges. Challenging AI, immersive storylines.

Good

Campaigns are deep and will give hours and hours of gameplay. Great variety of unit types, weapons, spells and quests. Simple resource management and unit building system. Multiplayer option.

Could be Better

Very little! Graphics are simple. Occasional poor moves by AI (or lack of reaction to a clear threat). Too easy to deny AI resources.

Battle for Wesnoth HD: the Dark Hordes

Battle for Wesnoth HD: the Dark Hordes

Beware dark orcs, my Gryphon Rider army is born!

Also Check

Civilisation Revolution, by 2K games, of course. Inexpensive, hundreds of hours of challenging gameplay against AI generals with differing playing styles, technology trees, resource management – build armies and conquer the world.

Civilisation Revolution

Strategy: Modern Warfare

Battle Academy, by Slitherine Ltd, price USD 20 for 3 campaigns, extra campaigns USD 10, downloadable user-made campaigns free.

A very faithful port of the PC title which recreates squad level combat in WWII in a turn based 3D top down environment. Each campaign is a small history lesson in itself and much attention has been paid to modeling firepower, defensive armor and movement capabilities of units.

Battle Academy

Game Modes

Campaign, turn based multiplayer enables play across different hardware platforms include iPad, OSX and iOS.

Good

The campaigns that come with the game, though few, are very detailed and each comprises about ten hours of gameplay. The additional campaigns are equally well constructed and the free user generated content is actually also quite good. Ability to play multiplayer across hardware types is fantastic. Control simple and easy to master.

Could be Better

Small maps, and mission design which tends to rely on map design, “fog of war” and ambush to make life hard for the player, rather than great AI tactical maneuvering.

Battle Academy

Also Check

Great Little War Game by Rubicon. Easy to master, hard to beat turn-based hex-style war game on well designed maps with devilishly challenging AI and “pass and play” 2 player mode. Non historical scenarios but a great time waster.

Great Little War Game

Conclusion

These are just my personal favorites. I am sure there are readers already outraged… “What! You did an article about iPad games on SimHQ and you left out (insert title here)!”. I hope the discussion thread for this article also becomes a go-to list of great games for the iPad, so please post a list of your favorites in the article comments forum.

 


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