One of the year’s biggest blockbusters comes out tomorrow. It has been in development for half a decade and has cost about $250 million to market and produce. Analysts expect it to gross more than $1 billion over the next six months.
I’m not describing the next “Avengers” movie but a highly-anticipated videogame, “Grand Theft Auto V.” This open-world crime adventure will be available only to those of us who own high-end consoles connected to big high-definition televisions. People who buy the game will get physical discs that hold nearly 10 gigabytes of data, much of which will be need to be installed on a hard drive before playing.
GTA 5 is therefore a useful counterpoint to many misinformed opinions about the future of the videogame industry, in addition to a welcome source of hours of entertainment for me and millions of others. The cliché is that consoles and personal computers are doomed to decline and eventual obsolescence as consumers and developers switch to relatively cheap games that can be played on smartphones and tablets, ideally using social networks like Facebook. In this view, “Farmville” and “Angry Birds” — not “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” — are harbingers of the world to come.
The basic error with this narrative is that cheap games are no substitute for the blockbusters that attract people to consoles and PCs. Mobile gaming is ideal for people who want to kill time during a commute or while waiting at the doctor’s office. Developers have known this for a long time. The original Nintendo Gameboy came out in 1989. I remember playing Nokia’s “Snake” game on their old handsets back when I was in high school and waiting for a bus. The products offered nowadays are more sophisticated but the basic premise hasn’t changed.
None of these devices compete with real videogames, however, which transport you to another world and let you do things you could never hope to do in real life. I have been able to explore Renaissance Italy, wage a one-man war against alien invaders, and fight off an army of mercenaries hunting for ancient artifacts in the Himalayas, all from the comfort of my couch. These immersive experiences are made possible by the combination of intelligent writing with outstanding visuals, sounds, and gameplay. Small touchscreens simply can’t compare.
That explains why there is no evidence that people are abandoning their high-powered devices to play games on their phones or pester people with updates about their imaginary farms and cities. Instead, the data suggest that “casual” gamers are abandoning systems they never fully appreciated for lower-end devices at the same time as many people who never previously played games start buying cheap timewasters for their smartphones.
If you really want to know what the future of gaming holds, stop reading articles claiming that we’re all going to stare at 4-inch screens. Instead, recall this old Sony commercial predicting a future in which gamers inhale spores that connect directly into the brain. Star Trek suggested another realm for game development with the Holodeck, a simulator that is capable of producing realistic physical environments and people.
While these truly immersive technologies are probably a long way off, it isn’t hard to imagine the potential for games played on devices like Google Glass. (We know that other forms of entertainment are better when transmitted directly into the eye.) The big hurdle will be developing a control scheme that is as intuitive and precise as what you can get with a PC or a game console. Until then, real gamers will continue to use the high-powered systems that uninformed analysts say are doomed.
(Matthew C. Klein is a writer for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)