Remember the Game Boy? The once-adored portable gaming system sold more than 100 million copies during the 1990s and early 2000s while capturing the imagination of a generation. Millennials, that generation between 18 and 30 today, were the first to grow up with a mass-produced portable video game system following the device’s release in 1989.
The millennials loved their Game Boys and have continued playing games on portable devices into adulthood. But how millennials play video games is undergoing a radical shift, and the age of the portable gaming system may be coming to a close.
Now that there are almost as many cell phone subscriptions as people, modern portable game consoles such as the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS can’t keep up. The people who grew up playing Pokémon have since switched to Angry Birds and are using cell phones and other mobile devices to fill their need for gaming on the go.
“Mobile devices have taken some of the market share from handheld devices,” said Julien Lavoie, director of public relations at the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC). “This is a function of the explosion in the smartphone market in the last five years, because more and more people have these devices and they’re able to play games on them.”
This is certainly true in Canada, where, according a 2012 ESAC report, 80 per cent of people own a cell phone, tablet or other mobile device, while only 31 per cent own a handheld game system.
ESAC also said 90 per cent of kids have played a video game in the past four weeks, officially making them “gamers.” This percentage is high compared with adults 18 to 34, where 60 per cent of whom are gamers. In a significant increase from previous years, 25 per cent play most frequently on a mobile device, clearly showing the millennials are leading this gaming revolution.
In terms of sales figures, it is easy to see how games on mobile devices have the upper hand. Upon its release in early 2011, the Nintendo 3DS performed so poorly that Nintendo had to drop the price by $80 and cut its company’s profit projections by 81.8 per cent for the following year. And the PlayStation Vita has face-planted into record low sales since its release in 2011, with the 3DS outselling it by a margin of four to one in the 2011 holiday period.
Mobile devices have fared much better over the past few years. Apple reported that it sold more than five million iPhone 5s in three days after its release on Sept. 21, and the iPhone isn't even the current top-selling cell phone in the world anymore. The Samsung Galaxy S3 sold 18 million units between July and September 2012, while Apple sold 16.2 million models of the iPhone 4S in the same period. With sales numbers this high, it wasn’t entirely surprising when Rovio announced its hit mobile game series Angry Birds had more than one billion downloads, making it the most purchased video game in history.
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And why wouldn’t it be? The easy, addictive game series has five different versions that can be downloaded for a dollar each, with free demo versions also available. Meanwhile, a newly released console game typically costs more than $50.
But other than price, what is it about mobile games that have made them explode in popularity over the past few years? An explanation from former Sony video game designer and author Chris Solarski is that it comes down to the simplicity of controls in mobile games compared with consoles or handheld games.
“Touch screens are more engaging because your physical actions can mirror the actions happening on screen. They’re somewhat underused today but have a lot more potential,” he said. "On mobile games, you have one input, instead of 10 buttons to think about … a game like angry birds is more of a performance with how far back you pull to propel the bird at different objects.”
Solarski also noted that the low cost of mobile games also plays a significant role, especially for the often cash-strapped millennial generation.
“If you look at how cheap iPhone apps are compared to PSP games or DS games . ... I would expect those games are much more accessible and easier to test out. The entry barrier is much lower, because you already have a phone in your pocket.”
More from Asking Y, HuffPost Canada's special project on the Millennial Generation:
Nick Coombe, co-founder and director of Get Set Games, a Toronto-based mobile game company, attributed the popularity of mobile games to the versatility of mobile devices and their role in the social lives of millennials.
“A phone is a phone, a game device, and a million other things, there are so many other reasons to get a smartphone besides gaming,” said Coombe, whose top projects Mega Jump and Mega Run have a combined 45 million downloads.
“It’s a pretty hard decision to go for a Vita or even a 3DS over a smartphone,” said Coombe, who later added, “I think they’re becoming a harder sell.”
According to Coombe, "they [millennials] have adapted to the mobile life very quickly and it hooks into their entire social ecosystem … you won’t see this in older demographics.”
While both Solarski and Coombe said the variety of apps, the higher frequency of new platforms for mobile devices and the convenience of not having to go to a store also contributed to the rise of the mobile game, they both had a more difficult time explaining why female gamers, according to ESAC, play significantly more mobile games than men.
One designer who has insight into the growing female demographic is David Heron, a senior game designer with XMG Studios in Toronto. Heron’s main project is developing Fashion Star Boutique, a game that allows players to design clothes to sell in their virtual boutique. The game is popular among millennial-aged women, although Heron says creating a female-targeted game was never his original intention.
“If you filled your game with grotesquely objectified women, you’re probably going to see a small number of women playing your game,” Heron said. “Similarly, in our game, for technical reasons, all the characters are women.”
According to Solarski, “the platform and the type of games that are produced for mobile gaming are much more accessible to a wider group of players. The group that plays console games is very much male-centric.”
Regardless of which gender plays mobile games more often, all three designers feel positive about the future of the industry. Based on ESAC's 2011 industry report, which predicts 17 per cent growth in the video game industry in Canada over 2012 and 2013, they have every reason to be confident that the millennials will continue to use their products.
Coombe believes in the potential of mobile devices so much that he predicts they will eventually replace both handheld and console games to become an all-in-one, portable game system "that you can plug into your TV.”
"I think mobile games are going to stop being timewasters and single action games where you do the same thing over and over," Heron said. "It's going to become immensely, unfathomably large."
This story was written by Bruce Laregina, a student at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, in coordination with The Huffington Post Canada.