From consoles to Candy Crush: is mobile the future of gaming?

A person plays Candy Crash Saga on a tablet. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
A person plays Candy Crash Saga on a tablet. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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WITH more and more gamers foregoing traditional consoles for mobile devices, how is Scotland poised to benefit from the rise in app-based gaming?

As smartphone and tablet technology develops, we rely on mobile apps more and more. They give directions, suggest recipes and facilitate relationships. Gamers are no exception, and the growth of the mobile gaming industry bears that out.

Brian Baglow is a key figure in Scottish gaming, with over 20 years of experience in the industry as a developer, government advisor, lecturer and fundraiser. Photo: Brian Baglow

Brian Baglow is a key figure in Scottish gaming, with over 20 years of experience in the industry as a developer, government advisor, lecturer and fundraiser. Photo: Brian Baglow

Mobile gaming accounts for about an eighth of the UK’s £3.9 billion industry, and it’s on the rise. In 2014, it was worth £548 million – an increase of 21.2 per cent. Though console sales continue to climb, the number of people buying the games for them fell six per cent to £935m. (Last month’s closure of Hideo Kojima’s Tokyo studio Kojima Productions, the team behind the blockbuster Metal Gear Solid series, has also raised fears that console gaming is on the decline.) The re-release of the iPhone’s first-ever game, Lights Off, underscores the maturity of the industry as consumers shift away from consoles.

Now, Dundee and Edinburgh – Scotland’s digital heartlands – are leading the Scottish effort in online and mobile game development, continuing a legacy started by DMA Design with Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings in the 1990s.

Scotland is well placed to adapt to these shifts, according to Brian Baglow, a director of the Scottish Games Network and executive producer of Team Rock Games.

“The general misconception is that the games industry is the PlayStation and Xbox. In Scotland, the gaming industry is pretty much all focused online through casual, social and mobile platforms.

People are seeing value in gaming but we haven’t looked at games beyond blowing stuff up, rescuing a princess or collecting coins just yet

Brian Baglow, director of the Scottish Games Network

“If you’re working at a major studio, the changes are that you’re locked into doing their most successful games in perpetuity, such as at Rockstar North where Grand Theft Auto is their bread and butter.”

“But with independent developers, you can experiment with kids’ games and quizzes and you can go where you fancy. I worked for Digital Briges back in 2000; a mobile games publisher working with WAP and SMS. This was eight years before the App Store, so Scotland was pioneering even then.”

An industry veteran with 20 years of game development, promotion and funding for over 150 companies behind him, Baglow is quick to point out that mobile phones offer more opportunities for independent developers not hamstrung by high start-up costs, such as the need to physically create game discs.

“The mobile phone can now do more than your console will ever do,” he said. “It’s location-aware, has voice control and it’s touch and tilt-enabled. It’s not going to be necessary to play individual games where you log in and crush some candy, but more and more of the things you do will become gamelike and reward you in a gamelike way.”

Killbox is a new Dundee-based game that focuses on drone warfare. Photo: Killbox.

Killbox is a new Dundee-based game that focuses on drone warfare. Photo: Killbox.

The financial power of the mobile games scene is beginning to be noticed. Activision signed a $5.9bn deal to buy King earlier this month – the company behind the Candy Crush Saga mobile games series.

Scottish contributions to online and mobile gaming are becoming more substantial, with no less than three games shortlisted for this year’s BAFTA Scotland awards.

Amongst the nominees is Dundee-based Team Junkfish, who are currently developing survival horror labyrinth game Monstrum, seen here. Rituals, the work of Edinburgh-based Tymon Zgainski, is a minimalistic low-polygon 3D puzzle adventure. Completing the list is Blazing Griffin’s Distant Star: Revenant Fleet, which promises other-worldly space battles between the A’Kari and Orthani.

With these games developed with low overheads for the online market, their availability through the Steam gaming portal means that they can be accessed on the go across mobile, tablet and computer platforms.

iBomber by Cobra Mobile is a classic example of Scottish mobile gaming development's international reach. Photo: Mark Ettle

iBomber by Cobra Mobile is a classic example of Scottish mobile gaming development's international reach. Photo: Mark Ettle

Malath Abbas is a co-founder of Dundee games studio Quartic Llama and developer of the drone warfare game Killbox, which provides a fictionalised, interactive experience of drone strikes in Northern Pakistan. (The game, it’s worth adding, encourages players to think of the ethical implications of automated combat.)

As an independent development from Dundee, Abbas is aware of the challenges involved in the creative industry.

He said: “Large studios will continue to be part of the industry but clearly it’s an unstable business and the demise of larger studios will only strengthen small and medium-sized creative teams.

“I believe that small scale studios and collectives will help encourage collaboration with different sectors. This will create new ideas and new business models.

“As for Scotland, we have a growing number of independent game makers who will ultimately create the ideas that will drive this industry forward.”

With its experience of developing games for mobile, Steam and Smart TVs, Cobra Mobile is another Scottish international games developer that is currently developing games for Steam and mobile audiences. Updates to its popular iBomber Winter Warfare and Attack series, which allow gamers to fly World War II-era planes in bombing missions, have been made in response to the games’ success with mobile players.

iBomber, along with other multiplayer games, ports themes first seen in blockbuster console titles such as Battlefield and Medal of Honor to a mobile market.

Mark Ettle, managing director of Cobra Mobile, said: “Mobile has grown faster and bigger than anything before it, but the console format is still very much alive and kicking.

“Creating the next big thing on either [platform] is always difficult but it usually always comes from the same place. Those places are about making [bold decisions], understanding marketing and making amazing products.”

Despite Abbas and Ettle’s predictions for a more mobile and immersive gaming future, it’s clear that there will still be a place for traditional console-based titans from developers such as Electronic Arts, Rockstar Games and Ubisoft.

But with mobile games finding favour with independent game developers – thanks to the medium’s potential for more experimental titles and cheaper start-up costs – will a Scottish mobile gaming market saturated with diverse titles affect the console market?

“At one end of the spectrum, you have games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty or FIFA,” said Baglow. “At the other, you’ve got Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans.”

“Gaming is a huge market, and the console gaming sector is still really valuable,” Baglow said. “It’s having to learn lessons [from mobile], but there’s still going to be a console market because people want those in-depth experiences in the same way we see a market for vinyl.

“I think there’s no question whatsoever that mobile will dominate as developers get more and more capable.”